Moving into 2021, we asked more than twenty talented artists to discuss their favorite best-selling subjects to illustrate.
Commercial illustration, as we know it today, dates back to the 18th century, when the English wood-engraver Thomas Bewick created a studio for the printing of illustrations featured in educational materials, art books, newspapers, and more. By the turn of the 19th century, illustrations were everywhere—from the novels of Charles Dickens to local galleries and bookstalls. By the 20th century, publishers had fully released the potential of great illustrations to sell magazines and newspapers.
Illustration in the 21st century has evolved rapidly, with new trends like contemporary art collage, tactile lettering, and 1920s-inspired art deco design reshaping the industry and inspiring emerging artists. Heading into 2021, we asked more than twenty talented artists from around the world to tell us about their favorite subjects to illustrate—from timely events to evergreen subjects. Read on to learn their tips and ideas for what sells on Shutterstock—now and in the future.
Creative Illustration Ideas
Illustrations ideas that look to the future. Image by Vadim Georgiev.
1. World Travel
“My best-selling illustration themes include sports, food, technology, cultural values, and holidays, but my personal favorite is travel,” Vadim Georgiev admits. “There is always a corner on the planet that we long to visit—even if it’s just through an illustration. Modern travelers are so diverse, so there is truly so much you can do within this topic.”
Capture the uniqueness of the location. Image by Pavel Smolyakov.
When illustrating travel, get specific in terms of historical landmarks and details. “I enjoy traveling and exploring new cities, so most of my illustrations are related to this topic,” Pavel Smolyakov tells us. “Illustrations that capture the unique cultural features of different cities are among the most in-demand. They can be used both for educational or marketing purposes, and they are interesting to create because I get to study and learn about the history of different places.”
2. Annual Holidays
Designers are always in the market for fresh holiday illustrations. Image by Alenka Karabanova.
“The first topic that comes to mind is major holidays: Christmas, Easter, birthdays, etc.,” Russian-based artist Alenka Karabanova tells us. “These are evergreen themes because they’re celebrated every year, and designers always need fresh holiday illustrations.”
Whether you’re illustrating local or global events, mark up your calendar for the year ahead. Remember to upload your images well in advance so clients can use them in their seasonal campaigns.
3. Current Events
Create illustrations you have a vested interest in. Image by Gal Amar.
“My favorite topics for illustrations are those I care deeply about, such as women’s rights, the #MeToo movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement,” the graphic designer, illustrator, and pop artist Gal Amar says. “In my work, I also reflect on current events like the global protests of 2020, elections and politics, and the COVID-19 pandemic.’
Find inspiration in visual artists from the past. Image via Gal Amar.
“It’s important to me to illustrate my point of view about these serious subjects. I often find inspiration in the work of activists and visual culture from the past, like the World War II ‘We Can Do It’ propaganda poster that has since become such an iconic image. This poster has been my inspiration for many of the protest images I have recreated over the years.”
4. Local Culture
Add some folklore to your illustrations. Image by Akbaly.
“My best-sellers are mainly patterns and folkloric, regional graphics from my country, México,” digital artist and graphic designer Nahiely Velázquez, a.k.a. Akbaly, tells us. “I have a strong passion for the culture and traditions of my country, and it’s always more fun to work on what you’re passionate about.’
“My advice is to think locally to find a niche. That has always worked for me. Try to connect with people in your own country through your work, as it’s easier to sell content to people you can actually see and relate to. You’ll know what they’re looking for, instead of trying to guess what people in other countries might be searching.’
“In the coming years, I’d love to see more holidays from all over the world portrayed in pictures or vectors. I want to see how people in other countries live, what they eat, what they do for fun, etc., portrayed authentically.”
5. Scenes from Daily Life
Find inspiration in everyday activities. Image by Nicoleta Ionescu.
“I usually take inspiration from my everyday life,” illustrator and cartoonist Nicoleta Ionescu tells us. “For example, I have recently become a mom, and you can see it in my work. I’ve shared authentic slices of my own life, from my ‘mom-shaming’ concept illustrations to the pregnancy-themed ones about having swollen feet. These everyday, ‘slices of life’ topics will always be popular because people relate to them.”
Seasonal nature illustrations are especially popular. Image by mamita.
“My favorite topic is nature, and these illustrations always sell especially well in the spring and summer, when people are looking for images of sun, greenery, and plants,” Russian-based artist Marina Vorontsova, a.k.a. mamita, tells us. “I try to absorb as much beauty as possible by visiting parks, gardens, and greenhouses. I also grow flowers myself, and these simple pleasures often form the building blocks for my creative process.”
Floral Illustrations" class="wp-image-155940" />Floral illustrations never go out of style. Image by Veris Studio.
Flowers were mentioned so often we thought they deserved a section of their own. “I think florals will never go out of style, as weddings, birthdays, baby showers, and bridal parties will always be around, and they often use these images,” the artist Anna Russett of Veris Studio says.
“There will definitely be changes in style and technique, but the floral subject will stick around. This is such an extensive, diverse subject. You can go tropical, pastel, herbal, traditional botanical, black and white, etc. You can even combine different elements to create almost unlimited compositions and collages.”
