Illustrator salary: What you can earn in 2022 (and how you can make more money)

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July 28, 2021
5 minute read

Across the United States and the globe, illustrators earn a great living. Whether freelancer or in-house, with the right skills and experience, you can carve out your own piece of this lucrative field.

Below, we cover the illustrator salaries you can expect from different work and job arrangements in the market.

What is an illustrator?

While specifics vary from one industry to another, illustrators help bring ideas to life. They’re artists, hired by companies and individuals who use illustration to turn products, concepts, and stories into images.

Businesses of all kinds use illustrators. Some industries tend toward hiring in-house illustrators, but the majority of illustrators are freelance designers. As such, the job works on a project basis, working with multiple clients at once, instead of a single company.

The publishing industry and advertising agencies are the exception. They use illustration frequently and are likely to use in-house illustrators.

Factors that affect average salary for illustrators

If you're looking for concrete numbers, there are none. With all the variety in an illustration job, earnings vary by a lot. Here are some of the factors that impact your earning potential.

Industry: The industry you work in is the biggest factor in how much you can earn. Illustrators who draw storyboards for films, for example, can earn higher than average pay.

Type of project: The type of illustration work you do can also impact pay. For example, in the publishing industry, the job may include children’s books, medical textbooks, or comic books—and earnings vary widely between them.

Experience: Beyond the type of work you do, this is the biggest factor determining how much you can make. While some of the estimates we’ll state below start off on the low end—for entry level illustrators—you’ll see the trend line report curve up quickly as we get to 5+ and 10+ years of seniority.

Portfolio of past work: The portfolio of work you can show to potential employers or clients goes hand-in-hand with your experience. The more work you can showcase on your portfolio website, the higher level of skill, and the prestige of previous clients and employers all affect pay.

Location: As with many roles, compensation is higher in any major city across the United States (like New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami).

Type of compensation: There are a few less conventional ways to structure compensation (including royalties, commissions, and licensing) that will affect your ultimate earnings.

Education: While education isn’t a huge factor, having a fine arts or related degree can help you earn higher pay—particularly in the beginning of your career, when your portfolio isn’t as developed.

For details on how these factors impact pay, Salary.com developed a helpful tool to see how education, geography, experience, direct reports, and other factors can impact your earning potential as an illustrator.

Illustrator salary across in-demand industries

Industry is the most important consideration when you look at earnings across illustration careers. Let’s look at a few examples to see how wages vary between industries.

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Motion picture and video: This market can earn you some of the highest pay, with annual mean wages reaching $94,830, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Medical, scientific, and other technical fields: These industries report substantially higher than average pay—the annual mean wage is $80,250. There’s also a great deal of variety here, with low-end wages of $61,000 and high-earners making up to $250,000.

Engineering and architecture: You can earn an average of $78,130 per year in this market.

For a look at how rates vary based on the type of project, you can reference Format’s list of real illustration clients and how they pay for different projects. Here are a few highlights:

  • Editorial illustrations for BuzzFeed: $350
  • Book cover illustration for HarperCollins: $3,000
  • Children’s book for self-publishing author: $5,000+
  • Cover illustration for Archie comics: $450

Illustrator salaries and experience level

Once you’ve taken industry and type of job into account, experience is the top predictor of earning potential. Here’s the breakdown.

Per hour pay...

  • Entry level: $16.81/hour
  • Mid-career (5-9 years): $20.71/hour
  • Experienced: $34.73/hour

Annual pay...

  • Entry level: $53,198
  • Mid-career (5-6 years): $59,368
  • Experienced: $72,238

Clearly, experience level has a huge impact on both per hour and salary pay. Just take a look at this graph from Payscale:

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Notice how the trend picks up after the 5-9 years line? By the time you reach 20+ years of experience, you can earn more than double the average entry level rate per hour.

Illustrator salary: how much money can you make as an illustrator?

In the illustration market, you can earn money in a variety of ways. Here are a few types of compensation you may get:

  • Salary
  • Per hour, retainer, or project-based pay
  • Royalties and commission
  • Benefits and other perks

To keep things simple, we’ll focus on those first two, which represent an illustrator’s base pay, and take a look at how some of the factors above impact illustrator salaries.

In-house illustrator salary

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent report (from May 2020), the average annual salary for an in-house illustrator is $65,020, which translates to an hourly wage of $31.26 per hour.

The most influential factors impacting in-house pay are employer size, years of experience, and location. You can see the effect of those in the spread of illustrator salary—with the bottom quarter earning $31,200 and the top 10 percent earning up to $122,900 per year.

Location is one detail that has a bigger impact on in-house salaries versus freelancers, who can work from anywhere, for anyone.

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The same report from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the Bridgeport–Stamford–Norwalk, Connecticut area is the highest paying location in the United States, with an average annual salary of $90,470. Los Angeles, Detroit, and San Francisco all boast average salaries above $80,000 per year, too.

Freelance illustrator pay

ZipRecruiter estimates a conservative average salary of $59,837 per year (or about $29 per hour) for freelancers. Indeed reports their estimate quite a bit higher, at an average of $45.61 per hour.

Factors like geography and education have less of an impact on freelance careers.

When it comes to freelance illustration, pay can vary substantially. Wide gaps in earnings estimates exemplify the state of the industry.

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But take a look at the spread, and you’ll see how that can vary—the top 25 percent earn nearly double the average salary of the bottom 25 percent.

That variation can make it harder to get a solid sense of what you can earn as a freelance illustrator. But it also indicates a key point: the impact of differences in skill level and experience. As a freelancer, you can always earn higher pay as you grow.

Where to find illustration work: 4 places to look online

There are a lot of places to find well-paying work as an illustrator. We’ll look at a few of them below.

In addition to the details below, it’s also super helpful to see how a real, successful illustrator finds work. Here are two design resources to help you get a sense of how finding illustration work happens in the wild:

  • From Renée, a Dutch illustrator and courtroom sketch artist
  • From Alex, a jack-of-all-trades illustrator based in the UK

1. Job websites for the in-house illustrator

Job market websites are a great way to find a ton of jobs in a variety of industries. It’s the fastest way to find a large number of job listings to choose from. You can run a quick search on any of the job market sites below, then filter by details including industry, experience level, and location. With most, you can even save your searches to get an email when new jobs get posted.

2. Freelance websites

There are tons of websites that curate freelance jobs and work these days. Here are a few websites targeted toward freelancers in general:

And here are the freelance websites built specifically for the illustrator, designer, and other creative professional:

3. Social media

There are tons of ways to find an illustration job on social media. Many platforms (like Reddit and Behance) have specific threads or pages full of people looking to hire, including subreddits like r/forhire.

Other social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn offer easy access to networking and people looking to hire an illustrator both full-time and in a freelance capacity.

4. Commissions

You don’t always have to work for companies—there are also plenty of individuals looking to commission illustrations. Here are a few places you can find those people:

How to earn more money as an illustrator

Based on the estimates we shared earlier, it's clear a career in illustration involves a lot of pay variation. On the bright side, that means your earning potential is largely within your control.

At the beginning of your career, you can develop the skills you need to work in the most profitable industries. As your career progresses, you can pick up additional skills, niche down, and build up your name in the industry so you can command higher pay.

Let’s talk about some of the ways you can earn higher pay throughout your career.

Choose a high-paying niche

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Choose an industry or niche that values your work and pays accordingly. If you remember our breakdown above, some of the highest-paying industries include:

  • Film, motion picture, and video
  • Engineering
  • Medical, scientific, and technical
  • Advertising

When you’re operating in a well-paying job market, it’s easier to earn a good living from the start—and then grow from there.

Develop additional, high-value expertise

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High-value skills and expertise help the in-house illustrator win job offers and negotiate higher pay. Those same skills can make a freelancer marketable and help you command a higher rate.

Some of the most in-demand skills include:

  • CAD illustration (using tools like Creo and Autodesk)
  • 3D drawing
  • Motion graphics and animation
  • Medical knowledge

Look for add-on compensation like royalties

If you can’t find more wiggle room in your base pay, consider looking for additional compensation elsewhere. Royalties, for example, are common in the publishing industry and allow you to earn money for every dollar of revenue your work helps to bring in.

Sell or license your illustrations

You can create an illustration once and sell or license it hundreds or even thousands of times, earning money with each sale, based on work you’ve already put in. Just be sure you own the copyright and other rights for the work you sell (in other words, don't try to license work you've done for other clients).

Work a side gig

For in-house illustrators, moonlighting is always an option to bring in more money. Launch a small side gig, take on a few freelance illustration projects, and see where it takes you. It may end up being more lucrative than you think.

Share and teach what you know

Sharing what you know about illustration can help you develop a personal brand in your niche that allows you to earn more money down the line.

Plus, by packaging what you know into an online course, a YouTube channel, an email newsletter, or any number of other educational assets, you can sell your expertise and monetize with ads.

Advocate for yourself

This is the most important tip—and it spans your entire illustration career. Advocating for yourself may look different depending where you are in your career and whether you work freelance or in-house.

But the central truth is this: if you don’t advocate for yourself, no amount of experience or industry knowledge will help you earn a higher salary.

  • For a freelancer: Raise your rates regularly and aggressively
  • For an in-house illustrator: Be proactive about asking for raises and promotions, and don’t be afraid to move on from your employer if they aren't willing or able to pay you what you’re worth.

Earn a great living as an illustrator

The results are in: careers in illustration promise the best of earning potential across the United States and the world—and in-house and freelance pros alike report fulfilling, high-earning careers.

With the information above, you have all you need to start and grow a lucrative career in illustration.