Joey Rose, mural for Habitat Horticulture, Berkeley, CA 2020. 100 x 30 feet. Photo by Abby Devine. Courtesy of the artist.

Using your degree in illustration: Professional options

If you imagine a future as an artist creating compelling book covers, vibrant murals, cool concert posters, clever cartoon characters, powerful graphic novels, elegant textiles, or fantastical virtual reality worlds, a degree in illustration will get you there. As an illustrator, the whole world is your canvas.

Joey Rose and Alexandra Underwood see the city as their canvas. Graduates of California College of the Arts (CCA) with degrees in illustration, they specialize in painting site-specific murals inspired by the local environment. If you live in the Bay Area, you might have noticed examples of their colorful work. Two 100-foot-long free-flowing murals by Rose featuring the arroyo willow tree, a species native to California, enliven the facades of Habitat Horticulture's Berkeley warehouse and fabrication center. Underwood brought to life the narrow three-story facade of ArtWorks Downtown, a nonprofit arts center in San Rafael, with bright flowers of the native flannel bush, a symbol of resilience, and carpenter bees, a tribute to essential workers. If you are lucky enough to visit Maui, you'll find a vibrant coral reef mural that they painted together to raise awareness about the pressing issue of ocean acidification. Rose and Underwood are continuing to use their art to advocate for the health of our oceans as regional co-directors of Sea Walls Emeryville, an environmentally focused mural festival that will take place in September 2022.

A mural of various sea creatures in brilliant yellows, oranges, and pinks adorning the side of a residential building

Alexandra Underwood and Joey Rose, Native Protetor, mural for Pangeaseed Foundation, Seawalls: Maui, Wailuku, HI, 2019. 40 x 25 feet. Photo by Tre Packard. Courtesy of the artists.

Designing and painting murals, either as public art or for private clients, is only one of the hundreds of possible careers in illustration, ranging from illustrating children's books to art directing video games. But Rose and Underwood's large-scale murals are in many ways representative of the field as a whole: they are examples of powerful visual storytelling and they reach a broad audience. They simultaneously delight and inform.

Artist Joey Rose sprays blue paint onto a mural.

Artist Joey Rose painting a mural for Habitat Horticulture, Berkeley, CA, 2020. 100 x 30 feet. Photo by Abby Devine. Courtesy of the artist.

As Rose told Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs after completing the Hawaii mural, "I love that murals are for the public. People from all backgrounds can walk down the street and have art in their lives. It’s an equalizer." Underwood added, "Because art is so universal, especially public art, it’s something that brings people together and springboards bigger conversations . . . You can really grab someone’s attention with a powerful image."

Illustration is visual storytelling

Many students enter art school with a love of drawing, whether their creations come to life on the page of a sketchbook or the screen of a tablet. But they are unclear how to translate their talent and imagination into a professional drawing career. If this describes you, you should consider a degree in illustration, which can channel that passion and provide you with an in-demand skill set.

You might be wondering, "What does illustration mean and how is it different from painting or drawing?" First and foremost, illustration is telling stories with images. "Illustration is visual communication with mass appeal," says Owen Smith, chair of the BFA (bachelor of fine arts) program in Illustration at CCA. "Illustrators like to think about their audiences—they are drawing or painting with them in mind—and want to reach people who might not ever enter an art gallery or museum."

"Illustrators have a versatile skill set," adds Smith. Illustrators know how to communicate effectively using multiple artistic mediums and styles. They are versed in literary devices and are able to deploy narrative, humor, symbolism, metaphor, and irony in their work. They are skilled in adjacent fields, such as drawing, painting, graphic design, product design, type design, printmaking, and animation. They can move with agility between digital and analog modes of production.

"Illustrators know how to make accessible, readable images," adds Michael Wertz, assistant chair of the illustration program at CCA. "Illustration is powerful and democratic."

Illustrators are both collaborators and independent content creators. Illustration is primarily a 2D medium, but illustrators often work closely with product designers to apply drawing and pattern to 3D forms such as packaging, dinner plates, or running shoes. At CCA, this cross-disciplinary collaboration begins when students are still in school. For instance, in a recent Surface Design class, students designed products and used advanced fabrication technology like 3D printing, laser cutting, and printed ceramics. Illustration students at CCA also learn how to collaborate with communities for public art projects, like neighborhood murals, and with corporate or nonprofit clients to articulate their brand messages in visual form.

As content creators, illustrators use the language of visual storytelling for personal expression and to respond creatively to contemporary issues, whether on paper, canvas, digital screens—or, like Rose and Underwood, on walls.

A student illustrates a red shoe from a real-life shoe at their desk.

A degree in illustration opens the doors to diverse career options.

A degree in illustration opens the door to countless career options

With the advent of digital technology, images are increasingly saturating our world. More and more we are using images, not just words, to communicate with one another. In a world where images rule—almost two billion pictures are uploaded to the internet every single day and six billion emojis ping around the globe daily—there is high demand for people who can create compelling and meaningful imagery. As trained visual communicators, illustrators are on the frontlines of this work.

"Illustration is one of the few art majors that gives you a lot of latitude; you aren't boxed into one specific career track," says Josh Smothers, a career development officer at CCA. A degree in illustration opens the door to myriad opportunities, whether you are looking for a career as an in-house artist or want to freelance from your own studio.

Illustration jobs often fall into one of four broad areas: publishing, marketing/communications, entertainment, and surface or pattern design for home goods and apparel.


"Publishing, the most traditional career path for illustrators, is still viable and vital," says Smith. Book covers that can grab a reader's attention, from a bookstore shelf or an Amazon web page, are essential for the publishing industry. Newspapers depend on editorial illustrators to visually communicate often complex reporting. Magazines, in paper or digital form, also need illustrators who not only provide compelling cover designs but also bring written stories to life through drawing.

Many illustrators trace their passion for drawing back to a beloved picture book. As a picture book illustrator, you can follow in the footsteps of Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), Beatrix Potter (The Tale of Peter Rabbit), Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), Judy Schachner (Skippyjon Jones), and Mo Willems (Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!). But you aren't limited by the kinds of books you grew up with: today's picture books embrace an exciting variety of illustration styles.

Publishers of children's books often match illustrators with authors, but some illustrators, like Sendy Santamaria, tell their own stories. A 2018 graduate of CCA's program in illustration, Santamaria is now under contract with Chronicle Books to write and illustrate a book based on her experience growing up on both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border. "Using her degree in illustration, she is increasing the representation of Mexican Americans in children's literature, diversifying the types of stories that are told," says Smith.

Graphic novels and comics are another flourishing segment of the publishing industry where you can establish a thriving career in illustration. Books like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and Hugo winner and perennial bestseller—and now HBO original series—Watchmen have broken into the mainstream. Sales of graphic novels in the U.S. are booming—more than 16 million graphic novels were sold in print in 2020, a 6% increase over the previous year. Illustrators, trained in visual storytelling and expert at pairing text and image, are uniquely suited for careers in comics and graphic novels.

Marketing and communications

The ability to communicate clearly and creatively with images is always in demand in the field of marketing and communications. Advertising agencies, corporations, and nonprofits hire illustrators to create engaging and innovative promotional campaigns and informational materials. As an illustrator in this space, you might find yourself responsible for billboards, posters, online and magazine ads, brochures, and packaging. Government agencies look to illustrators for subway posters reminding riders to wear masks or diagrams showing voters how to return their ballots. Illustrators in marketing and communications also create visual brand identities and lead teams as creative directors.


Do you have amazing ideas for the visual world of an online game or the characters in an animated movie? "Entertainment is now a huge field for illustration," says Wertz. "We have CCA alumni who are doing storyboards for animation studios and character design for video games." "And storyboarding is not just for animated films," adds Smothers. "Storyboard artists are essential in the production of all kinds of movies, as well as TV shows and games—they are even employed by companies who want to visually understand user experiences and other aspects of their business."

Vincent Perea, who graduated with a degree in illustration from CCA, is now a concept artist, art director, and game developer in L.A. He co-created the hit mobile game Where's My Water?, was art director for the BAFTA-nominated game Neo Cab, and currently leads the art department for Jam City's Burbank Studio, where he provides visual direction for mobile games.

"The Bay Area is a hotbed for animation and independent gaming studios, who are always looking to hire illustrators," says Smothers. A quick search yields numerous jobs for character artists at digital game design companies like Pocket Gems, Telltale/LCG Entertainment, Ripple Effects Studios, and Paradox Tectonic Studio, as well as at Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. The analog game industry also employs illustration artists to invent fantastical worlds for games like Magic: The Gathering, Everdell, and Dungeons and Dragons.

Surface Design

Many illustrators find their calling as surface or pattern designers for apparel and home goods, either for retail brands or as founders of their own product lines. The surface of any manufactured product can be the canvas for an illustrator. As sneakerheads know, shoes have become a major site of inventive illustration. Illustrators also create textile patterns, often in collaboration with clothing designers or furniture companies. CCA illustration alumni can be found at Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Levi Strauss, and other industry giants, where they create surface designs for tableware, bed linens, women's wear, and more.

This is just a sample of the possible careers in illustration. You'll also find illustrators as tattoo artists, fashion designers, courtroom sketch artists, concept artists, art teachers, medical illustrators, environmental artists, animation directors, production artists, and textbook illustrators.

Hybrid practices: Contemporary illustration is not compartmentalized

While some illustrators flourish as in-house artists, many opt to work as freelancers who move among clients and projects. "Illustration is not compartmentalized," says Wertz. "Not at CCA and not in the real world. We encourage our students to create their own definitions of illustration."

"Many of our alumni have hybrid practices," says Smith. "They are creating their own careers in their own image."

Colorful graphic elements overlay an illustration of a woman wearing glasses and a beret with a tiger insignia on the front.

Sam Rodriguez, NIkNax. Courtesy of the artist.

Sam Rodriguez is an example of an illustrator who has established a thriving hybrid practice. He came up as a graffiti artist in San Jose before earning his degree in illustration from CCA. Now Rodriguez has a career that combines collaborations and commissions with independent art-making. His editorial illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, Wired Magazine, and Undo Magazine. He has painted murals for Kaiser Permanente, Samsung, and LinkedIn; illustrated album covers and beverage cans; and developed custom illustrations for a classic Puma shoe and a limited-edition Steph Curry T-shirt for Under Armour. In his independent career, he creates portraits that blend visual identifiers, such as facial features, typography, and abstract shapes, and represent the ethnic diversity of his hometown. In addition to exhibiting these works in galleries and museums, he sells the portraits as prints, stickers, and T-shirts through his retail site.

Various smiling characters comprising rabbits, jellyfish, and anthropomorphic hamburgers and dumplings crowd on top of each other.

Jasper Wong, Rise and Shine, 2018. Mural at Bloomingdale’s. Courtesy of the artist.

Another alum of CCA's illustration program who has forged a successful, multipronged career path is Jasper Wong, a Honolulu-based illustrator, curator, and art director. His unique illustration style, inspired by Asian pop culture, can be found on products and campaigns for Hulu, Disney, Microsoft, Versace, Uniqlo, and more. He has painted commissioned murals around the world, from Sardinia to Seoul. Wong's illustrations have appeared in Vice Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Fast Company and he created posters for a city-wide ad campaign for San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. He is the founder of a Hong Kong gallery and a community art center in Hawaii and his nonprofit organization, POW! WOW!, engages people around the globe in art through educational outreach programs.

Is a career in illustration right for you?

"We love keeping in touch with the graduates of CCA's illustration program and hearing about all of the amazing things they are doing out in the world," says Smith. "They have established a range of contemporary illustration practices, finding careers in established fields and brand-new areas."

A degree in illustration prepares you not only for today's illustration jobs, but for careers in illustration that don't even exist yet. As commercial artists with deep skill sets, illustrators are well-positioned to adapt to changing technologies and innovate novel career paths.

What advice do muralists Rose and Underwood have for young people who are considering a career in illustration? "Just do it! As long as you are willing to put in the work, be responsible in your business practices, and be authentic in your work, the arts are totally a viable career."