What is illustration?


by: Maira Canales


That’s the question everyone asks me whenever I tell them I’ve got a Bachelor’s Degree in Illustration. In all honesty it does throw me off because, for me, it’s pretty self-explanatory. I mean, I draw pictures for a living, what more is there to say? The truth is that this is an over-simplification of what I do, and an over-simplified answer of what people actually want to know. When people ask me what illustration is, what they really mean is: What exactly do you do? How do you make money? Who hires you? Where or how do you find work?

Illustration that works  by Greg Houston.  Source

Illustration that works by Greg Houston. Source

The first question (what does an illustrator do?) has both a simple answer and a complex one, depending on who is asking. In his book "Illustration that works” Greg Houston describes an illustrator as “an artist who uses images to communicate an idea or concept to a larger audience.” It’s a very fitting blanket descriptor for the job. I find, however, that often people need me to give them examples of where they might see an illustrator’s work, completely unaware that they might see the works of illustrators all around them. I’ll go into more depth answering this question in another post, but for now, we’ll stick to Greg’s beautifully concise answer to that question and move on to the next.

Okay, so an illustrator uses images to convey an idea, but how do they get paid for it? Who hires them and where do they find work? There are many ways in which an illustrator might make a living. The most common way is on a freelance/contract basis. Illustrators are mostly self-employed and often will work with a variety of different clients to help them get an idea across. Illustrators can occasionally find long-term work as well, depending on the project they are working on or the company they are working with. Illustration is a wonderfully diverse field and the possibilities to profit within it are endless. Illustrators can do anything from licensing the rights to use their images to companies to self-publishing their own zines. They can work one on one with the owner of a small business or they can work for a large company, maybe even in teams with other creatives. Illustrators can find work with just about anyone who might need to convey an idea visually but who might not have the skills or time do so effectively on their own.


The field of illustration is one teaming with opportunity for creativity in visual communication and it is one in which it is truly a pleasure to work in.

Maira Canales