How to be an illustrator By Haydn Symons

I’m a freelance illustrator from Hampshire, United Kingdom, and have been freelancing as an illustrator for over 5 years.

I’ve experienced a ton of first-hand knowledge about how to be an illustrator; building my portfolio, increasing my client base, to working towards deadlines.

You might be a budding illustrator, you could be keen to become one, or you might be interested in knowing more about this fascinating creative discipline.

Whatever your background, discover what it’s really like to be a freelance illustrator.

I’m going to be revealing my knowledge of how I’ve become a freelance illustrator, with tips and advice on the best, and worst parts of the job, tactics to help you succeed, and how you can become a freelance illustrator too.

My reasons for becoming an illustrator

I’ve been passionate about art since an early age. Picking up a pencil, being creative, and even drawing my Infant School – which was printed onto mugs and given to all of the school.

You can say being creative was made for me!

After showing a keen interest in art, I studied art and design at college, and during the latter part of these years, I had to either choose the fine art or illustration route. I loved these two disciplines, so it was a hard choice. My mind was made up when 2 older students showed their work to us, and I got a taste of what illustration had to offer (and because their work was mega cool!).

I studied illustration at Falmouth University in Cornwall, and learnt from brilliant tutors, worked on my illustration style, and built my portfolio.

I love creating new things everyday, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I want to make a name for myself, be my own boss, and keep producing high quality illustrative work.

It’s this passion and desire from an early age that has made be determined to be the best illustrator I can be.


How does someone become an illustrator?

I believe it starts with your portfolio.

Your portfolio of illustration work (online and offline), entices clients to hire you. You’re noticed from an outstanding portfolio, and makes you stand out from the crowd.

You don’t want an average portfolio, you don’t even want a good one, you want a portfolio that is outstanding, out of this world, mind blowing.

A portfolio that clients just can’t refuse.

It’s your ultimate weapon to get hired, and I believe it’s your first step to becoming an illustrator. Refine your style and make it your own, build your portfolio which you’re proud to show to the world, and you will be rewarded.

You might not have a world-class portfolio, or even have a portfolio to show, but working on personal and commissioned projects (if you’re lucky) to build a collection of work is the first step.

However, it’s definitely not all about the portfolio, as the old saying rings true – ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ that is just as crucial.

You can have an amazing illustrative portfolio, but if you don’t reach out to others, no one will know you. Networking, shaking hands, and making connections is an important step to becoming an illustrator.

I would suggest attending networking events, going to conferences around your area (or beyond), and making connections on social media.

Whatever way you can get in front of other people.

The third piece of the puzzle is to have a website that attracts clients to hire you.

A well designed and well coded website portfolio is a must. I would advise a clean website, with the focus on your work. Remove gimmicks, have good content that introduces others to you and your work, and make it yours.

If you want to be classed as a professional and become an illustrator, you firstly need all these at your disposal to make a great start in the profession.

How I began to make a sustainable living from my illustration work

I initially made a living from connecting with others and working on commercial illustrations within the editorial and publishing space, and also working with local clients from networking events.

I firstly worked with independent magazines, which helped me make valuable connections and clients, such as The Clerkenwell Post and Psyched 4 Sport magazine.

From this, I was commissioned to work with UKScouts on some typographic pieces for their official social media accounts, which is were I slowly grew my client base. Working with networking clients was also a great boost to my income (which shows how important networking is), from the odd business card design, brochure illustrations to poster design.

I have also made extra income through selling psychical products, from art prints, canvas art to greetings card (which as an illustrator I can create myself – which is great).

I’m certainly not there yet, and would like to receive more commissions and sell more products, as there’s always room for improvement.

Commercial illustration is definitely the area where I’ve made a living, and worked with new clients (and existing clients) and built my portfolio.

The key with is to make relationships with Art Directors. These are the people that commission illustration, so make it your priority to get know these people.

Network, network and network a bit more!

The best parts of being a illustrator

Doing something that I love.

With freelancing, I work hard and often work unsocial hours to finish a job, with 101 other challenges coming my way.

But this is just fine, as I’m truly passionate about the world of illustration.

I don’t consider it work, which is why I often over-work as I enjoy it so much (others will call it a workaholic!). Being my own boss and working when I like is a luxury, and being creative is the best feeling in the world.

Drawing and painting everyday sounds brilliant to me!

The biggest challenges of being an illustrator

The biggest challenge is when I’m not working on commissions or for clients.

Unfortunately for freelancers of any discipline, commissions can be quite sporadic. This isn’t the same for everyone, as there’s certainly illustrators out there that are constantly in demand (or appear that way).

You can go for long periods without any work, and if you don’t have the right mindset (or have no savings or an understanding partner for example), then you can start to drown in self-doubt.

It’s definitely not easy when this happens, and that’s why I believe starting out as a freelance illustrator should be coupled with a part time or full time job. You will be rest assured that you have a paycheque every month, and takes the pressure off.

I have done this in the past, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about working full time alongside freelancing either, or feel you’re ‘less of a freelancer’ because of it. If you work hard you can gradually give these roles up or cut your hours to focus on being an illustrator.

Having self-belief and a positive mindset when times get tough is crucial for anyone wanting to become an illustrator.

The best resources I’ve found e.g. books, websites, tools

I love learning new things, as I always seem to have self-help books and podcasts all around me – I’m addicted to learn and improve!

My favourite time to learn is whilst running and listening to podcasts.

I don’t just learn from the creativity industry either, as I try and listen, read and learn from a variety of different sources.

Being an illustrator means you wear many hats, you’re an accountant one day, an administrator the next, website designer the other day, you name it – you have to do it!

So why not broaden your horizon and learn something new? Here’s my top 5 recommendations;

How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

  • You may think that I don’t have any friends for revealing my this self-help book, but it’s such a valuable read. To be a freelance illustrator you have market yourself on a daily basis and make connections. This book offers advice on how to deal with people, influence them so they work with you (such a crucial skill), and manage people so they like you – this book is highly recommended!

Pat Flynn, from Smart Passive Income

  • This guy is a legend. I was introduced to Pat by my older brother roughly 6 years ago, and I have been an avid fan ever since. He’s down to earth, relatable, and gives the best content on business, marketing and passive income. He has a brilliant podcast, and he offers world class tips to improve your business. 

Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney

  • Recommended to me whilst at University, this book gives a detailed look on how colour works. Even though you may think it’s only for realist painters, I believe it can be helpful for anyone in the creative industry. An excellent read, and I have it on my desk so I can reach it easily! Find the book here.

It’s Nice That

  • A website, blog, and resource which has been running for a number of years, this website gives the latest news, inspiration and content within the world of art, design and illustration. I’m a big fan of their work, and love the content that they publish.

Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton

  • I believe design plays a really important part in being an illustrator, as you’re not always creating illustrations. This book gives amazing insight and tips to improve your typography skills, which I study when I receive a new typographic illustration commission. You can also view the whole book for free here.


I hope you have discovered more about how you can become a freelance illustrator.

If you only take one thing away from this blog post – is the importance of a positive mindset. You are the only person that can achieve the things you want, so make sure you get out there and smash it!

If you would like to find out more about myself and my illustration work, head over to my illustration portfolio at

This is where I reveal my latest illustration commissions, juicy blog posts and much more!

I have worked with clients such as the UKScouts, independent magazine publications like The Clerkenwell Post, to the University of Northampton.

Bringing together traditional and digital elements to form my illustrations, I have built a portfolio and my illustration style, that is vibrant, friendly, and unique.

Be sure to check out my website, Twitter @haydnsym, or Facebook page. Thanks guys, hope you enjoyed the post!


Haydn Symons

Haydn Symons