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How to illustrate for a (good) living in 5 steps

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A fully-equipped best friend for freelancers – that’s Bonsai.
A fully-equipped best friend for freelancers – that’s Bonsai.
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Updated on:
December 12, 2022
December 12, 2022
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A fully-equipped best friend for freelancers – that’s Bonsai.
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One of the perks of freelancing is being able to make a living from your passion, to submit proposal templates to who you choose, and sign agreement templates with who is the best fit for your work style.

If you know how to illustrate, and have been trying to turn it into your career, you also know how difficult it can be – unless you’re the NY Times illustrator, or have already signed an illustration contract template with a high-end fashion brand.

However, according to a survey, US-based illustrators can earn up to $948,000 per year, with $530,000 of that amount coming from commissioned work. On the other hand, 69% of illustrators say they would struggle financially if illustration work was their sole source of income.

So, which stat do we look at? And how can we work on ensuring freelance illustrators make a good living from what they love to do?

Here, we’ll look at ways you can learn how to illustrate for a good living in the freelancing world through illustration tips and ideas.

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How to produce any type of illustration at high quality

As an illustrator, your job isn’t to mix colors or demonstrate your painting or drawing skills. It’s to find the most direct and clear way to encourage a feeling or thought in a viewer.

This is the first step to producing high-quality illustration work you can sell for big money. If you’re wondering what the average freelancing rates are, check out Bonsai’s freelancing rates tool.

Here are some more illustration tips for high-quality work.

Understand what you want the illustration to do

What do I want my illustration to do?

This should be the first question you ask yourself.

After this, you can decide what techniques to use to make that idea happen, then how to make these techniques visually compelling. While finding the most effective colors, medium or style will take a bit of experimentation, always remember to use illustration intelligence over looks.

Drop style

When discussing how to illustrate high-quality work, sometimes (as difficult as it may be) you need to drop the idea of style.

Some illustrators tend to get caught up in certain types of illustrative style and whether or not they should incorporate more than one style.

However, the more you work, the more likely your own personal style will surface. By practicing regularly, and observing your own work, you’ll be able to discover details that lead you to an entire new seed for a body of work.

Pair these newfound discoveries with online tools such as Bonsai and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a successful and independent freelancer - sign up for a free trial today.

Feel yourself

The best illustration guide will tell you how to observe yourself first, no matter what great work you’re exposed to for inspiration.

So, ask yourself questions along the way:

  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • What types of mediums inspire me most?

Understanding yourself as an artist and a freelancer takes time – and guidance. Surround yourself with inspiring friends and follow the most successful illustration freelancers online. Bonsai makes this bridge between you and top freelancing tips, tools, and mentors.

Start using Bonsai to carve your freelancing path – the way you envisioned.

5 steps to become a better illustrator

Making a living from your art is possible.

However, figuring out how to illustrate for a higher income can be challenging.

Possible, but tricky.

The best way to become a better illustrator and make a higher income is by following the steps set by experts in the industry. We’re here with those steps.

1. Morning draw sessions

Drawing skills are fundamental for a lot of illustration positions.

For instance, if you’re looking at a graphic designer or artist job (which tend to pay between $47,000 - 82,000/year), you’ll need to rely on your drawing skills to create ideas and concepts before putting it to screen.

Include freestyle drawing into your morning routine to encourage your skills to expand and develop. Try for 15 minutes every day and see how you improve after a month. Use Bonsai’s freelance time tracker to keep track of your morning routine drawing sessions (and your graphic design freelancing gigs once those start rolling in).

2. Group drawing sessions

If you find self-motivation difficult, group drawing sessions may be your answer.

Track down a daily group drawing session with friends or community members. You can also start your own group where everyone gets together with daily inspiration (from YouTube or elsewhere) to draw from for an hour every day.

This helps boost your creativity and expand your skills while connecting with like-minded freelancers and local artists where you can share ideas, opportunities, and inspiration.

3. Check out tutorials

You can try this by yourself or with your drawing group.

Pick a topic, an online illustration guru (try Patreon, Gumroad, YouTube or Schoolism to find them) and go through their tutorials – slowly and methodically, while observing and trying it yourself.

Digital illustration tutorials or general illustration tutorials are a great way to expand your skills and win better-paying clients and gigs.

4. Learn digital illustration

If canvas and paints are your go-to, try challenging yourself by transferring those skills over to digitally painting through Photoshop.

The same illustration principles still apply with Photoshop (color theory, composition, and perspective), you just need to learn different digital illustration techniques.

Try looking up digital illustration tutorials to learn how to illustrate on Photoshop like a pro.

If you want to set up a long-lasting and professional Illustration freelancing career, you’ll need support from tools and guides. Bonsai has you covered - sign up for a free trial.

5. Create videos about illustration

Once you’ve watched and learned from all the online tutorials you can muster, you can try making a digital illustration tutorial yourself.

Creating a YouTube channel is a great way to bring in extra income from your art.

You could create videos on how to illustrate in Photoshop, or your personal drawing process while providing tips on how other artists can improve their own work. This will keep you involved in your craft, constantly learning and brushing up, while bringing in a bit of extra cash.

Most common illustration jobs to consider (and master)

Now that you’ve amplified your skills and mastered some useful techniques, it’s time to look at some illustration positions that can help you support yourself comfortably.

Graphic design was on Forbes’ list of top skills to have for 2019. Graphic design can be implemented in any illustration job in this modern, digital-focused era.

However, whether you practice:

  • Expressive watercoloring
  • Woodcut
  • Witty Sketches
  • Lithography
  • Digital illustration techniques

… you’ll still be valuable in the illustration freelancing world.

Let’s look at some of the top jobs for illustrators.

Comic book illustrator

One of the most competitive fields to break into, comic book illustrators have a lot of fun while finding success in attracting commission work.

With this position, you’ll likely need to self-publish some comics along the way to help boost your visibility and reputation. No matter how talented you are, illustration school is mandatory to get hired full-time for big clients.

Once you land one of these positions, make sure you have your Bonsai freelance contract ready to rock as a professional and prepared freelance illustrator.

Medical illustrator

These jobs involve scientific or medical training as well as a B.Sc degree in a related field. This is because medical illustrators are responsible for depicting body parts and aspects of medical operations to help medical professionals, researchers, marketing agencies and pharmaceutical industries.

While a lot of schooling is required – it does pay off.

Medical illustrators and creative supervisors can earn anywhere between $62,000 - 175,000 per year in the U.S.

Fashion illustrator

Working in advertising or design settings can be a dream for many illustrators.

However, this cut-throat industry involves a lot of experience including a high-end illustrator freelance portfolio website. If you have a portfolio and the guts to pursue this position, you can expect to make upwards of $56,000 per year.

How to illustrate: takeaways

Use this freelance illustration guide as a method of inspiration, advice, and direction.

By incorporating the right illustration tips, tools, and support, you’ll be able to turn your passion into a full-time freelancing job. All it takes is a bit of dedication, the right guidance and a solid grasp of the industry and all its opportunities.

Use Bonsai as your guide for all your illustration freelance needs – sign up for a free trial today and get begin building your prosperous freelancing career.

A fully-equipped best friend for freelancers – that’s Bonsai.
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