7 Top Illustrators in Chicago

The Windy City’s pool of artistic talent is very evidently far from lacking, which is a boon for those of you within the city or in close proximity. And from what we’ve seen, the quality of artwork Chicago illustrators pump out is also among the best across the nation. We have no idea why, but here we are. to help you with your search for your project needs, here are some of the best among them.

With an explosion of color and detail, Cheri Lee Charlton’s art is a visual delight! If her work reminds you of murals, pat yourself on the back for your keen artistic radar—Charlton’s an illustrator, college art instructor, and a muralist as well. As we can see, Charlton’s basic style is a perfect fit for children’s books, but use your imagination a bit, and you may figure out a bunch of different applications where her abilities would be a good fit for your objectives. Understandably, that may be difficult to do from her murals, so venture off to her website’s section of digital illustrations, and check out all the work she’s done for commercial clients for ideas.

While some other Chicago illustrators go for attention-grabbing sensory shock value, Kristin Heldt has a different objective with her work: She wants it to give you “a calm, peaceful feeling.” She does that by channeling her work to nature elements, colors, and patterns. It’s Heldt’s beautiful, intricate, and often mesmerizing patterns that’s giving us a lot of ideas for possible use, particularly for book cover and product designs. But as Heldt’s Instagram portfolio shows, she does way more than patterns, such as standard, single subject illustrations in similar styles—imagine the cat in the accompanying example image placed on a more solid colored background, for instance. Exploring Heldt’s portfolio is undoubtedly highly recommended!

Choosing a single accompanying image sample for this post has probably been the most difficult thing we’ve had to do so far; graphic designer and illustrator Tom Deja’s portfolio is just way too full of wonderful work. His campy, sometimes kitschy, creations are a pleasure to go through. As fun as it is to browse through Deja’s Instagram posts, take the time to visit his Bossman Graphics site, where you’ll see all the different ways his illustrations and designs can be put to work for your enterprise, including logos, icons, publication cover designs, and more. He’s no newcomer; Deja likes to point out that his is “an epic career spanning two centuries.” A must-see!

It’s curious how many Chicago illustrators are also brilliant muralists. It must be all those humongous buildings to practice on. Mac Blackout is one of those brilliant illustrators/muralists. He also happens to be a prolific musician; much of his abstract creations are, in fact, music-related and inspired (think posters and album covers). A multi-media artist, Blackout particularly enjoys traditional tools and mediums; as a bonus for the artists among you, Blackout often likes to detail what tools and materials he used for his work—the accompanying example art, for instance, was done with Posca markers, pen-and-ink on 8×10 paper. Don’t miss the “Doomboxes” on his website, hand-painted boomboxes, over a hundred of them!

It’s interesting how you can feel and tell a lot about an artist through their work. Playfully referring to her art as a “monetized hobby,” Leah Birhanu’s cartoons and illustrations are just oozing positive, upbeat energy. That even often manifests itself through her color choices. Her clean, simpler style is particularly well-suited for product use, and we don’t have to imagine what it’d be like to have her work on merch—just visit her shop to see her stuff as apparel and print applications. We believe Birhanu’s style and artistic sensibilities would work really great with even way more merchandise types, and we wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing that in the near future.

Kris Lantzy’s illustrated portraits are what brings her to this list. We’ve all seen the work of those caricaturists ubiquitous in fairs and other events. Latzy’s portraits are similar, and yet… different. Delightfully wonky are the words that come to mind. These colored line drawings are familiarly realistic enough that we can identify who she’s drawn, but definitely “off” to an unsettling degree that they’re actually mesmerizing, begging to be examined further and closely. You can see the hilarious results for yourself. And shush on those huge-headed pets—we don’t talk about that.

Colorful, simple, and fun illustrations are freelance illustrator Katie Lukes’s bread and butter. Speaking of which, her style clearly isn’t appealing just to us; a peek at her select client list reveals some of the biggest names we’ve seen among freelance Chicago illustrators, including the likes of Apple, Facebook, American Greetings, Uber, and Snapchat. But what’s not to like? So that’s not surprising at all. But what may be surprising is learning that she’s only been freelance illustrating full-time a little over three years (and we needn’t remind everyone what shape the world’s been in for much of that). Her work obviously sparks a lot of interest!