Exploring this Job

You can explore an interest in this career by taking art courses. Artists can always improve their drawing skills by practicing on their own, either producing original artwork, or making sketches from drawings that appear in textbooks and reference manuals that relate to their interests. Participation in art, science, and fashion clubs also provide good exposure. Finally, check out Starting Your Career as an Illustrator, by Michael Fleishman, which provides detailed information on working in the field of illustration. 

The Job

Illustrators create artwork for both commercial and fine art purposes. They use a variety of media—pencil, pen and ink, pastels, paints (oil, acrylic, and watercolor), airbrush, collage, and computer technology. Illustrations are used to decorate, describe, inform, clarify, instruct, and draw attention. They appear everywhere in print and electronic formats, including books, magazines, newspapers, signs and billboards, packaging (for everything from milk cartons to LEGOs), Web sites, software programs and video games, greeting cards, calendars, stationery, and direct mail.

Illustrators often work as part of a creative team, which can include graphic designers, photographers, and individuals who draw lettering called calligraphers. Illustrators work in almost every industry. Medical illustration and fashion illustration are two of the fastest growing specialties.

Medical illustrators use graphics, drawings, and photographs to make medical concepts and descriptions easier to understand. Medical illustrators provide illustrations of anatomical and biological structures and processes, as well as surgical and medical techniques and procedures. Their work is found in medical textbooks, magazines and journals, advertisements for medical products, instructional films and videos, television programs, exhibits, lectures and presentations, and computer-assisted learning programs. Some medical illustrators create three-dimensional physical models, such as anatomical teaching models, models used for teaching medical procedures, and also prosthetics.

Medical illustrators generally work with physicians, surgeons, biologists, and other scientists. When detailing a surgical procedure, they may observe the surgeon during surgery, and take instruction and advice from the surgeon about which parts of an operation to illustrate. They may illustrate parts of the body: the eye, the skeletal structure, the muscular structure, the structure of a cell, etc., for textbooks, encyclopedias, medical product brochures, and related literature. They may work with researchers to identify new organisms, develop new drugs, and examine cell structures, illustrating aspects of the researchers' work. They may also assist in developing sophisticated computer simulations, which allow physicians in training to "perform" a surgical procedure entirely on a computer before they are skilled enough to operate on actual patients. Medical illustrators also animate physical, biological, and anatomical processes for films and videos.

A medical illustrator may work in a wide range of medical and biological areas or specialize in a particular area, such as cell structure, blood, disease, or the eye. Much of their work is done with computers; however, they must still have strong skills in traditional drawing and drafting techniques.

Fashion illustrators work in a glamorized, intense environment. Their artistic focus is specifically on styles of clothing and personal image. Illustrators can work in a few different categories of the fashion field. They provide artwork to accompany editorial pieces in magazines such as Glamour, Redbook, and Vogue and newspapers such as Women's Wear Daily. Catalog companies employ fashion illustrators to provide the artwork that sells their merchandise.

Fashion illustrators also work with fashion designers, editors, and models. They make sketches from designers' notes or they may sketch live models during runway shows or other fashion presentations. They may use pencils, pen and ink, charcoal, paint, or a combination of media. Fashion illustrators may work as freelancers, handling all the business aspects that go along with being self-employed.

Natural science illustrators create illustrations of plants and wildlife. They often work at museums such as the Smithsonian Institution.