Illustration Diversity

Let's be frank, it's not easy these days to make a full-time living as an illustrator in the UK. Many agree that these are tough times for the creative industry, with diminishing markets, stagnation, fee erosion, less risk-taking from publishers - where is it all taking us? Is it still feasible to conceive a career in illustration? Well, yes it is, says our Illustration Features editor John Shelley. The answer may be diversification.

I'm a dreamer, a head-in-the-clouds children's illustrator. But I'm also a realist. Illustration is my business. A self-employed sole trader, my creative endeavours have to pay the bills, feed my family, and keep me in ink, paint and paper. These are challenging times for artists. Fortunately as we see some portals close, others open - there are still many avenues to generate income from our art.

An Industry of Ideas

First amongst these is simply to keep working on our creative ideas and submit them - it's an uncomfortable process for some who'd rather just paint and draw, but polishing our craft and persisting with our own story ideas is the most important thing any children's illustrator can do, no matter what stage of our careers. We have to assume the days of the "passive" illustrator are pretty well over - just sending out samples or having a website and expecting emails to arrive with work commissions is almost a thing of the past - the onus is on us to come up with the projects, grow them, hone them, and get them out there into the hands of ethical publishers with budgets to see them to success.

Print sales may be down, but digital technology has opened up new opportunities and there are more platforms than ever to display a good visual narrative.

Over the Hills and Far Away

Another path is to pursue a wider market and seek commissions from overseas. The USA is a natural target for illustrators working in the English language, but other countries can also be potential markets. There are advantages and disadvantages to this - on the up side fees can be a little higher than in the UK. It's possible your style is actually more suited to a market overseas than to the relatively narrow tastes of current British publishing and you may find your own niche overseas. On the down side you're competing with the native illustrators of that country, which is a tough challenge in difficult times. You'll probably need to travel - I'm not ditching the usefulness of a website, but it's a lot easier to sell yourself to overseas publishers if you've actually met them face-to-face, either in their office or at trade fairs like the Bologna Book Fair. Though I have a US agent, most of my American commissions have developed from direct encounters with staff at Bologna.

Covers of the US and Japanese editions of my latest book Stone Giant. Commissioned by US publisher Charlesbridge, who I first connected with at Bologna. I later sold the Japanese rights to Komine Shoten when an editor saw images at my exhibition in Tokyo

Another problem is that once your book is out, it's quite hard to promote if you're not in the country, and as a foreigner you may be disqualified for consideration in key awards (I've plenty of experience of that in Japan and the US!), which again doesn't help sales. Working overseas makes it harder to build a reputation, but not impossible.

Expandng the Market

Coming back to the need to develop our ideas, not all illustrators are comfortable submitting stories, but looking beyond the pages of books and other commissioned art there are other ways. We need to loosen our boundaries, expand our creativity, and become entrepreneurs of our art. 

Recently I was at an exhibition of the Norwich Print Fair. I love the fine tactile quality of prints, the bewildering names suggesting mysterious processes - mezzoprint, dry point, collagraph, monoprint.... things I encountered during my foundation course decades ago, but was discouraged from pursuing at degree level. My tutors were adamant: "forget about printmaking, this is an illustration course, you can't reproduce etchings in printed media, you'll never be commissioned with a portfolio of prints".

Prints from previous years at Norwich Forum
Times and attitudes have changed since then though. In the past we were told to focus our creativity into specific techniques and styles to cater to the illustration market. Now however, as that market becomes ever more squeezed, with more and more competition from other illustrators doing broadly the same thing, we need to think outside the box, pinpoint what it is that defines our art, consider ways to intensify our uniqueness and turn it into income. One way is to expand our output into prints and other merchandise. At the print exhibition, representatives of MA illustration and printmaking courses expounded on how many former designers, illustrators, etc. have given up chasing commissions and turned to the printmaking fine art market.

Starting a new "branch" of art requires commitment, but it's an effort we owe to ourselves to pursue.

I love to doodle quirky images that don't easily fit into a categorised "type", they are just me meandering in a sketchbook with a pen. The more I doodle, the more I think about developing this ephemeral side of my art in some way, in addition to giclée limited edition prints from book illustrations. The thing that makes me hesitate is that need to pay the bills. I worry that I may be chasing up a blind alley, wasting precious time and never sell anything. But we have to put this sensibility aside for a moment if we want to create something new. Finding new angles for our art requires sacrifice in time and effort, starting a new "branch" of art requires commitment, but it's an effort we owe to ourselves to pursue. Yes, still focus on our career illustrations, but make time to develop other media or more personal work.

Here's Chris Oatley's post on the "Death of Illustration", recommended to me recently. I found Will Terry's video talk at the bottom of the page particularly interesting.

Selling and Marketing

Printmaking, or any kind of product created from our art, is only the first step, the key factor is actually marketing the work to the public. We still have to produce material that people want to buy! Some artists work with galleries and specific shops and don't have to deal directly with the public, others sign up with licensing agents to sell their work for stationery, interior decor and the toy industry, or work with greetings card companies. Then there is the DIY option: you may have access to a decent printer to make reasonable quality inkjet prints. Some illustrators produce and sell cards and other merchandise through Etsy, Zazzle and other shop websites, but these sites are glutted with artists selling stuff - how many actually make a decent income from it? I always wonder how the effort versus income ratio works out. We need to develop our art, but ultimately the target is to make money from it. You have the "merchandise", but then how do you sell it?

I'd love to hear back from anyone with experience of successfully (i.e. generating worthwhile income from) running a business on their illustration art. This could be fine art creations, merchandising derived from illustrations, hand-made items, selling prints, working with galleries or card companies etc, digital apps and ebooks even. Do you operate alone or work with shops, galleries, licensing companies? How do you attract the public to your works? What insights and pitfalls have you encountered?

Please write to me directly at Based on the responses, I'll put together another article, or articles, featuring your ideas, examples and experiences.


John Shelley is the Illustration Feature Editor of Words & Pictures and current Central East Network coordinator. 
He's illustrated over 40 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years. His latest title Stone Giant is out in Japan the USA.


  1. The advice to expand our creativity works even for writers. I signed up for a graphic novel class last month and it's definitely exploded my mind out of its novel-writing box. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Thought provoking John, look forward to your gathered responses.

  3. Great article, it really encompasses the entire wide spectrum of art - illustration - business and surviving as an artist. Thanks!

  4. This is interesting stuff, John, thanks. As Candy says, writers need to diversify just as much as illustrators to stay afloat.

  5. Many thanks everyone! I'm hoping a few more people with experience of this kind of thing will get back to me.

  6. Not sure if you got my email John but I did reply a few days ago to the address :)

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