3 Secrets to Transitioning into Professional Illustration

I’ve shared numerous “trade secrets” with fellow artists. I thank Joe Duncan, phenomenal illustrator and printmaker, for asking this question:


Now’s the part where I ask you for something. I’ve always looked to you as a mentor, and your advice has never steered me in anything, but the right direction. Our past conversations have always challenged and rewarded me on a professional level and personally as a growing artist. I was hoping pick your brain about making the transition into more full-time freelancing career. I would like to chat about the things I should be thinking of and taking into consideration, as well as checkpoints, I should be looking for to guide my decision to make this planned transition meaningful and effective.


#1.  Understand your value before becoming a freelancer.

Remove freelance artist from your vocabulary! Professional Illustrators, Graphic Designers, even Sandwich-makers have added value. Clients respect the word “pro” far more than the word “free.” Professionals in any career require a basic income to exist: bread, water, cell phone, etc. Some professionals desire a more comfortable existence: reliable car, home, etc., while others choose a lifestyle: brand names, travel, etc. No matter your professional classification, define the value of your time with a desired monetary outcome.

#2.  Develop multiple income streams.

Yes, don’t quit the day job yet. For aspiring illustrators, the day job and illustration contracts are multiple income streams. If balancing these two isn’t possible, a full-time illustration career may not be for you.

Transitioning from Art Director, a 40-60 hour week at base salary, to “freelance” illustrator was double the work. Believe me, I was that guy. Now as a professional illustrator, most people assume I have one job—not true. I’m an illustrator, author, publisher, graphic designer, and public speaker. My annual income fluctuates between several income streams.

For my transition roadmap, I concentrated my time in one area of illustration—picture books. My reason was, do something fun that you’ll enjoy after working all day. I committed to watercoloring one page a day for two hours. This commitment allowed me to illustrate a picture book every 30 days, if I wanted. Below is how I mapped out the income for the transition.

First Year:
4 illustration contracts:  120 days to earn $24,000–$30,000
Day Job:  355 days to earn $45,000 salary
Vacation:  10 days to earn $0

Estimated Annual Income:  $69,000–$75,000 for 355, 8-hour work days, which included 120, 2-hour nights.

Second Year:
4 illustration contracts:  120 days to earn $24,000–$30,000
Day Job:  355 days to earn $45,000 salary
Public Speaking:  5 days to earn $2,500
Royalties:  1500-5000 books sold in 365 days to earn $1,500–$5,000 in royalties. (Royalty based on 10% of a $10 Net Sale or $1.00 per book sold.)
Vacation:  5 days to earn $0

Estimated Income:  $73,000–$87,500 for 355, 8-hour work days, which included 120, 2-hour nights. Plus, 5 days vacation were allocated to public speaking.

By the end of the second year, the day job salary of $45,000 (355, 8 hour work days) was matched with my Professional Illustrator income of $30,500–$40,000 (120, 2-hour nights and 5, 6-hour days speaking). Note: My Professional Illustrator’s income was created through multiple income streams: contracts, royalties, and speaking.

Full-time Professional:
5 illustration contracts:  150 days to earn $30,000–$40,000
Public Speaking:  45-60 days to earn $22,500–$30,000
Royalties:  4500–9000 books sold within 365 days to earn $4,500–$9,000 in royalties. (Royalty based on 10% of a $10 Net Sale or $1.00 per book sold.)
Vacation:  155 days while earning royalties from past contracts

Estimated Income:  $57,000–$79,000 (for 210 days of work). Note: This income was pretax, and based on my timely completion of projects, hence professional.

#3.  Don’t quit the day job until asked or all debt has been paid in full.

Two incomes are better than one—ask my wife. With the additional income from illustrating, pay off or down debt while saving six months salary. After quitting the day job, deadlines become less demanding and laziness takes over. Minimal debt and a financial buffer are necessities during any transition. Marriage wasn’t a reliable financial buffer—ask my divorced friends.

Once the transition was complete, I had 155 vacation days! I dedicated 100 days to new projects that generated income or enhanced my professional skills. This left me with 55 vacation days, enough to make previous co-workers and family envious.

I attribute my decade of success to understanding the value of my time, maintaining multiple income streams, and working through my potential laziness. The above formula remains my roadmap for transition and maintaining a professional illustration career.


Are Editors an Illustrator’s Friend?

Professional editors are much like professional illustrators. Each wants a book to reflect his/her personal style and attention to detail. Working as a team from start to finish, creates a cohesive project. Illustrators must acknowledge editors input as the reader’s perspective.
A professional editor has his/her own pricing structure and should commit from first edit to press proofing. Editors assist with: page count, layout recommendations, proofing, and of course text edits. Professional editing services are well worth the investment!
As an illustrator, demand the final edit before beginning illustrations. Have authors write a brief description of how they envision each page. Illustrators write a description of how you envision each page. From these written ideas a storyboard is created through words, rather than hours of drawing time. Thus minimizing sketch time and optimizing illustration time.
One of my favorite professional editors to date is Jennifer Thomas, Beyond Words Editing. We have worked on numerous award-winning books together. Other professional editors I’ve worked with are: Beth Mansbridge, Candace M. Ruffin—The Writing Cane, Jill Ronsley—Sun Edit Write, and more.

How to Build an Author Platform in Schools

The short answer:  One event at a time! Establishing yourself as a speaker doesn’t happen through self proclamation. Here are three general rules I followed entering the children’s book market.

Be informative, entertaining, and professional.

These qualities set speakers apart from wannabes and mundane know-it-alls.

  • Informative enough that attendees leave empowered hearing your message.
  • Entertaining in a way that attendees share their experience others.
  • And professional in the execution of a quality message.

Speak with audiences.

Speak “with” audiences and you’ll communicate “with” everyone. Speaking “at” or “to” audiences creates a disconnect. Having connections leads to referrals and repeat attendance. Audiences who enjoyed your presentations bring new friends each time they hear you speak.

Connect with other professional speakers. 

Attend others events to watch the speaker and audience interactions. Take notes. How do they connect? Can their technique be applied to your public speaking? Most speakers are great mentors. Especially, when the mentee pays attention, asks valid questions, and applies techniques.

Reading Resources:

Schools a Niche Market for Authors by Jane R. Wood.

Mark Wayne Adams, Author & Illustrator of King for a Day, the Story of Stories

Must Have Illustrator Handbook

The Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines is for any professional or aspiring artist. Illustration is a broad term covering line art to oil paintings. I’ve used this book for over eight years as a business resource. Pricing projects and creating contracts has been profitable using industry standards found within the handbook. 

Every graphic artist is unique. No two illustration projects are the same. Use the Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines to set pricing guidelines for your business. Authors, Art Directors, and Publishers can use this book to budget projects.

Mark Wayne Adams, Professional Illustrator of King for a Day, the Story of Stories

Southern Kentucky Book Fest: Kristie Lowry

I love attending book festivals. Readers, authors, travel, and most importantly hosts make an event! Southern Kentucky Book Fest (SoKY) is an invitational event hosting authors from New York Times best-sellers to local indies. The review process is selective, which makes this a professional event for anyone who attends. SoKY Book Fest is a favorite for this reason and one more.

The hosts determine the success of an event, and Kristie Lowry is one of my favorite hosts. I’ve come to know her very well through repeat participation at SoKY Book Fest. Underneath her pleasant smile and soft giggle, she is no average woman. When you realize the demands we authors place upon her, you quickly see her super power.

Since our first meeting I’ve been honored to know her. When she sent me this recommendation, I was speechless. Not only is Kristie a wonderful representative of Western Kentucky University and the SoKY Book Fest, but also a cherished friend. Thank you Kristie. Your kind words, patience, and professionalism don’t go unrecognized.


“Mark Wayne Adams is an amazing illustrator, speaker, teacher, and administrator. I have seen him work with people of all ages, and his enthusiasm is infectious. His presentations to children captivate them, and he’s adept at handling groups of any size. Mark also presented at a writers conference that I organized for adults, and the reviews from those who attended were overwhelmingly positive. I sat in on that presentation, and although I’m not a children’s book illustrator or author, I learned a lot too! 

Mark’s publishing company produces quality products, and Mark’s illustrations are incredible. He’s also something of a marketing genius, and is consistently one of the top sellers at the book festival I coordinate. 

I can’t say enough good things about Mark Wayne Adams and his abilities. The awards speak for themselves, but a testimonial by someone who has seen him in action can’t hurt!”

—Kristie Lowry, Literary Outreach Coordinator at Western Kentucky University Libraries