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Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935)

An illustration is a decoration, interpretation or visual explanation of a text, concept or process,[1] designed for integration in published media, such as posters, flyers, magazines, books, teaching materials, animations, video games and films.

The origin of the word "illustration" is late Middle English (in the sense 'illumination; spiritual or intellectual enlightenment'): via Old French from Latin illustratio(n- ), from the verb illustrate.[2]

Contemporary illustration

"Illustration beats explanation" Western Engraving & Colortype Co. (1916)
The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by John Tenniel (1820-1914)

Contemporary illustration uses a wide range of styles and techniques, including drawing, painting, printmaking, collage, montage, digital design, multimedia, 3D modelling. Most illustrators work on a freelance basis. Contemporary illustration subject matter has broadened and accesses platforms in other artistic forms. Often these illustrations are based off of currents events; such as movies, tv shows and video games.

Depending on the purpose, illustration may be expressive, stylised, realistic or highly technical

Specialist areas[3] include:

Technical and scientific illustration

Exploded-view diagram of a gear pump (c 2007)
Cutaway drawing of the Nash 600, an American automobile of the 1940s (1942)

Technical and scientific illustration communicates information of a technical or scientific nature. This may include exploded views, cutaways, fly-throughs, reconstructions, instructional images, component designs, diagrams. The aim is "to generate expressive images that effectively convey certain information via the visual channel to the human observer"[4]

Technical and scientific illustration is generally designed to describe or explain subjects to a nontechnical audience, so must provide "an overall impression of what an object is or does, to enhance the viewer's interest and understanding".[5]

In contemporary illustration practice, 2D and 3D software is often used to create accurate representations that can be updated easily, and reused in a variety of contexts.

Illustration as fine art

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake (1786)

In the art world, illustration has at times been considered of less importance than graphic design and fine art.

Today, however, due in part to the growth of graphic novel and video game industries, as well as increased use of illustration in magazines and other publications, illustration is now becoming a valued art form, capable of engaging a global market.

Original illustration art has been known to attract high prices at auction. The US artist Norman Rockwell's painting "Breaking Home Ties" sold in a 2006 Sotheby's auction for USD15.4 million.[6] Many other illustration genres are equally valued, with pinup artists such as Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas, for example, also attracting high prices.


American Turk's Cap Lily, Lilium superbum by Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-70), c 1750-3. Watercolour and gouache on vellum. V&A Museum no. D.589-1886[7]
An engraving by Georgius Agricola or Georg Bauer (1494-1555), illustrating the mining practice of fire-setting

Historically, the art of illustration is closely linked to the industrial processes of printing and publishing.

Early history

The illustrations of medieval codices were known as illuminations, and were individually hand drawn and painted. With the invention of the printing press during the 15th century, books became more widely distributed, often illustrated with woodcuts.

1600s Japan saw the origination of Ukiyo-e, an influential illustration style characterised by expressive line, vivid colour and subtle tones, resulting from the ink-brushed wood block printing technique. Subjects included traditional folk tales, popular figures and every day life. Hokusai's The Great Wave of Kanazawa is a famous image of the time.

During the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, the main reproduction processes for illustration were engraving and etching. In 18th Century England, a notable illustrator was William Blake (1757-827), who used relief etching. By the early 19th century, the introduction of lithography substantially improved reproduction quality.

19th Century

In Europe, notable figures of the early 19th Century were John Leech, George Cruikshank, Dickens illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, and, in France, Honoré Daumier. All contributed to both satirical and "serious" publications. At this time, there was a great demand for caricature drawings encapsulating social mores, types and classes.

The British humorous magazine Punch (1841-2002) built on the success of Cruikshank's Comic Almanac (1827-1840) and employed many well-regarded illustrators, including Sir John Tenniel, the Dalziel Brothers, and Georges du Maurier. Although all fine art trained, their reputations were gained primarily as illustrators.

Historically, Punch was most influential in the 1840s and 1850s. The magazine was the first to use the term "cartoon" to describe a humorous illustration and its widespread use led to John Leech being known as the world's first "cartoonist"[8]. In common with similar magazines such as the Parisian Le Voleur, Punch realised good illustration sold as well as good text. With publication continuing into the 21st Century, Punch chronicles a gradual shift in popular illustration, from reliance on caricature to sophisticated topical observation.

The "Golden Age"

From the early 1800s newspapers, mass market magazines, and illustrated books had become the dominant consumer media in Europe and the New World. By the 19th century, improvements in printing technology freed illustrators to experiment with color and rendering techniques. These developments in printing effected all areas of literature from cookbooks, photography and traveling guides, as well as children's books. Also, due to advances in printing, it became more affordable to produce color photographs within books and other materials. [9]

In America, this led to a "golden age of illustration" from before the 1880s until the early 20th century. A small group of illustrators became highly successful, with the imagery they created considered a portrait of American aspirations of the time.[10] Among the best known illustrators of that period were N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle of the Brandywine School, J. C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish, and James Montgomery Flagg.

See also


  1. ^ cf. the freely available international Database of Scientific Illustrators 1450-1950 with 20 search fields and nearly 7000 entries of illustrators in science, medicine & technology active prior to 1950
  2. ^ "Oxford Dictionary". 
  3. ^ "". 
  4. ^ Ivan Viola and Meister E. Gröller (2005). "Smart Visibility in Visualization". In: Computational Aesthetics in Graphics, Visualization and Imaging. L. Neumann et al. (Ed.)
  5. ^ Archived 2009-08-14 at the Wayback Machine. website, Last modified: June 15, 2002. Accessed february 15, 2009.
  6. ^ Norman Rockwell's Rising Value Prices Out His Museum Zac Bissonnette, AOL Daily Finance, 2-22-10
  7. ^ "American Turk's cap Lily". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved . 
  8. ^ "How Punch Magazine Changed Everything". Illustration Chronicles. Retrieved 2017. 
  9. ^ Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 193-196. ISBN 9780500291153. 
  10. ^ The R. Atkinson Fox Society: What Was the Golden Age of Illustration?

External links

Media related to Illustrations at Wikimedia Commons

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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