Some professions strictly require you to have a degree in that field. Illustration is not one of those professions. If you want to a career in illustration, but don’t want to go down the conventional path of getting a degree, then fear not! We now have this thing called the internets! Full of many wonderful things that can help you learn almost anything.
It is definitely possible to become a self-taught illustrator without a degree. You will need time and discipline to learn everything that is required of illustrators in the real world. This includes a strict, daily routine that involves online learning, reading, sketching, and practicing traditional and digital illustration.
In this article, we will start with the pros and cons of becoming a self-taught illustrator (This may help you with your decision making process). Next, I will run through some tips to help you on your journey of becoming an illustrator without a degree.
(By the way, once you’re done reading this article, check out my main article on how to become an illustrator for more tips on getting started!)
Advantages of being self taught
You Will Save a Butt Load of Money
College is expensive. Super duper crazy expensive. If you go down the self taught path, you will probably still be spending some money learning, but at a fraction of the price you pay at college.
If you invest in online courses, private lessons, workshops and books of your choice, your total expenses will probably arrive well under what you would be spending at college.
You Get to Choose What You Learn
Back in my student days, I had my fair share of pointless subjects. Either the teacher didn’t really teach anything, or the actual topic was completely useless in the real world.
If you are teaching yourself illustration, you will essentially get to design your own syllabus. However, it’s important that you stick to what you are intending to learn.
Remember that there are classrooms full of people studying illustration, with lecturers, tutors and equipment. You will need to keep up with them if you want to stand a chance in the job market.
Disadvantages of being self taught
Risk of Getting Lost on Your Path
Formal illustration courses will have a structured syllabus with a variety of teachers to learn from. If you have paid megabucks to work towards an illustration degree, then you will more likely stick to the plan and complete your assignments, tests and exams.
If you are learning illustration on your own, there is a risk you will get side tracked from what you had initially set out to do. If you are serious about learning illustration, then you need to dedicate your time to learning. And that may involve turning down some social events or giving up video games.
Risk of Skipping Over Important Concepts
There are some important things that every artist needs to have some knowledge in. At college, there might be subjects that people don’t like, but they still need to do them. But if you are going the self-taught path, you will be more likely to ignore the things you don’t like.
If you are absolutely certain that you don’t want to illustrate using gouache, then by all means, give it a miss. But you need to accept that there are some things that you just need to learn, whether you’d like to or not (Color theory, figure drawing, perspective, etc.).
Where to Start with Self Learning Illustration
A lot of illustration jobs nowadays will require the final product to be created in digital form (ie. created with vectors in Adobe Illustrator, or with pixels in Adobe Photoshop).
This means that you will need to be able to work digitally, however it is important to have some experience in traditional media as well:
As part of your routine, I suggest that you familiarise yourself with learning how to draw without the help of digital tools.
Using traditional media is easier to control for most people, and it will help you learn important fundamentals such as line art, value, anatomy and perspective.
Start with Pencil and Paper
Before you can walk, you first gotta crawl!
Before you start painting, before you plug in the Wacom… you just need to draw.
Finding a pencil and paper is cheap, and it will play a huge role in how you learn illustration. Smashing out designs and ideas on paper will become the foundations for both your portfolio and your professional pieces.
Make sure you are sketching every day. Practicing your drawing for an hour every day will be more beneficial than practicing for 8 hours once a week.
Things you will need to focus on will include drawing objects from life, life drawing and practicing perspective (at least one and two point perspective).
Move Onto Pen, Markers and Colored Pencils
Drawing free hand with a black ink pen (without sketching) will help you to commit to your practice illustrations and will add more spontaneity to how you work.
Ink and Brush (and Brush Pens!)
You can also experiment using ink and a fine paint brush. practicing drawing and rendering with ink will help you improve how you control your paint brush (if you don’t want to use ink and brush, you could also try using a brush pen, which is always fun).
Whenever I draw using ink, I am often surprised by the interesting effects that I discover from experimentation – it’s a lot of fun, and will make you a better illustrator.
When it comes to markers, there are so many different colors to choose from. But when you are starting out, forget about color for now.
I recommend you start with grayscale markers. The reason for this is because gray markers will remove color from the equation, and it will make you focus entirely on value (darks and lights).
I often practice using gray Copic markers. You don’t need to use every single shade of gray, just pick a good range of light to dark (for example, I use C-1, C-3, C-5, C-7, C-9 and pure black).
If you would rather use paint instead of markers, you can go ahead and choose whatever paint you are comfortable with.
Although I am a massive oil paint fan, I wouldn’t recommend starting with oils. Rather use a water based paint like watercolor or gouche. It’s easy to use, it’s easy to clean and it dries quickly.
Apart from it being a whole lotta fun, the purpose of learning to paint is to help you to understand how to use color and value in your illustrations.
Start to Learn Digital Illustration
Now that you have been familiarising yourself with traditional media, you can now move on to using digital tools to create your illustrations.
For this, you will need a tablet, a computer and some graphics software.
Personally, I use a very cheap Wacom tablet, a laptop with decent specs and Adobe Photoshop (part of the most excellent Adobe Creative Cloud Suite!).
A graphics tablet super important for illustrating. It can be tricky to get started, so I have put together some tips on how to improve your tablet skills.
Find a graphics program that suits you (that includes financially). Most top graphics programs come with free trials, so definitely try a few before you commit dollars to anything.
Take Online Courses
I love online courses so much. It can be confusing which one to choose because there are so many options though.
If there is a course that you are interested in, check out some reviews as well as the instructor’s body of work. Personally I find that if I love the instructor’s style, then that’s enough for me to enrol in their course.
It’s tempting to keep on taking courses, but remember to apply what you are learning to your own work. It’s like reading a book on swimming without wanting to jump in the pool.
I sound a bit old fashioned telling you to read a book, when there is so much out there online. Definitely use Google to learn new things, but there is still something strangely appealing and useful with owning some books.
Picking up an art book can often help you learn something that you weren’t necessarily looking for. It might be a new technique, a new way of drawing something or perhaps a recipe for a good painting medium.
Is your favorite artist coming to your town to teach? If yes, then jump on that!
I have had a number of workshops with my big art heroes over the years and myyy goodness, maximum excitement folks.
You get to learn from someone that you look up to professionally and you will also no doubt meet some good people there too.
This doesn’t have to be a workshop with a particular person as the selling point. A workshop can be run by your local art store, or a short course through a local society. You know where you live better than I do, so look around and see what’s to offer.
No workshops near you? No problem. I have lived in small towns and I am an expert in knowing what it’s like not having much to do. Luckily people are offering their workshops online too – so definitely explore that option too.
Get a Private Tutor
Find a tutor who can teach you the skills you want to learn and to mentor you as well.
If they know how to draw and also have experience in the illustration industry, then I think that’s worth spending some money on.
Again – this can be in person, or via the magical internet!
Work a Day Job
What’s more important than learning new skills? Paying them bills.
Find a job that can help keep the lights on at home (and of course, food in the fridge).
As long as your job doesn’t consume every waking hour of your life, you will be able to use the money you have earned on more enjoyable things, like learning illustration.
Create a Portfolio and Website
While you are teaching yourself illustration, you will be doing a lot of exercises and practice pieces.
But make sure that you are spending time making some polished pieces of work to go into your illustration portfolio.
All of your hard work will mean nothing if you cannot have any illustrations to show anyone.
Instagram and Behance are great places to put your illustrations, but also make sure that you have a personal .com website as well.
A website will cost a few bucks a month, but it will give you that extra bit of professionalism when somebody asks you to share your work with them.
Mingle / Network with Other Illustrators
Networking can happen online or in person, but please make the effort to spend time with other illustrators.
I hate the word network, it sounds like you are talking to someone because you want something from them, but this isn’t the case.
Think of it as meeting up with like-minded people. People who also love art and who love creating.
Also think of it as a support group. You could help each other find work, or you may want to work on something together.
Start with One Client. See Where That Takes You!
Finding the first illustration job can be hard, but it’s out there.
Once you have secured your first gig, do your absolute best. Do such a great job that they will recommend you to other people looking for illustrators.
And when the job is done, keep in touch with them. I don’t mean just ask them for more work. But rather check in with them now and then to see how they are doing. Offer for them to reach out to you if they need help with anything else in future.
Check out these tips on how to get your first illustration job.
Becoming an illustrator without a degree is entirely possible, but make sure you are investing time and effort (and money!) into teaching yourself.
Learn to draw. And do it every day. Sketching is the foundation of illustration and it’s where your ideas will happen.
Learn the digital tools. Invest in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and drop 100 bucks on a Wacom tablet.
Read books, do some online courses and network with like-minded people.
Have a routine that you can commit to. Teach yourself ever day, and reach out to people for feedback on where you can improve.
Have fun, work hard and you will gradually learn all the skills you need to make a career of this!
Best of luck!