How to ditch your day job and become a full time illustrator

Having worked as a graphic designer for five years, Anna Wray became a freelance illustrator - and hasn't looked back since

Having worked as a graphic designer for five years, Anna Wray became a freelance illustrator - and hasn't looked back since

Ever daydreamed about becoming an illustrator full time, yet feel trapped in your day job and unsure how to go about it? I did. I'd been working for the BBC as a graphic designer for over five years when I felt the need for a dramatic change.

Eventually realised my ambitions and became a full time Illustrator. Obviously, it took determination, time, focus and a certain amount of tenacity. But like all things in life if you really want it, in the end, you can get it. Here are 10 top tips I have learned along the way to help you along the way...

01. Choose your specialism

Children's books are a good source of work for illustrators. Learn more here:

Children's books are a good source of work for illustrators. Learn more here:

When I began my journey into the book world, I was easily intimidated at how difficult it can be. But I kept at it. I kept drawing and creating new work, kept evolving my style (still a work in progress) kept contacting people, and soon it paid off.

You'll have greater industry success if you focus your illustration to a particular sector. Don’t to too general, clients want to see a good amount of previous experience in their own field. Decide what kind of illustration you want to focus on and act.

There are generally three major pathways: editorial (illustration for magazines and newspapers), advertising (including product illustration) and book (including children’s book) illustration.

02. Set aside a specific time

Time is your biggest enemy. The day job takes all your time and zaps your energy. So be strict with yourself and set aside some regular time every week to focus on your portfolio.

I spent every Sunday for months creating new work. If you can go part- time it's easier but not always possible. You just have to put Netflix aside and get on with it.

03. Offer mates' rates

Work for free or very little in the early days to build your portfolio. It's very unlikely that a large client will commission an illustrator with an underdeveloped portfolio.

The lack of pressure and greater number of jobs that this will open up will give you invaluable experience in dealing with a client and a live brief, and will eventually lead to decent money.

04. Send something lovely in the post

A tenacious way to add some high profile clients to your portfolio is to create your best work for your dream client and send it to them. If they like it, they may use it, or at least be pleased to have received something lovely in the post. You never know: they may even commission you next time!

05. Sell stock illustrations

Make money selling stock illustrations

Think commercially, and there's money to be made selling stock illustrations online. Learn more here:

It's a great idea for newbie illustrators to sell illustrations online with websites such as iStock or Shutterstock. Both sites provide online forums in which you can receive helpful criticism ,which can be a great way to progress your work. It's also a good way to see what sells and what doesn’t. Clients also look for new illustrators on these sites, a great way in! You'll find more information here.

06. Start a part-time course

Consider doing a part-time degree or night class to give you structured time with other creatives in a critical and supportive environment. It will also motivate you when the going gets tough!

07. Get a website

It goes without saying that you need an online website that's professionally designed and image focused. It's never been easier nor cheaper to do this yourself. Websites such as can provide you with a well designed portfolio-ready template that you can easily adapt to suit your needs.

08. Contact agents

Becky Bolton of GWAW, creators of this illustration for Lee Jeans, explains how she got an agent here:

Becky Bolton of GWAW, creators of this illustration for Lee Jeans, explains how she got an agent here:

When you have at least 10 illustrations you feel are your best work, it's worth contacting agents. Most will say no - that's part of the territory - but don’t take it too personally and don’t be afraid to try again and again as you produce new and better work. If you do get an agent this will open up your work to a huge number of potential clients.

09. Embrace social media

Facebook and Twitter are powerful and free ways to get your work seen by lots of people. Set up pages that are purely focused on illustration and begin adding likeminded friends who inspire you and organisations you would love to work for. Update your account regularly with new work. You'll find more advice here.

10. Keep going

Don’t give up, ever. It takes time maybe even years to build up your career as a full time illustrator. There will be moments of doubt along the way and you may lose hope that it will ever happen.

If you listen to these doubts it won't. Keep plugging away regardless, and override those negative thoughts with fresh new work, and eventually it will.

Words: Anna Wray

Anna Wray is an illustrator/author and a visiting lecturer on the Ba(Hons) Illustration at Cambridge School of Art.

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