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Storytelling tips and best practices

How to hire an editorial illustrator

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Illustration by NPR’s LA Johnson

An example of editorial illustration by NPR’s LA Johnson. Originally published with this story


Chris Kindred interned with the NPR Training Team and is an illustrator for hire.

The internet is a very visual place. It goes without saying that if you want your story to stand out, it needs a strong photo or illustration of some kind. But commissioning an illustrator can be confusing if you haven’t done it before. This guide will walk you through the entire process, from finding an artist to sending the final payment.

When should you choose illustration?

Illustration works best for content that is more subjective and takes a stance, features a certain mood, presents an opinion or offers a comparison/contrast between separate ideas. Illustration can also be a cost-effective alternative to photography, which may require more resources and time.

Know what you want — and what you can spend — ahead of time

Before you start searching for an artist, you need to have a handle on your story. What is it about? Who are the characters? What’s the tone? What’s your deadline? These details will help your illustrator as they start to compose images.

Finding the right illustrator can be the hardest part if you’re not already tapped into their online communities. These sites will help you find artists with various styles to fit any project:

When thinking of your concept and choosing your artist, remember that illustrators will adjust the scope of the final image relative to the rate paid. Meaning, an image with a budget of $300 will probably not be as grand or complex as a $4,000 image. The same concept goes for time. An illustrator will give you their best work relative to the time given to complete the work, so keep that in mind.

In your opening email, lead with the specifics

  • Story details
  • Budget
  • Deadline
  • Proportions (specify if you need different sizes for social media)

To have the most productive and efficient conversation with an illustrator, the opening email should have everything they need to get started immediately, without asking for more basic details. When everything is clear up front, the illustrator is free to decide for themselves how they can fit your commission into their busy work schedule.

Let the illustrator know what made you choose them

This is optional, but it helps to let an artist know what about their work made them a good fit. Link to a previous image they’ve done or mention a certain quality of their work. A small remark like that can give the illustrator a better idea of how to steer their process closer to an outstanding image.

Have your paperwork in order

If there’s a contract, NDA or any relevant paperwork (like a W-9) that needs to be signed, be sure to include that in your follow-up reply after the artist accepts the commission.

Evaluate sketches and the final product

A few days after the commission the artist will send sketches — usually 3-5 images of varying ideas and approaches, following the given proportions. You should make your decision based on what is best for the content and what the illustrator seems to enjoy the most. Most of the time, the two will be in agreement.

Take a moment now to clarify your direction before the illustrator proceeds any further. If there are any elements of the image that need to be exact (e.g. “there needs to be a boy wearing a red hat”), be sure to mention those now.

The final image(s) should track fairly closely to the sketch you chose. You can expect to receive the final product within a few days, depending on the size of the project.

Send payment

Most organized illustrators will send you an invoice with the final image — or at least within 30 days. Please be courteous and remember that most illustrators are freelancers and in most cases depend on payment from your project to live. The illustrator should not be the one to follow up after an invoice has been submitted.