The World of Illustration



“Musket line” by Craig Mullins




Illustration from Natural Histories by Etienne de Flacourt (1607-1660)

Defining the word illustration often leads to debate as to what should be included within the term and whether it falls within the realm of art.  Upon viewing images which are referred to as illustrations, there can be no doubt that they are art, whether they are created by hand or through the aid of computer software.  However, not every visual image can be called an illustration.



Illustration from Art Forms of Nature by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)



Illustration from Art Forms of Nature by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)

The term illustration is often broadly applied to any sort of visual image which is created to impart meaning, share a subject, or offer clarification, knowledge or information.  Although the word often refers to drawings, paintings, sketches, printed work, or even photographs, traditionally it has been used to designate a visual image which accompanies a written text.  The chief purpose of an illustration is typically to impart some sort of message, meaning, or information, or to enhance or clarify the text that it accompanies.



“Making Profit off of Emissions Trading” for Bloomberg Market Magazine by Yuko Shimizu, 2007



Illustration by Harry Clarke for Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe, 1923

Due to the wide cross-section of work that falls under the label of illustration, individual images are difficult to categorize.  There are technical illustrations used to explain instructions and processes which may take the form of technical drawings or diagrams.  There are educational illustrations utilized to clarify ideas and concepts, and archeological and architectural illustrations as well.  Book illustrations and art illustrations are also widely used, but the most common use for illustrations probably falls in the realm of advertising.



Advertising Poster for Clinique Chéron by Theophile Steinlen



“The Gossips” by Norman Rockwell, 1948

As such, illustrations provide a variety of functions.  They may attract attention, aid in retention, enhance understanding or provide context.  When studying a visual image, we may see that it performs more than one of these functions, but each part of an illustration should serve a purpose.  For example, in an advertisement, an illustration may be used to attract attention by providing novelty; it presents an image that has not previously been viewed, therefore drawing notice due to its originality.  Conversely, a complex image will also draw attention as it requires examination from the viewer and will consequently hold his attention.



Illustration for Alexander Pushkin’s Fairytale of the Tsar Saltan by Ivan Bilibin in 1905



Illustration for the Tale of Igor’s Campaign by Ivan Bilibin

A well-done illustration should be properly conceived and present its purpose clearly.  As a result, a successful illustration will not only attract attention, it will also aid in the retention of the message it conveys.  Through its creation of context, it can simplify understanding and stimulate learning or evoke an emotional response.  A well-conceived illustration will accomplish all of these tasks through its composition, clarity and attention to detail, and its success is shown through what viewers take from this visual image.  With these standards in place, it is clear that while many creations are called illustrations, not all of them are deserving of the term.



“La Rue” by Theophile Steinlen, 1904



“The Problem We All Live With” by Norman Rockwell for Look Magazine, 1964

Under the general definition, illustrations can be said to date back to cave paintings created in prehistoric times, as these images shared events and provided insight into the daily life of these times.  In terms of images used to accompany written texts, they first appeared as accompaniments to religious texts as these were some of the earliest works to be set down and were hand-written on animal skins.  Woodcuts, engravings and etchings were commonly used for early illustrations, and with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, illustrations became more commonplace and accessible.



Illustration for Hansel & Gretel by Kay Nielsen



Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

At the end of the eighteenth century, and on into the nineteenth century, illustrations became widespread due to the popularity of newspapers.  As magazines came into play and printing technologies evolved, the types of illustrations available became more diverse as well.  The invention of lithography allowed for color illustrations to be created in large numbers, and the use of visual images alongside written text became the norm.   As great strides continued to be made in the field of illustration, and the public embraced these images in newspapers, magazines and books, the late 1800s and early 1900s became known as the Golden Age of illustration, both in Europe and America.



Monstrosities of 1818 by George Cruikshank depicting the extravagant clothing styles of fashion



Metropoli Magazine Cover Illustration by Ricardo Martinez

In the early twentieth century, illustrations became the mainstay in posters and advertisements and were used to manipulate and persuade the public to consume products as well as take social action.  Illustration continued to be a vital part of everyday life until the rise of the television and photography resulted in its fall from popularity.  With the increase in popularity of television, advertisers began to focus on this new medium, and reduced their use of printed illustration work.  At the same time, photography became the favored visual tool in print as it provided a realism that illustration could not supply.


Illustration for The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac



Book Jacket Illustration by Steve Simpson

Illustration work enjoyed a slight resurgence in the 1960s, thanks to the popularity of album covers, music posters and comic book art, but overall, illustration continued its slow decline.  In the 1970s and 80s, most illustrators who found success did so by filling niches within various sectors.  Some turned to fashion illustration, or the world of video games and animated movies, or even to political cartoons and book illustrations.   However, despite their adaptability, the world of illustration was changed forever with the advent of computers and computerized methods of image creation.



Illustration by Niklas Lundberg



Illustration by Paul Williams

Today, most illustrations are created using software programs and even professional illustrators must be proficient in this method of creation.  While some illustrators may still complete a part of the process by hand, the finished result is usually the result of computer work.   As a result, one does not need to be artistically inclined or possess any sort of artistic ability to become a competent illustrator.  However, the use of such software programs has had a positive impact as well.  With the use of technology, there are truly no limits to what can be created, and this capability has resulted in numerous advancements in the field of illustration.  Through graphic design, web design, artists’ initiatives and our ability to access everything across the globe, we now have unlimited access to all of the diverse illustrations being created every day.   As a result, illustration has been reinvented and is gaining in popularity once again.


Advertising for the Market Mall Spring Campaign by Karen Klassen



Illustration for Nike by Simon Prades



Illustration for United Nations Calendar by Patrick Hruby



Illustration for United Nations Calendar by Patrick Hruby







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