What qualifications do you need to be an illustrator?

What qualifications do you need to be an illustrator?

Student work by Jessica Geis

4minutes read


If you want to turn your visual talents into a fulfilling career, you may consider the role of an illustrator your ideal job. So what qualifications do you need to be an illustrator? 

To become an illustrator it is recommended to take formal training in illustration. This helps increase your chances of being employed to create work for video games, films and publishing. Having a base understanding of professional techniques, character designs and working to a brief puts you in a good place to become a professional illustrator. 

Other skills and qualifications to be an illustrator include:

1. Visual talent

Needless to say, you need innate affinities and sensibilities for the visual arts. You should have high-level drawing skills, as well as the ability to sketch, communicate visually and think in a highly imaginative way. An eye for detail is also important, along with creative problem-solving skills. The work of an illustrator involves the constant refining of concepts and design to achieve a final look. 

Part of learning illustration is practising different visual styles so that you are adaptable and able to work in a variety of genres.

Over time you'll develop your own unique style of design based on your interests and personal aesthetic. Once you have evolved within your particular genre your own interpretation of its visual style will be your biggest selling point. 

2. Sketching skills

The basics of illustration begin with a sketch. Sketching can be used to quickly explore concepts (which can be done on paper before using your digital devices); to determine basic layout or composition for your piece; or to develop ideas to show a client before investing hours of work into the polished piece.

tatumly-tatumcito-adid-elf-lineworkIllustration student Tatum Cito's sketch of Elvin Shapeshifter.

tatumly-tatumcito-adid-elf-finalFinal rendering of Elvin Shapeshifter by Tatum Cito.

3. Ability to work with a client brief

Illustrators are expected to work within a brief, in which they are given the concept, style and a deadline. A good digital painter knows how to deliver to the expectations of the client/employer on brief and on time. 

Be prepared to re-work concepts, respond to feedback and exchange ideas through the creative process. Suggesting alternatives, problem-solving and working effectively within the confines of a project as it evolves are all essential skills. 

4. Good communication

Alongside your creative talents, you need to have excellent social skills.

The ability to get along with colleagues, clients and employers will be vital to the progress of your illustration career.

Being able to articulate ideas, suggest alternatives and clear hurdles are all part of the creative process. Building a client base and networking will also be all-important to launching your career. 

Many illustrators are freelancers, so being considerate, professional and easy to work with will increase the likelihood of return clients.

5. Storytelling

Whether working on a film, an advertisement, a video game, a television series or in print media you are always telling a story through pictures.


Understanding the basics of storytelling is a part of the illustrator’s toolkit. It may be as simple as evoking the emotion of a character through a facial expression, a gesture or a reaction. These are all mini-stories within a larger story that create engagement with the audience, keeping them entertained and immersed in the art form. 

6. Understanding visual language

It goes without saying that illustrators are visual thinkers. They are sensitive to color, shape, texture, perspective, scale, proportion and balance.

The mindset of the illustrator draws inspiration from the natural world and imagines new worlds.

As you develop your visual skills you'll learn to think in a cinematic way - understanding lighting and cinematography, composing a scene, creating mood, expressing action and telling a visual story. 

7. Experience with technical tools

Knowledge of design software is one of the qualifications you need to be an illustrator. There are a range of industry-standard platforms, namely the Adobe suite including Photoshop and Illustrator. Graphics tablets are the preferred hardware, replicating the feel and precision of a pen/pencil.

Illustration student Luis Inzunza shows his illustration process in creating Fox Girl.

Other popular illustration programs include Autodesk Sketchbook, Corel Draw and Corel Painter.

As you experiment with various software you may find a handful that you prefer and specialize in those environments. Remember, the more you know, the easier you are to hire!

8. Knowledge of design trends and history

If you love the visual realm you will have a keen interest in all its forms, media and genres. Comprehensive knowledge of the latest trends in all the visual arts are required for a career as an illustrator. Creative briefs may reference other works and styles, and it is your job to interpret these briefs in a competent and innovative way. Your expertise in design and all its expressions are highly valuable in developing a concept.

9. Formal art training

Illustrators can come from a number of training backgrounds: animation, graphic design, fine arts, digital media or visual communications to name a few.

While you don't need a degree to be a professional illustrator, formal training in this field will help you master art fundamentals which you'll draw on throughout your entire career.

If you are set on becoming an illustrator, CG Spectrum offers a digital illustration career track and a digital art degree that teaches you how to create professionally polished art for films, video games, and book publishing. It's part of a comprehensive study track that helps you get the qualifications you need to be an illustrator.

Led by award-winning artist Eric Wilkerson, you'll learn:

  • Art fundamentals, including color, composition, values, and lighting
  • The history of contemporary art 
  • Character design 
  • Thumbnail sketching
  • How to work to client briefs
  • Photoshop techniques to speed up your workflow
  • Planning your time efficiently to meet deadlines 

Eric has worked in film, advertising, game development and publishing. He has worked for industry giants such as Disney Publishing, Random House and Weta Workshop, and will help you explore different types of illustration careers and provide sage advice as you launch your own career.

Under Eric’s guidance, you will finish the course with an impressive portfolio of work to present to prospective employers. 

In summary, the qualifications you need to be an illustrator are based on natural ability refined by practice and knowledge of industry-standard software. This is a vocational career where immersing yourself in the world of visual expression is a passion that some days won’t seem like work at all. 

An even temperament and professional work ethic can help navigate you through the tricky business of dealing with clients’ needs, critical feedback and meeting tight deadlines. Be creative with your social skills and learn to ride the wave of the complex creative process in the workplace to keep your clients coming back. 

As you learn your craft and explore your interests you'll carve out your own individual aesthetic. Finding illustration jobs will be a matter of aligning yourself with projects and employers who share your vision, and that is the greatest partnership of all!

We hope this has helped you understand what qualifications you need to be an illustrator. To start your journey as a digital painter and create your own professional portfolio to show clients, hit the button below for more information on Eric's course.