If your Pinterest creative inspiration board is full of talented illustrators who make wow-worthy work and you love sending out gorgeous hand-painted holiday cards, you might want to consider a career as an illustrator and designer. It might *seem* impossible to make your living getting paid to draw, but our featured #girlboss does it every single day. In this week’s How to Quit Your Day Job series, we chat with Emily Isabella, a designer and illustrator who has worked for major clients like Anthropologie, American Girl and Target, about how to turn your creative passion into your full-time job.

Meet the Illustration & Design Pro: Emily Isabella


Back in 2008, when Emily graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design, where she studied Fibers, the market was crashing and there were no jobs to be had. Instead, Emily worked part-time at Wovenplay, a designer children’s clothing company, in New York City and worked alongside the creative director as a production manager and assistant. There she learned a lot of practical skills. On her days off, at night and on weekends, she plugged away at building her illustration portfolio and searching for pattern design work. Once she built a stable of clients, she quit her day gig to start out on her own as an illustrator and designer.

The Tips


1. Connect with your tribe. Emily mentions that some of her closest friends are people she met while at design school. “They are like family to me,” says Emily. Even though she and her friends don’t live in the same place, she values the tight-knit community she’s built with her fellow graduates. “It’s priceless to have a network of people that I can trust and rely on to bounce thoughts and ideas off of,” she says. Keeping in touch with other artists helps you stay connected to your passion.


2. Learn to say no. When you’re first branching out on your own as a designer and illustrator, it can be suuuper easy to say yes to every single paid opportunity out there. Emily did that, but now she says, she’d be more selective. “I’m learning the importance of saying no. When I first started, I took almost every job that came my way. Now that I’m more established, I’m learning that it’s important to be a little more choosy in order for my business to grow in the direction I would like,” says Emily.


3. Starting is the hardest part. Speaking of starting out, taking the first big leap out on your own can be daunting. Emily mentions that beginning her business was one of the toughest parts of going solo. “You may have to make a lot of sacrifices, but if you really want it, nothing will stand in your way,” says Emily. Hang in there! You got this.


4. Never get bored. With a variety of projects to work on, Emily revels in the fact that her day to day is never boring. “Sometimes I might be creating illustrations for products and then the next day I switch gears and do book illustration,” says Emily. She also enjoys creating her own schedule, which allows her to take time off if she needs a break. If your work starts to feel monotonous or tedious, it’s time to reconnect with your passion projects.

5. It’s all in the family. Emily counts herself as lucky because she grew up in a family of artists. Her dad runs a graphic design business. “He has taught me so much about managing clients and the practical side of running a creative business,” says Emily. Her mom took her to art museums as a young kid. Her grandfather was an illustrator and worked on similar projects as her, like illustrating cookbooks. Growing up with such support was what Emily calls her first arts education before attending Savannah College of Art and Design.


6. Keep your creative spark going. When your passion is your full-time gig, you might worry that you’ll run out of creative mojo. Emily shares what keeps her illustration muse happy: nature — particularly plant life, her collection of antique children’s books and traveling. If you think you have to travel the globe to generate ideas, Emily recommends rethinking your travel plans. “Something as simple as a day trip to the flea market or a new swimming hole with friends could spark an idea.” Most importantly, connect with the reason WHY you chose this line of work. “I love getting paid to draw! It’s such a simple and satisfying task,” says Emily.


7. Decide on your client process. Collaborating with clients is a big part of running your own company as an illustrator and designer. Hammer out a creative process that works for you and your potential clients. Emily walks us through her approach. First, she decides if the project is a good fit for her. It might be interesting, but if it’s not ultimately ideal for you, turn it down (see tip #2). If Emily says yes, she’ll take a look at her client’s brief and make sure that the timeframe for the project and the attached fee work for her. If not, she negotiates. Once an agreement has been made, she submits a round of sketches. When sketches are approved, she moves onto the color phase and submits one more draft before the final piece. Figure out what works best for you and your time.

Perfect Your Skills

Watercolor_Illustration_E_Class_025 copy

1. Illustration With Watercolor Online Class ($29): In this beginner-level class, Meera Lee Patel shows you how to blend brush strokes and color, create a color wheel and sketch and paint an animal. At the end of class, you’ll have a frameable piece of art of your very own.


2. Design Your Brand Identity Online Class ($29): Figure out your mission statement, make a brand visual mood board and connect with your audience with class instructor Meg Lewis, who is the founder of Ghostly Ferns, a family of freelance designers, illustrators and letterers.

Illustration Class

3. Earn Your Illustration or Design Degree (Varies): Emily’s alma mater, Savannah College of Art and Design, offers an e-learning online program in Graphic Design and Illustration, among many other arts disciplines. The courses don’t have specific meeting dates and times and are open 24/7, so this might be a great alternative if you want to go back to school while working full-time.

What’s your dream career? Tweet us @BritandCo to let us know, and we could feature it in the next column!

(Photos via Emily Isabella)