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how to become an illustrator without a degree

How to Become an Illustrator without a Degree (Yes You Can!)

Wondering just how to become an illustrator without a degree?

Maybe you’re strapped for cash and don’t want to take out a hefty loan to study illustration, or perhaps you simply think university is not the right fit for you?

In any case, our step-by-step process will give you details on how to become an illustrator without a degree

Step 1: Set Goals

Before starting anything, you should make a plan and set S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based) goals before diving head-first into the art of illustration. 

An example, S.M.A.R.T. aims to attract my first client within the first month by creating three illustration samples to showcase in my portfolio.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” and so envisioning how you’re going to become an illustrator is a crucial first step to achieving that goal.

Step 2: Familiarize Yourself with the Latest Tools

Knowing what tools the most successful illustrators use can give you an edge over those who don’t. 

One such tool is Adobe Illustrator, which according to Adobe is, “The industry-standard vector graphics app to create logos, icons, drawings, typography and illustrations for print, web, video, and mobile.”

With how ubiquitous the tool is across professionals, you’d do yourself a big favor by learning this application.

The highest-rated courses need Ai because it is the standard for illustration creation.

Step 3: Take a Course

While not a degree, a highly rated course will offer you a wealth of knowledge for much cheaper. 

Finding a course mustn’t be such a hassle either, with sites like Udemy offering a range of illustration courses to fit your needs.

Here are the top 3 courses you can learn on Udemy for illustration.

Adobe Illustrator CC – Essential Training Course

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Rated #1 illustrator course on Udemy, Adobe Illustrator CC – Essential Training Course is the go-to course to learn illustration. 

Notable features of this course include:

  • Over 30 projects to add to your portfolio.
  • Learn all the essential skills to become an illustrator: shapes, text, masking, effects, and exporting.
  • Draw with pens and pencils.

Here are a couple of reviews on this course: 

“Just another amazing course by Dan! I enjoyed the journey, and I learned so much.” – Veronika Velkova.

“This is a great course. It’s well structured, and there are tasks for each section that allow you to practice what you have learned. I was a beginner when I started, but now I feel like I can create professional designs. I would highly recommend it.” – Shingo Suzuki.

Illustrator 2020 MasterClass

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While this course has a 4.6 rating compared to the earlier 4.8, the Illustrator 2020 MasterClass now has nearly twice the number of ratings, with 26,899 ratings than the prior 13,462. 

Therefore, this course is almost twice as popular and hence worth considering. 

Notable features include:

  • Turn photographs into vector artwork.
  • Creating vector illustrations.
  • Designing infographics.

Here are a couple of reviews on this course:

Wilson Thomas thought that the course was taught well. He thinks that Martin explained the subject matter thoroughly. As a beginner, he understood everything and was confident enough to go through the course.

“This course is amazing! It’s great for beginners to intermediate levels and for those who are looking to brush up on skills. I love how the lectures are separated into easy to digest segments which make it easy to go back and revisit areas when needed.” – Nicole Tibbetts.

Adobe Illustrator CC Mastery: Zero to Hero in Illustrator

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With a rating of 4.7, which makes the Adobe Illustrator CC Mastery: Zero to Hero in Illustrator worth considering is its competitive price: USD 49.99 compared to USD 124.99 and USD 129.99, respectively. 

Notable features include:

  • Stylize and customize type and shapes in Illustrator.
  • Use the various tools of Illustrator.
  • Apply gradients, warp effects, blends, and other styles to shapes in Illustrator.

Here are a couple of reviews on this course:

“For some time now, I’ve just been ‘winging’ it in Illustrator. I’ve been using Photoshop for most of my design work, knowing that I needed Illustrator, but most courses I’ve tried weren’t giving me the instruction I was seeking. 

It was either too technical or not technical enough. This course gave me all the tools I need to feel confident in transitioning to using Illustrator. The instructor is comprehensive without being overly technical, the video quality is wonderful, and the instructor’s delivery was interesting and engaging. I loved this course!” – Anita Van

“Enjoyed enjoyed this course. I have wanted for some time to learn about Ai, and this course delivered. Searching online for an all-around crash course for Ai was hard to come by for me. This was perfect-simple, easy, and fun to follow along with. It teaches you most features for you to be confident to produce your own content. ” – Josh Yoon.

While a course is not necessary, it is the best way to quickly develop the skills you need to become a successful illustrator.

Step 4: Develop your Portfolio

Once you have the skills needed to become an illustrator, it’s time to develop your portfolio. 

Start by working on your projects and creating samples of your work – you’ll need those later!

When you’ve created some samples, it’s time to showcase them on your portfolio and begin attracting clients. 

You can do this easily on freelancing sites like Fiverr, but be ready to work hard because the competition is ruthless.

Of course, if you are passionate about illustration, this won’t stop you from attracting your first client.

Once you get your first client, make sure to listen intently and work diligently, as a positive relationship is crucial for future work and scaling your portfolio.

Once your experience grows, you may feel you can bite off more than you can chew.

This is, of course, a fine line to walk, but if you feel you have the skills to make it happen, then working for multiple clients will boost your illustration career and keep the money rolling.

Also, don’t get too carried away by client work; you should still be working on your projects in your spare time – your skills need constant development. 

A strong foundation is a springboard that will launch you to success.

Step 5: Manage Your Time

All this hustle might lead you to wonder if there’s any time for rest or taking breaks. 

While it’s true that illustration, let alone any career takes grit to become viable, it doesn’t have to consume your life to the point where it’s unhealthy.

Make sure to divide your week into segments so you can set out a time to relax and enjoy yourself. 

For example, Monday and Wednesday might have 3-hour time intervals for client work, whereas Tuesdays and Thursdays might have 2-hour project development. 

Any left-over time is time to relax, have a snack, work on your profile, or any other activity.

Effectively managing your time is key to avoiding burn-out, which will keep you in the game longer than your competition.

This means more clients and hence a more successful illustration career!

Step 6: Promote Your Work

As your portfolio grows in size and quality, the attention quickly shifts from creating more samples to getting your work out there. 

While clients are your primary target audience, you are not solely limited to them.

You should also promote your illustrations on social media, most notably Pinterest and Instagram, since those sites are work great for sharing images like artwork.

Watch your following and demand for illustrations grow, opening new opportunities for sponsorships and collaborations. 

Careful though, watching your numbers tick can get addicting!

Also, make sure to post actively, as you ideally want your engagement and reach high. 

No one wants a dead account; an active account conveys to your audience that you’re serious about illustration.

Moreover, creating a personal website not only shows that you’ve made a commitment but makes you look more professional to prospective clients.

Social media is a unique way to create an audience and get in touch with them, allowing you to get more feedback than any client could give.

And with social media being more popular than ever, there’s never been a better time to use it to get your illustrations out there and make a name for yourself.

This leads me to step 7.

Step 7: View Yourself and Your Illustrations as a Business

If you just want to do illustration as a hobby, that’s fine. 

But if you’re serious about illustration, it’s best to start viewing your artwork as a business and not mere sketches.

While a business plan is optional, it will give you a direction for where to take your illustrations and look especially appealing to investors.

Factors like branding, logos, market research, and competitive analysis are all useful for creating a name for yourself and understanding the market. 

For example, the topic of illustration itself is broad, and you’d find more success carving out a niche you can specialize in.

What kind of illustrator are you? 

Are you an animator? 


Or are you more traditional with the pen and paper? 

Determine what style you are more passionate/skilled in and focus it down. 

Then figure out what industry you’d like to work in. 

Are you into anime? 

Video games? 

Comic books? 

Whatever it is, match your niche with an industry that excites you so you can enjoy your new specialty!

Besides, doing what you love is not work, is it?

