How to Work With An Illustrator: A First-Time Guide

Working with an illustrator can feel daunting for those who have never done it and feel that they aren’t creative/artistic themselves- it’s so unfamiliar! Not to worry- it’s similar to hiring other people, and like every vendor/contractor, they come with their industry standards and best practices. Here’s a few concepts you’ll want to understand:

1. Style, then Artist.

One of the biggest mistakes we see commissioners make is that they go after an artist they know or like, then demand a certain style/aesthetic for their project. This is backwards. It’s like asking a Tour De France cyclist to compete in a downhill mountain bike race. It’s not that they can’t do it… it’s that it will take them longer, they’ll have to learn some new things and put in extra practice, and it won’t be as fun for them as the type of cycling they’re already an expert in. If you have a style or aesthetic you want your illustrations to look like, go find an artist already working in that style. An easy way to do that is Instagram. Look at an artist you like, then see who they follow, or reach out to them and ask who their inspiration is, or other artists similar to them. Look at the hashtags they use. See what communities they’re a part of. If you found an artist that is “close enough” to your desired aesthetic, ask if they can adapt. A skilled artist can work in styles outside of their own, and adapt their work to what you need.

2. It’s okay to do sample projects!

You don’t have to commit to an artist all at once! It would be a pretty big leap of faith to hire an artist you don’t know to do 50 book illustrations… so don’t! We have many clients who commission us for 1-3 illustrations to see how we work together and if we can achieve the aesthetic they want. If the sample project goes well, we continue the project. If we don’t jive, they take what they learned or figure out what they want and find someone else. This goes both ways, too! We’ve “fired” or not continued to work with clients for “not knowing what they want until they see it” or for not being good communicators.

3. Book Illustrations Timing

When to hire an illustrator is a big question. Variables are:
  • your manuscript and its status
  • your budget
  • your publishing method
  • your book design team
  • your publishing deadline
  • artist availability

Generally, we ask that your manuscript be fully edited, but your book design process hasn’t yet begun. Bringing us in at this stage means we won’t have to make any changes to the illustration because your text is fully edited and won’t change. If you have a book designer, your designer won’t have to re-do the whole layout to incorporate late-addition illustrations.

If you want illustrations, tell your publisher immediately. They might have specific rules about who you hire or onboarding them as a vendor, or bringing your own illustrator for the project can be part of your contract.

You also need to give the artist plenty of time/head’s up. We don’t know about other artists, but we’re consistently booked out 1-2 months in advance. We often can’t take on a short-notice project like “My book deadline is next week can you make 25 illustrations by Friday?” because you didn’t plan ahead, and you’d make us work overtime/rush, and you likely didn’t budget for that!

Turnaround: This depends on the artist, project scope, and their current workload. Most of our projects have a 2-4 week turnaround. Your timely response and communication matters!

4. Costs

You can find an illustrator for $5 on Fivrr, and you can find a well-known illustrator for thousands. It’s all about what you want and your budget. There are industry standards, but not everyone follows them. We base our pricing on this book and also by asking industry peers. We also adjust every year for inflation and gained experience/expertise. We’ve done $300 book illustration projects and $10,000+ book illustration projects. It all depends on scope and licensing! Contact us for a ballpark quote if you’re interested.

5. Licensing rights vs. ownership rights.


Licensing illustrations means you’re paying for the creation and/or use of the artwork. You won’t own it, but you get to use it.

Licensing is a spectrum of usage from partial rights to exclusive rights:


  • On the far left extreme, an example would be an icon for sale on a site like Anyone can buy a license to use the icon and use it wherever they want on their website.
  • An example in the middle of the spectrum would be a cartoon strip. Any newspaper or online publication can license it, but the artist might have to approve it.
  • An example on the far right of the spectrum would be like a commissioned portrait of a person for an article in a magazine. Only that magazine gets to use that portrait, ever.
Licensing is also a spectrum of time, from limited to perpetuity:


  • An example on the far left would be using an illustration in a single article in a magazine issue, and that’s it.
  • An example in the middle of the spectrum would be an infographic made for a business, and they’d be able to use it for 5 years. After that, they could a) stop using the infographic, b) purchase additional time rights if they wanted to keep using it, or c) commission changes and a new contract would be established with new time restrictions.
When it comes to licensing, you need to understand what you want to do with the image (where you want to use it) and also for how long before you approach the artist. To give you an idea, here are the most common licensing agreements we use with clients:
  • Book illustrations: exclusive rights, use in the first printing/edition and any first editions in other translations. Sometimes I’ll add on rights for marketing materials/websites/presentations for people who do speaking/teaching and want to also use the book illustrations in talks or workshops. Most books don’t sell well and are only made in one edition/translation. If their book DOES do well, they can license the illustrations again for those new editions.
  • Articles: For some clients, I’ve developed a unique style or character for their brand. These are exclusive illustrations- no one else gets to use the illustrations but them. The usage rights are only for their blog/articles, social media, and presentations. For other clients who just need a generic illustration, that might be a non-exclusive license if they don’t care if the illustration is used again by someone else at a later time.
  • Infographics: These are usually exclusive because it’s made for a corporation with their data, and it’s usually a 1-5 year time limit. Most data gets outdated pretty quickly, and the need for a longer license is often unnecessary.


This is when you need to own the copyright to the illustration commissioned. This is called a full rights buyout, full rights, or ownership. Whoever creates the work automatically owns it. When you own the work, you have the right to:
  • Alter or change it
  • Create derivative works (versions)
  • Re-create/re-print it
  • Sell it (i.e. put it in merch, or sell the copyright)
  • and basically whatever you want to do since it’s yours.

If you as a commissioner need to own the artwork,what happens is the copyright is transferred to you upon full payment and artwork completion. This is often called a full-rights buyout. You are buying the ownership rights of the artwork from the artist for yourself. This is also called work-for-hire or works-made-for-hire. This is the arrangement all full-time employees have with their employers- if an employee invents something on the clock at work, the business owns it, not them.

Not all artists will work on a full-rights-buyout basis. The ownership of a creative asset is valuable, and not all artists want to part with their artwork. It can be risky to sell your rights.

Full rights are valuable, and therefore costly. You should expect to pay a few for the creation of the artwork, plus 100% to 300% of the invoice price for those full rights. There is no one formula, it’s kind of up to the artist and the circumstances to determine the value.

When we do full-rights buyouts,we often charge an artwork fee + 100-200% of the invoice. So if the artwork fee was $500, and you wanted full rights, and we thought it was valuable, we might charge you $1500 total. Sometimes there may be bulk discounts. Our bulk discount policy is for 50+ works commissioned at once, and the discount depends on the project and scope.

The reasons for needing ownership vary. Some businesses’ lawyers demand it. Others want the flexibility to use the artwork whenever and however they wish because they aren’t sure of their needs.

90-95% of our clients do not need ownership, nor do they want it. It is a very small percentage. Ownership is costly and most people do not factor it in when budgeting.

When you’re equipped with the knowledge of these 5 areas, working with an illustrator should be a much smoother process!

Our latest book illustration projects: