Editorial Illustration Basics

Free Resource

Producing images for newspapers, magazines and their online equivalents can be an exciting, fast turnover challenge. In this resource Tess Redburn explores the editorial industry and covers what you should consider for your folio, approaching art directors and editorial fees, licensing and contracts.

What is Editorial illustration?

Editorial illustrations are produced for newspapers, magazines and websites to add a visual dimension to a piece of writing. This serves two main functions – it helps to grab the attention of the reader as they browse the publication, but can also help to add a new perspective to the article. The illustrator is usually expected to read a story or article and produce an image that sums up the concepts expressed in the article, or respond to a brief from the art director.

The editorial industry

When you think of publications you might want to work for, you’ll immediately think of the major newspapers like The Guardian, New York Times or Financial Times, but these titles can be very competitive and the art directors will be inundated with submissions, so it’s important to think outside the box. There are plenty of magazines and platforms that aren’t necessarily targeted at readers like yourself, but cater for more specialised readerships. They might focus on a specific topic (for example Men’s Health Magazine, BBC Good Food or The Ethel), or talk about a particular local area (such as Circus Journal in Bath).

A lot of editorial work is produced on behalf of big brands like BMW or The Scouts by content marketing agencies. Airlines like Easyjet and British Airways commission lots of illustrations for their in-flight magazines, and often have decent budgets, so shouldn’t be overlooked.

What you need in your portfolio

For much of illustration commissioned for editorial it’s important to show that you can think conceptually. Illustration often competes with photography, but illustrators have the benefit of being able to depict abstract concepts, whereas photographers usually only show what they can see. Clear and intelligent ideas will get you noticed.

It’s also important to show that you can work quickly and flexibly. Editorial deadlines can be very tight, and illustrators may be expected to turnaround some finished pieces of work in a day, or even a matter of hours, including a couple of rounds of feedback! Labour intensive and rigid processes like printmaking are therefore unsuitable, as the illustrator needs to work fast and collaboratively with an art director.

Showing you can depict a broad range of subject matter will stand you in good stead. Can you comfortably draw food, a diverse range of people of all ages, animals, maps, infographics as well as complex street or sporting scenes? Lifestyle illustrations will not generally require a conceptual element.

Learning to create simple, looping animations can really bring your work to life for digital publications, providing endless ways to push those conceptual ideas with motion. Make sure you develop processes that allow you to produce animated work in a cost-effective way, as the budgets will still be relatively tight.

Approaching art directors

Once you have your portfolio ready, you’ll need to start contacting art directors at publications. In print magazines, their names will be listed in the credits at the front of the magazine. Social media can also be a great tool for finding out the names of commissioners and keeping in touch with them. Many art directors will invite submissions from artists over Twitter social media platforms from time to time.

If you manage to track down an email address of an art director, and plan to drop them an email – try to make things simple for them. Include a link to your website, and perhaps a small selection of 5-6 images that show the breadth of your work. It doesn’t have to be purely editorial work, but tailor your selection of images to each client – for example, someone working on the Easyjet inflight magazine will be keen to see maps or an illustration of a beach scene.

Fees, Licenses and Contracts

Fees for editorial work tend to be fairly low in comparison to branding and advertising work, but the fees are reflective of the fact that the work is turned around quickly, the commissions can be very regular and the usage is much less extensive. You will quote different prices for a small spot illustration versus a full-page internal spread to reflect the fact that the usage is more extensive (and bigger images might take longer to produce). You should charge more still for a front cover to reflect the greater public facing visibility or exposure that this image might get.

Like many parts of the industry, editorial clients will often have standardised contracts that may try to grab as many rights as possible. Don’t be afraid to push back against unfair terms. You should aim to limit the licence to one-time editorial use within the publication it has been commissioned for (and potentially its website). If the client wants to publish the work again, they should have to pay a re-use fee.

Be especially wary of editorial contracts when working on magazines for major brands like BMW or British Airways. You may be commissioned to produce an editorial illustration and end up signing over full rights to a big corporation as a result of the wording of their contract, who could then use the work for much more extensive purposes such as advertising or social media.

Make sure to always ask for the publication’s contract before starting work, it’s easy to forget when the deadlines are tight!

Keep your clients sweet

More than any other sector in illustration, editorial clients are the most likely to come back with more work in the future if you’ve done a good job. They commission a lot of work very regularly and are often under enormous time pressure. Having someone dependable to call upon is incredibly valuable to art directors. Always be communicative, flexible and open to working collaboratively with clients, but above all else – make sure you hit your deadlines!

AOI Members can explore the area of Editorial illustration in more depth in the How To Get Into Editorial Illustration publication.

The AOI Editorial Directory, updated yearly, lists newspapers and magazines across many categories and, unlike the majority of mailing lists, the AOI speaks directly to the commissioners and passes on information about the kind of work they’re looking for. 

AOI Members have access to all Inside Illustration content.

Go here to see the Branding Illustration Basics

Go here to see the Illustration for Children Basics

The AOI would like to make resources accessible to all members. If you would like an alternative format please ask.


WIA2023 -Winners Announced!
#WIA2023 - A global celebration of great illustration. The Winners have been announced and you can explore them on the WIA2023 Showcase
AOI Directories Listing contacts for 350 UK Commissioners across three sectors. Buy now!
AOI members! Book your 1-1 Portfolio Consultation today!
Guide to Law & Business book
"An essential guide for all practicing illustrators" Purchase digital version today!
Get seen by commissioners with a 20 image Folio.


Join our mailing list to get the latest news.