Floral patterns are perfect for baby showers, weddings, and holidays. Image by Karma3.
Ukrainian artist Larysa Nebosenko Koshel, a.k.a. Karma3, makes a range of floral patterns, which then sell for occasions ranging from Mother’s Day to Easter. “My favorite thing is to make seamless patterns with flowers,” she says. “Since they can be used in many places—such as packaging, fabric for dresses, and more. So, many people buy them, and I often see my patterns on finished products.”
There will always be a demand for seasonal landscapes. Image by Incomible.
“I have always enjoyed working with natural themes, and these topics have proven to be consistently popular over the last few years. I think because we’re all striving to lead more sustainable, environmentally-friendly lives,” designer and illustrator Yulia Drozdova, a.k.a. Incomible, says. “We want to get back to nature and our origins.”
9. Fruits and Veggies
Watercolors accentuate the juicy flavors of fruits and vegetables. Image by Elena Pimonova.
“I’d say my ‘evergreen’ topics are fruits and vegetables,” Russian-based artist Elena Pimonova tells us. “That’s one of the reasons I love the watercolor trend—it’s a medium that always makes fruits and veggies look juicy and appetizing. My friends and I often see my illustrations ‘in the wild,’ as designers use them for packaging for everything from food to cosmetics.”
10. Animals and Wildlife
Highlight the beauty and preservation of animals in nature. Image by Solmariart.
“My favorite illustration subject to submit to Shutterstock are creative animals, sometimes in a more abstract style than what people are used to seeing,” illustrator and surface designer Marina Solodka, a.k.a. Solmariart, tells us. “Going forward, I would like to see even more illustrations and artworks on the subject of environmental friendliness and the protection of endangered species. I want to see images that highlight the beauty of the natural world and show how we can preserve it for generations to come.”
11. Cute Characters
Create images for the timeless population—children. Image by Gabriyel Onat.
“I love to create combinations of unique, cute, or ‘kawaii’ characters, and I’m always happy to see my designs pop up on products all over the world,” illustrator and designer Gabriyel Onat tells us. “Designs that appeal to children or young people are always timeless, but they need to be high-quality, of course. I often get my inspiration from children and try to design characters that they will like.”
12. Sustainable Living
Create images promoting the sustainability of our environment. Image by Hein Nouwens.
This subject combines some of the topics and themes we’ve already mentioned, like scenes of everyday life and getting back to nature. “Sustainability has been trending in illustration, so my advice is to think about concepts and ideas that express our hopes for a better, more livable planet,” Netherlands-based artist Hein Nouwens tells us.
“It doesn’t have to be complicated. Common subjects like food, holiday shopping, clothing, animals, and more can all tap into this sustainability movement, as can themes like home gardening or sustainable cooking.”
13. Abstract Patterns
Geometric shapes fit seamlessly into various artistic concepts. Image by Softulka.
“In my portfolio, there are several items that sell from year to year, and I think their relevance lies in their versatility,” Ukrainian graphic designer and illustrator Iuliia Mazur, a.k.a. Softulka, tells us. “Most are abstract shapes and patterns that do not touch on one specific topic, but fit seamlessly into many different concepts. At the same time, I believe that any work can become a best-seller. The main thing is to follow general trends in the design industry as a whole, and create illustrations that are fresh, relevant, and original.”
Not only are maps fun, they are appreciated universally. Image by Marina Riley.
In addition to her popular abstract and holiday-themed works, Australian-based artist and designer Marina Riley also has a variety of maps in her portfolio, from glittery maps to word maps, depicting countries around the world, all in line with the travel theme mentioned earlier.
“My personal favorites are my word maps,” she tells us. “I’ve done them for Australia, Sicily, and Ireland, so far. The map is filled with all the words and slang you would only hear being spoken in that country. I’m Australian and I love our language, so I just had to incorporate it into a design. I put this design on a few shopping bags and T-shirts for my friends and family, and it’s a big hit with everyone. Or, as we say down here, they have gone off like a frog in a sock!”
15. Wedding Invitations
Wedding-themed illustrations are always in demand. Image by volcebyyou.
“Many of the illustrations I notice selling out repeatedly are my invitation cards, I think because weddings happen all year round, regardless of the season,” Lukas Dedi, a.k.a. volcebyyou, explains. “Wedding planners and organizers are always looking for bouquets, frames, background designs—the list goes on.”
16. Unique Lettering
calligraphy-1.jpg?w=750" alt="Unique Lettering" class="wp-image-155975" />Unique lettering is in constant demand. Image by Irina Trigubova.
“My vector lettering and letters sell consistently because there is a constant demand for them all year round,” Ukraine-based artist Irina Trigubova says. “Ready-made lettering and phrases often look better than regular, standard fonts, and it’s easy for customers to make their own text or a logo from my vector letters.”
Cover image by Pavel Smolyakov.
Looking for additional inspiration, check out these articles:
The Evolution of Iconography: How It’s Used in Graphic DesignUsing Shutterstock’s Color Trends to Make Your Illustrations PopFrom Easy to Advanced: 4 Ways to Make a Digital Collage2021 Color TrendsThe Most Anticipated Graphic Design Styles for 2021
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