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How to become a book cover illustrator

Image: Eric Wilkerson

6 minute read

15/09/2021

As an illustrator, there are many career pathways you can choose from. One of these is a book cover artist. Promoting new book titles in the digital age relies heavily on social media platforms, making cover art integral to its success. Books, like never before, are literally being judged by their covers, making the time ripe to choose cover illustration as a career!

But, how do I get hired to design a book cover? We chatted with CG Spectrum mentor, award-winning illustrator, and book cover artist Eric Wilkerson about how to make a start in the industry.
Three steps to help you get a job as a book cover illustrator

What does a book cover artist do?

A book cover artist is responsible for distilling the story, theme, and tone of a book (novels, graphic novels, children’s books, textbooks, etc.) into a cover illustration comprised of imagery and text. The artwork assists the author and publishing house in capturing the attention of its target readership.

Like most creative careers, the line you draw to get there is often far from straightforward. However, there are some practical steps you can take to help you land your first gig as a book cover artist:

  1. Build a strong portfolio
  2. Start networking
  3. Remove self-doubt

Let’s dive into these steps in more detail.

harry potter deathly hallows cover artIconic book covers are instantly recognizable. Credit: Bloomsbury

Step 1 - Build a strong portfolio

A solid portfolio will help lay down the foundations on which you can start building your career, including what kinds of places will hire you and what types of projects you’ll be offered. Your portfolio should showcase your best work while also focusing on the variety of art you want to pursue.

Eric says it’s also vital to make art you enjoy. A lack of passion will permeate your portfolio and could mean the difference between getting your dream job or not.

One painting changed my life. One piece of art could change yours — if you're passionate enough. 

If you need inspiration, why not create a cover for your favorite book?

Oliver Harbour book cover illustration
Oliver Harbour’s illustration for a Warhammer retelling of Little Red Riding Hood as one of CG Spectrum's advanced illustration course assignments.
Oliver Harbour book cover illustration

 Oliver Harbour's book cover mock up.

Oliver's process for creating his book cover illustration.

What should I include in my portfolio when applying for book cover illustration jobs?

When applying for a job as a book cover illustrator, Eric maintains that your portfolio should concentrate on quality over quantity. Center on one art genre to create cohesion for viewers. You don't want to show a mix of editorial art, fantasy, storyboards, zombie paintings, and fan art pieces from your favorite anime!

Honing in on one area will demonstrate to prospective clients that you have focus, direction, and vision. It will also allow you to pour more time into sharpening your skills in a specific area.

I need help building my portfolio

Developing a portfolio that accurately reflects your skillset, range, and ability takes time and effort. The advanced illustration course at CG Spectrum dedicates twelve weeks to help you build a compelling portfolio that truly represents you as an artist.

The goal of this course is NOT to create clones of the mentor, but to help each student figure out who they are and what they like to create.

Experienced mentors help you tailor your portfolio while guiding you towards employers that hire for what you enjoy doing most.

Step 2 - Start networking

If you want to create book covers, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the industry and its people, such as publishing houses, authors, and other illustrators. It’s a great way to learn the ropes.

Eric also suggests frequenting conventions. His first professional commission was a book cover illustration which he received after attending a sci-fi fantasy convention six months after his college graduation.

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What online platforms are beneficial for networking?

There are many great platforms where you can share your illustrations with other artists and potential clients. These include:

  • Artstation has practical challenges for developing a portfolio geared directly for film, games, publishing, etc.
  • The Rookies is another great site to develop your portfolio, it includes some great challenges to get you inspired.
  • Imagine FX magazine has a showcase page at the beginning of every issue that introduces new talent.
  • Enter online competitions like Spectrum: The Best in Fantastic Art.
  • Social media is still the best forum for showcasing work, building an audience, and having your work shared.

Eric’s painting the Oba went viral on social media and led to exciting book cover illustration opportunities with Disney and other big clients.

Shuri book cover illustrationEric Wilkerson's cover art for the new Black Panther publication for Marvel.

CG Spectrum’s llustration Course includes professional career training, including an entertainment industry application, as well as opportunities to connect with industry professionals. You’ll learn how to market yourself and make the best possible impression in front of employers and key players in publishing.

Step 3 - Remove self-doubt

Don’t let self-doubt or outside pressures prevent you from pursuing a career as a book cover illustrator. Half the battle comes from within while trying to stay productive and patient.

I wasn't an immediate rockstar like some people when I graduated from art school. I was stuck in my own head and filled with doubt and family pressure.

It took a few years for Eric to build up his confidence and feel ready to compete with other professionals in the field. During that time, he cultivated his portfolio while supporting himself financially through retail jobs. Since then, Eric has worked for game studios, advertising agencies, children's book publishers, and sci-fi fantasy illustration. He's doing what he loves!

Learn more about the career of a digital illustrator in the above webinar with award-winning artists Eric Wilkerson and Tyler James. 


Ready to turn the page on your career & become a book cover illustrator?

If you want to become a book cover artist, check out CG Spectrum's Advanced Digital Illustration Diploma. Along with learning about creating book covers, you’ll also explore other exciting commercial pursuits, such as trading card illustration and marketing art for film and games. Mentors with industry experience are here to help you build your creative skill set and prepare you for a fulfilling career in illustration.

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Tags:   Community Spotlight ,   Digital Illustration
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