Illustration (BA | BFA)

Apply your passion for storytelling and the visual arts in Columbia College Chicago’s Illustration programs. You’ll learn how visual storytelling can captivate audiences and how your distinct style and voice can make an impact. You’ll develop your artistic skills through studio classes and critiques with a dedicated faculty of professional illustrators.

Columbia College Chicago Illustration student work
Lina Ngo ’18

You’ll practice techniques in both traditional and digital illustration and apply your visual storytelling skills in hands-on, client-focused projects. You’ll learn three commercial models: freelance, institutional, and contract-based. You’ll also learn the core business skills you’ll need to thrive as a professional illustrator.

Degrees Available

Columbia College Chicago offers two degrees in Illustration: the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). The BFA is a rigorous, professionally focused degree in illustration. The BFA requires more advanced coursework and has few opportunities to choose electives than the BA. The BA provides a foundation in illustration, but allows students to minor or double major. All Illustration students develop a professional portfolio of work as part of the requirements of the degree program.

If you plan to apply directly to the BFA program, you’ll need to include some additional materials.

View course requirements:

In the Classroom

Columbia College Chicago Illustration class with Ivan Brunetti
Ivan Brunetti, associate professor and  The New Yorker  cover illustrator, gives feedback on final presentations

  • Your courses will introduce you to drawing, painting, cartooning, typography, digital illustration, figure drawing, and more.

  • During your first year, you’ll take foundational courses in art and design, including Introduction to Visual Culture and Design Thinking. These courses will help you develop the vocabulary and context you’ll need to critique your work and the work of others.

  • You’ll learn traditional and digital methods, blending the two to develop your unique style. If you focus on digital methods, you’ll master the latest painting and drawing software. If you prefer traditional methods, you’ll create with a variety of textures and surfaces, such as watercolor and gouache painting and ink applications.

  • A course in illustration history will introduce you to important illustrators, trends, styles, and techniques.

  • Business classes will teach you how to maintain a freelance career in illustration. You’ll learn how to write contracts, talk to clients, complete taxes, and self-promote through branding and identity.


You may intern in a design firm, advertising agency, or art gallery. An internship is especially helpful if you’re pursuing a minor or looking for specific work experience.

Careers in Illustration

Many illustrators work independently, so our program emphasizes business skills in entrepreneurship and freelance. Illustrators build careers in industries such as book and magazine publishing, fashion, advertising, and product packaging. They also contribute to television shows, commercials, and feature films.

With the mentorship of our faculty of professional illustrators and a thriving community of students, you’ll develop your voice and chart a career path that makes sense for you.

Student Spotlight


Ivan Brunetti initial sketch
Initial sketch for “At the Movies,” courtesy of Ivan Brunetti

“If you can tap into something deep, honest, personal, and risk letting your guard down … you might tap into something real and universal—and hopefully, lasting.”

Ivan Brunetti, associate professor and The New Yorker cover illustrator

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Our faculty members practice what they teach. They illustrate comic strips, children’s books, coloring books, and magazine covers. Their clients range from film studios and airlines to record labels, food companies, and magazine publishers. They mentor students, provide thoughtful critiques, and share candid professional advice.

Alumni Success

Columbia College Chicago alum Heidi Unkefer

“I love the idea of taking writers’ ideas and then warping them a little bit into my own vision that comes out on paper.”

Heidi Unkefer ’13, professional illustrator and graphics artist for HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

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Columbia College Chicago Illustration alumni succeed in many fields, including editorial, institutional, advertising, television, video games, publishing, character design, comics, and animation. Many work for themselves as full-time freelancers. Their illustrations can be seen everywhere, from TimeOut Chicago magazine covers to social media advertising campaigns for movies like Baby Driver.

Alumni Highlights

  • Nick Drnaso ’11 is the author of Sabrina, the first graphic novel to make the longlist for the Man Booker Prize, representing a growing literary movement within the graphic novel scene.

  • David Alvarado ’11 is active in the Chicago zine community, and has provided illustrations for editorial magazines, including the cover of TimeOut Chicago magazine, as well as comics, products, and large-scale murals.

  • Keara Mcgraw ’15 is an illustrator and tattooist. She has worked with clients such as HYPEBAE, WBEZ Chicago, Chronicle Books, Lenny Letter, American Express, and VICE Media.

  • Erik Lundquist ’12 creates illustrations that are found on beer bottles, murals across Chicago, skate decks, and the side of vans. He’s worked with brands including Juxtapoz, Goose Island Beer Co., Soho House Chicago, and House of Vans.

  • Ali Cantarella ’13 creates custom watercolor, coffee, and ink portraits of people and pets. She does live-drawing events for organizations such as PAWS Chicago, Modern Luxury, Bucktown Arts Fest, and the University of Chicago, where she creates unique portraits on-the-spot for guests.

  • Julie Wilmore ’14 creates wildlife and nature illustrations while traveling and camping across the country and selling prints at conventions.

Many Illustration BA students pursue a minor in a related field. Minors that complement a degree in Illustration include:

Columbia College Chicago also offers BA and BFA programs in: