An illustration is a drawing, painting or printed work of art which explains, clarifies, illuminates, visually represents, or merely decorates a written text, which may be of a literary or commercial nature.
That definition sounds awfully like art doesn’t it? This is where it might get a bit confusing. Some illustrators are artists, not all artists are illustrators. Artists are more likely to focus on visually communicating their own thoughts, feelings and ideas. Their artwork looks pretty but there is no real purposes for their existence. Illustrators on the other hand, create imagery for publication or for the purpose of visually communicating someone else’s idea or story.
Phew! We got there. But how did it all begin? Well, it actually all started at the very beginning (a very good place to start).
Since time began, mankind has used imagery to tell stories. So all those cave paintings scattered across the world would be classed as illustration because they tell a story.
Later down the line, in the Middle Ages, ‘pictures’ started to appear in illuminated manuscripts. These ‘pictures’ were used to complement and clarify the written text.
The mass production off Illustration started in the 14th century, made possible by the invention of a mechanical printing process, by a bloke named Johannes Gutenberg. Renaissance artists often created illustrations to embellish new music, literature and publications of that era. These illustrations could be mass produced on a much larger scale than ever before but things really didn’t take off until the mid-1700s, the start of the Industrial Revolution.
During this time, printing technology improved at an unprecedented rate. More publications were being printed, distributed and seen across the world. This increased the exposure of illustration and it became very normal for an illustration to accompany a news article or appear on the front of a book. In fact, there are many ways in which illustration can be used, but that’s a whole new blog post right there.
In the 1800s people started to work as ‘Illustrators’. It became a profession. Illustrators would print and sell their artwork on markets and in print shops, so their artwork was more accessible and affordable. Put it this way, it was like the olden day version of Etsy and eBay.
Their artwork also appeared in magazines, newspapers and books to increase sales and subscriptions. Millions of people were now able to enjoy their artwork on a daily basis. A winning situation all round, especially considering there were no televisions, iPhones or internet back then (I know, horrendous right?).
The Great Depression and World War Two did take its toll on the Illustration industry. But let’s be fair, those days were pretty intense, to say the least, so we can let that one go. Although illustrators were roped in to create some legendary Propaganda material. These would appear on posters, for example, to encourage able men and women to enlist and help in the war efforts.
By the end of the 20th Century computers started to come about and so Illustration entered a whole new digital age. But that is a story for another day...