How I got started as an illustrator


How I got started as an illustrator

My name is Stella Isaac and I am an illustrator working from my home studio in South Devon, UK. I often get asked about how I got started as an illustrator and how I get commissions with brands. This is my journey of becoming an illustrator, although everyone's will be different, this is a little bit about my experiences. I am still in the early stages of building my career but here's what I've learnt so far. 

My love of art and design has always been at the forefront of everything from a young age, it sounds very cliche but art was always my main focus throughout school. I first discovered illustration after a discussion with my Fine Art Tutor whilst undertaking my A-levels. He informed me of the art foundation course, explaining that this would open up doors for me to pursue my passion as a career, something that I had not considered as an option before. 

I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Totnes Art and Design Foundation Course. This is really where I started to explore what my next step was. I would highly recommend doing one if you have any interest in art when you leave school. That year changed everything for me, we studied architectural drawing, life drawing, sculpture, textiles, painting, and basically any form of design that you can think of. When it came to the end of my course and, after exploring all of the options, I knew that illustration was the path for me. All credit must go to the amazing tutors; their gentle encouragement and guidance led to my leaving with a huge selection of sketchbooks filled with ideas and a place on the prestigious illustration course at Falmouth University, where many illustrators that I idolise gained their degrees. 

After three years of hard work, I gained a first-class degree in illustration. The whole experience was invaluable and highly recommended. The tutors encourage you to treat the studio as a second home, where they work with you to make your projects the best they can be and to push your ideas and visual identity. 

Particular efforts were made to go beyond the visual side. The tutors taught us every facet of the professional day to day life of an illustrator, from developing your style to creating your portfolio, to how to critique your own work and how to book appointments/approach art directors. A memorable (and particularly thrilling) experience was our trip to New York. We were given the task of setting up meetings with various companies and art directors to show them our work on a commercial basis for portfolio reviews. The aim was to gain experience in presenting and speaking about our work with the best in the business. This was an indispensable experience and something that has helped to set me up for the rest of my career. 

Much like many budding illustrators my first steps down this career path weren't entirely clear. The world of illustration is a large one with so many different avenues to explore. I just knew I was so excited by the idea of becoming an illustrator, and as a bonus, to be able to one day make a living doing what I love! 

After trying many projects, experimenting with materials, and exploring different genres within illustration I finally began to find where I felt comfortable and proud of my work. This consisted of maps/travel, non-fiction design for a young and adult audience, typography, and decorative/colourful illustration.

     Illustrated Map of LA for Grow by Facebook 2019 

Although I use different materials from time to time I find I am drawn to gouache painting, pencil drawing, and ink - where I use photoshop to layer my final images. 

I would describe my work as playful, cheery, and colourful. I'm very inspired by travel, interiors, interesting objects, and anything retro or kitsch, as well as Pop art, Matisse and Sasek. 

Travel stamps illustration from Wunderkammer - Falmouth University's illustrative magazine 2017

After leaving Falmouth I was unsure of what to do next. Move to a city? Move home? Get a full time job that I wouldn't enjoy in a panic? It all goes through your mind when you are dropped back at home after being away for three years in a University bubble. 

I chose to live at home with my ever-supportive mum and work part-time in a pub, where I made lots of friends, grew my confidence with talking to people, and met lots of cool dogs (and people). I also approached the beloved tutors from my foundation course and applied to be their artist in residence. This was a great year, to be in a studio environment with lovely students and back with the tutors where I felt comfortable was just what I needed after returning home to a non-artistic environment. It was not all roses, however, self doubt and confusion about my next steps were never far away. 

Thankfully a phone call came that gave me my first paid commission from a big brand. It was Moonpig. They had come to the New Designers exhibition in London that I was a part of at the end of my degree. This led to them inviting me to come for a placement for a week with the company in their London office. They were all so kind and supportive and I can't believe how lucky I was to get that opportunity. I have worked with them as a freelancer ever since.

   Birthday card illustration from 2020 available on  

The key to getting work after this for me was to email, email, email! Make sure your portfolio shows a range of work in your style, and that every page that they turn/scroll through shows something different in composition so it isn't too repetitive. You will make mistakes, you will charge too little, and you will be a little bit scared of contracts, but this is all something you can learn. Join the AOI (Association of illustrators) when you are ready and need advice on contracts and pricing, they are such a good source for the professional side, which a lot of us creatives struggle with. There are also books you can find on their online shop which can act as a bit of a bible for any questions you have. 

After emailing my portfolio to my dream client, Lonely Planet, I finally got an email back, asking me to create a map for them for their magazine. Five more maps followed monthly from there. After building a rapport with the art directors I also began creating monthly spot illustrations for them, which went on for 2 years before they sadly had to close due to coronavirus. The key is to meet your deadlines every time and to finish your work to a high standard, this will make you easy to work with, and they know they can count on you to meet their own deadlines too. 

 Croatia map illustration for Lonely Planet Magazine 2019

Since then I have worked with clients such as London Evening Standard, Facebook, Cawston Press, and Discover Britain, among others. I am most definitely still learning every day and am so thankful that I get to call this my job. 

I hope this helps to understand a bit about the process of becoming an illustrator. I am very much at the start of my career but these are the first steps I've taken! Everybody's journey will be different but this is a little bit of inside info that might help/inspire you to keep going. Please get in touch if you feel this has helped you at all or if you have any questions, I'd love to hear a bit about your journey!