Pricing is another thing worth considering, with proper research allowing you to decide what an ideal pricing point is.

Maybe you want to sell your premium illustrations, create commissioned artwork, monetize your free sketches using Google AdSense or something in-between.

Whatever the case is, finding a pricing strategy that works for you will help sustain your illustration career and keep you afloat, especially when times get rough.

Speaking of money, make sure to live frugally, at least initially, so you can invest more in developing your skills and marketing your work.

However, not everything has to cost money, leading me to step 8…

Step 8: Network

If you ever heard the saying, “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” then you know how important networking is. 

The best thing about networking is that you can network for free!

You can find many communities online, like the Illustrators Social Club, which offers opportunities to find like-minded people with whom you can connect. 

Networking allows you so much more than this, however. 

Firstly, it allows you to find new clients, which is always a plus.

It’s a way to feel inspired because we all have times when we lack drive.

You can find loads of illustrations by talented illustrators who you can become friends with and take inspiration from.

If you’re an introvert, which many illustrators are, it’s also a great way to practice your communication and social skills. 

These are crucial skills that will allow you to make new connections and articulate yourself like no one else around you.

Of course, networking also allows you to create some buzz in the illustration community, creating yet more opportunities for you through word-of-mouth and referrals. 

Who knows, maybe you’ll find someone who can take you under their wing and teach you a thing or two, leading me to step 8…

Step 9: Find a Mentor

Sometimes life can get chaotic, and for situations like this, you need stability, direction, and guidance. 

Who can offer this better than a good mentor?

A mentor can find weaknesses you may have missed, stimulates personal development, and pushes you to keep working when you need that extra shove. 

A mentor is your eyes-in-the-sky, overlooking your projects and giving you much-needed advice to steer you in the right direction. 

You want to direct your efforts where it counts, right?

Like Dan Lok, some of the most successful people in the world claim a good mentor was the key to success. 

Do yourself a favor and look for an experienced and energetic mentor willing to push you to greatness.

Besides, once you become a successful illustrator, you may become a mentor yourself!

Step 10: Find Your Style

To help carve out your place in the illustration space more, you should experiment with different styles and find the one you gel with the most. 

Admittedly, this could take days, months, years, or maybe you’ll find out you simply don’t have a particular style.

In any case, you should see if freehand, vector, digital, conceptual, abstract, book covers, or any other style of illustration strikes you fancy.

Because once you find your style, you can hone in on it and become specialized. 

This will make you especially attractive to prospective clients and help kick-start your illustration career. 

Step 11: Work Experience

If you’re still struggling to become an illustrator, perhaps some good-old work experience will be just what you need.

While working for free may not sound ideal, some clients consider this your best selling point.

By offering your services for free, you are bound to attract at least one client who is willing to take you on.

You should ask your friends, family, anyone for information on where you can do work experience or get an internship.

There’s a company hiring somewhere!

Bonus Step: Have Fun!

This may seem like a joke step, but it cannot be understated how important it is to enjoy your illustration craft.

So many illustrators begin their journeys excited but quickly experience burnt-out by all the work and competition they have to face.

Don’t let this get you down!

Sooner or later, you’ll start to experience bumps on the road, and for these moments, you must stay calm. 

This ties into a larger point – mental health. 

You must take good care of it!

Good mental health is like your eye-in-the-storm, keeping you sane during times that would leave you insane.

Whether you find yourself overburdened with work or dealing with unforeseen circumstances, good mental health and resilience to setbacks will serve you well, both in illustration and life!

Final Thoughts

So there you have it.

Eleven, or should I say twelve, steps to becoming a self-made illustrator.

I want to leave you with this: you don’t need a fancy degree to become an illustrator.

But you surely need passion for illustration, a desire for self-improvement, and a commitment to creating high-quality illustrations! 

If you master this, you are bound to succeed!

So, this is how to become an illustrator without a degree.

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