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What Is Editorial Illustration? (& How to Get Into It)

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What You'll Be Creating

There are many types of illustrative jobs, so let's dive into the topic of editorial illustration. At the end of this article, you will find a special part: pro tips from top professional illustrators! We've added some real editorial illustration examples to this tutorial so you can see how different the image styles are. 

Editorial illustration by Sua Balac
Editorial illustration by Sua Balac

1. What Is Editorial Illustration?

Editorial illustration is an illustration created to better express an idea from the text, usually used in a book, magazine, newspaper, or web resources.

There are many types of illustrations, and editorial is just one of them. Although all illustrations are made to describe a particular idea, editorial illustrations always accompany the text. The main aim of this type of illustration is not just to sell something and draw attention (like packaging or advertising illustrations) but to add imagery to the text and better express the idea and overall mood.

"The best aspect is for sure the opportunity to educate myself. It is my job to read articles related to many different issues - thanks to that I gain a bit of knowledge on new fields every time I have a job to illustrate a text. And of course seeing my illustration printed in a magazine is awesome as well!" 
Kacper Swat, professional editorial illustrator

Types of Editorial Illustrations

The types of editorial illustrations depend on the text they are drawn for. You can use absolutely any style and material. It is important to pick something suitable for the audience and the meaning of the story you are drawing for.

There are many variants:

  • Web resources (like blogs, web magazines, or news portals). Illustrations for Instagram posts would also be editorial
  • Adult books: fiction and non-fiction books
  • Children's books: encyclopedias, atlases, Wimmelbuch (book with many detailed illustrations that's used as a children's game), interactive books for tablets
  • Printed newspapers and magazines

As you can see, editorial illustration can be used wherever text is important as its essential companion.

Editorial illustration by Denis Zilber
Editorial illustration by Denis Zilber

About Book Illustration

The important thing to know about book illustration is that usually, when you are illustrating a book, the work involves illustrations not only for the main text but also for a lot of other parts. Here are some of the different book parts which could be illustrated (there may be others, but these are the most important):

  • Front cover
  • Back cover
  • Spine
  • Endpaper
Book parts which could be illustrated

It's a good idea to talk with your editor/publisher before you start working, and get a list of parts that need illustrations, other than the text illustrations themselves. Always think of your projects as a whole, where every detail corresponds to a common concept.

"We love to work editorial projects because we can mix the conceptualization, the art, and sometimes the typography that we love too. It's different to work for an article of a magazine or newspaper where we should put special attention on the conceptualization or work for a cover book, where you can play with the different part of the book, front cover, spine, and back cover, besides to work with the typography on titles and of the different texts."
Illustration Studio Estudio Santa Rita
Editorial illustration by Kacper Swat
Editorial illustration by Kacper Swat

How to Define Your Reader

It's essential to think about your audience and select the appropriate style and image. Using a drawing of a smoking naked woman in dark noir colors is not a very good idea for a children's book.

"I think it is amazing that editorial illustrations can tell a complex story and give specific impressions on different topics just with one image, while at the same time be visually pleasing."
Professional illustrator Sua Balac

As a first step, ask your client about the reader—for whom they are writing? Look at other articles/books by this publisher, and look at other magazines that write on these topics—who reads them? Look at other editorial illustration examples on these themes. Analysis of the market and target audience is an important stage not only in design but also in illustration.

Your task is not to create a unique work of art (OK, not only this!), but first of all to help the reader better understand the idea of the text and create an environment and mood.

Editorial illustration by Estudio Santa Rita
Editorial illustration by Estudio Santa Rita

2. Editorial Illustration Tutorial

Step 1. Define What to Illustrate

We've talked with our client, understood our target audience, and found out about our reader. What's next? Of course, read the text you are going to illustrate! 

This is the most important part. Read the text, find the keywords, and highlight the main ideas. The editorial illustrator's job is to create an engaging image that both supports and explains the accompanying text.

Sometimes, it's a good idea to think about the main text keywords as something abstract and combine different themes in one picture. Write down the keywords, search online to learn more about the theme, and use different creative techniques. Changing the approach always helps in coming up with ideas.

"Editorial illustration often times requires very unique solutions to highly complex abstract ideas and texts aimed for adult audiences. It can be a sort of brainteaser for an illustrator, a tricky case to crack. Intellectually it’s a very challenging field."
Professional illustrator Denis Zilber

Step 2. Understand the Structure

When working on multi-page publications, it is a good practice to think about the overall structure at the very beginning, by drawing a storyboard.

A storyboard is a plan with page outlines to understand the sequence of drawings. It is important when working with books or articles on several pages, and it helps to achieve the integrity and unity of the narrative. This is a kind of roadmap, which can save you a lot of time in the future.

Book storyboard example

Step 3. Prepare Your Sketches

After understanding the key idea and the structure of your text, it's time for sketches! Your sketches should not be perfect pictures—their purpose is to show the client the direction of your thoughts.

Always show sketches to your client to save time. It will be unpleasant if you draw everything beautifully, but it doesn't suit the client because you simply did not understand the main idea of the text.

Before submitting the sketch to the client, take your time and review your work. Sometimes you could find even better ideas or silly mistakes at this stage. The primary goal is to create an image that is both visually and conceptually strong.

Editorial illustration by Sua Balac
Editorial illustration by Sua Balac

Step 4. Draw the Final Illustration

The most pleasant part is working on the image itself. Use the appropriate style to enhance the impression of combining images with text.

3. How to Get Into Editorial Illustration

Step 1. How to Prepare an Illustrator's Portfolio

The best way to learn editorial illustration is to work on a real project with a real client. But how can you find your first editorial illustrator job? 

To start, be sure to prepare a portfolio (10–15 high-quality works in your style). If you don't have real client work, you can use a trick: take a few articles you like and illustrate them yourself. 

"When I decided I want to illustrate magazines/ articles I gave myself some time to create an editorial portfolio (which contained 10 illustrations for fake articles - it is still on my Behance). Then I simply started sending emails to many magazines and art directors and after a couple months of waiting I received my first job as an illustrator. The job was to create a single, small illustration but I remember I was stressed as hell :) "
Kacper Swat, professional editorial illustrator

Use web resources with an online portfolio and prepare a simple PDF file with your work. Don't get carried away with the design—let your work speak for itself. Unnecessary design elements in the portfolio will only distract attention. Check the size of your file; it should not be too large. Use the features of the programs to reduce it.

Editorial illustration by Denis Zilber
Editorial illustration by Denis Zilber

Step 2. Web Resources With an Online Portfolio

To increase your impact, use several different channels to present your work: social networks, professional websites, and blogs.

The best social network for an editorial illustrator (which you can use as your portfolio) is, of course, Instagram. This app was created to share the visual, which means it fits perfectly. Be sure to use hashtags and post regularly to attract as many viewers as possible.

I also highly recommend using Behance. This website is a big community of professional designers with worldwide visitors. Many art directors admit that they start their day by viewing the best works on this site. This is a good portal for presenting your work and finding new professional connections.

Another one is Dribbble. Despite the fact that access to this resource is only by invitation (it is relatively easy to get), there are a lot of designers, illustrators, and art directors. The community is very lively and constantly updated.

Editorial illustration by Kacper Swat
Editorial illustration by Kacper Swat

Also use your own website with a unique domain name to present yourself as a professional.

And don't forget about Facebook and LinkedIn. These resources are very popular among art directors looking for new illustrators. Fill out your profile and participate in professional discussions. It's a good idea to follow the art directors and publishers you want to work with. Even if they don't accept your application, you will be aware of their way of thinking and requirements.

Step 3. How to Find Your First Client

There are different ways to find your first client and editorial illustration jobs: send your portfolio to illustration agencies, publishing houses, or simply write to people directly. As a first step, it's a good idea to make a mailing list and contact your real friends who could help. Word of mouth can sometimes bear good fruit.

"My first client was a small Moscow-based magazine, they somehow found me online. My first job was an article about weird types of sports. I drew one-page illustration, they paid me $50."
Professional illustrator Denis Zilber

There are some differences between working with a publishing house (magazine/website etc.) directly and working through an illustration agency. With an illustration agency, you could work with different clients in different themes, but working with a publishing house directly means working in the same style with the same team of editors and art director.

"For my fortune, it is/was common in my university to work with real clients, although I studied communication design I always tried to incorporate illustrations in my projects."
Professional illustrator Sua Balac

Prepare an email list to whom you will send your email with your portfolio. Always use your correspondent's name and personalize your message. Nobody likes impersonal mass emails. Be polite and friendly. Finding your first job is not a quick process, but effort and perseverance will definitely lead you to success.

Editorial illustration by Estudio Santa Rita
Editorial illustration by Estudio Santa Rita

Another way to find a client is to attend specialized events and communicate personally with representatives of publishers and magazines. It is a good practice to have a printed version of your portfolio with you so that you can quickly present yourself. Don't forget about business cards with your name, phone number, email address, and a link to your portfolio.

"One of the first client, or the most important project that we were able to do, was the French Film Festival of Malaga. They wanted to change the festival image and they gave us a chance to create a world through illustration."
Illustration Studio Estudio Santa Rita

4. A Little More About Editorial Illustration

Now you know a little more about the features of editorial illustration, how to find your first client, how to create an illustrator's portfolio, and how to become an editorial illustrator. In this editorial illustration tutorial, we talked about all these topics and found out what an editorial illustration is and how to get into editorial illustration.

We asked successful editorial illustrators for advice for beginners, and this is what they told us:

"Create, learn, take visual references from those artists that inspire you. Feel free to create - but never copy - and always follow your own instinct."
Illustration Studio Estudio Santa Rita
Editorial illustration by Sua Balac
Editorial illustration by Sua Balac
"This should not be an empty phrase, but it is important to like what you do, to be able to stick with it for a longer time, until it makes an impact."
Professional illustrator Sua Balac
"While working on your illustration, don’t stick with your very first idea. It’s usually the most banal and obvious one. Put it aside, think harder, come up with few more and then get back to the first one if it still seems good to you."
Professional illustrator Denis Zilber
"I will pass the advice I kept in mind when I was creating my first portfolio - Create work that suits your taste and gives you fun - do not put artworks in your portfolio only because it might give you an opportunity to work on projects that you are not passionate about. If you create stuff with passion and joy it will benefit your artworks for sure." 
Kacper Swat, professional editorial illustrator

Conclusion

Editorial illustration differs from other types of illustration. It requires greater involvement in the text, constant work with art directors and clients directly, and strict adherence to deadlines. 

This type of illustration can open up new themes and ideas for you because you never know what text you will find next. This is an inspiring profession, through which you can learn a lot of new things from different fields. Editorial illustration jobs may differ greatly from one another, but professionalism and quality are required everywhere.

Many thanks to the illustrators who took time from their busy schedules to answer my questions and share their working lives with us. You can check out more from each of them at the links below:

Want to learn more about illustration and graphic design? Check out our other tutorials and articles! I'm absolutely sure that you will find the perfect tutorial for improving your skills.



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