Last updated
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) Wilcox.jpg
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 print and digital published media, such as posters, flyers, magazines, books, teaching materials, animations, video games and films. An illustration is typically created by an illustrator. Digital illustrations are often used to make websites and apps more user-friendly, such as the use of emojis to accompany digital type. [2] Illustration also means providing an example; either in writing or in picture form.


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 illustrare. [3]

Illustration styles

"Illustration beats explanation" Western Engraving & Colortype Co. (1916) 1916 Western Engraving ad 02.jpg
"Illustration beats explanation" Western Engraving & Colortype Co. (1916)
The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by John Tenniel (1820-1914) Alice par John Tenniel 02.png
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. Depending on the purpose, illustration may be expressive, stylised, realistic or highly technical.

Specialist areas [4] include:

Technical and scientific illustration

Exploded-view diagram of a gear pump (c 2007) Gear pump exploded.png
Exploded-view diagram of a gear pump (c 2007)
Cutaway drawing of the Nash 600, an American automobile of the 1940s (1942) 1942 Nash Ambassador X-ray.jpg
Cutaway drawing of the Nash 600, an American automobile of the 1940s (1942)
Illustrations of various insects, drawn in 1833 by J. Tastu 1. Scutellere a pieds bleus. boisd. (Tonga-Tabou.); 2. Scutellere idem variete; 3. Scutellere de Tonga. Boisd. (Tonga-Tabou.); 4. Scutellere pagana. Fab. var. (Cartret.); 5. Agapophyte (NYPL b13624459-1267090).jpg
Illustrations of various insects, drawn in 1833 by J. Tastu

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". [5]

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". [6]

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) Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. William Blake. c.1786.jpg
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 US$15.4 million. [7] Many other illustration genres are equally valued, with pinup artists such as Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas, for example, also attracting high prices.


An engraving by Georgius Agricola or Georg Bauer (1494-1555), illustrating the mining practice of fire-setting Fire-setting.jpg
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.

Some of the earliest illustrations come from the time of ancient Egypt (Khemet) often as hieroglyph. A classic example of illustrations exists from the time of The Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I, circa 1294 BC to 1279 BC,who was father of Ramses II, born 1303 BC.

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 travel 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] By 1900, almost 100 percent of paper was machine-made, and while a person working by hand could produce 60-100lbs of paper per day, mechanization yielded around 1,000lbs per day. [10] Additionally, in the 50-year period between 1846 and 1916, book production increased 400% and the price of books was cut in half. [10]

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. [11] Among the best-known illustrators of that period were N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle of the Brandywine School, James Montgomery Flagg, Elizabeth Shippen Green, J. C. Leyendecker, Violet Oakley, Maxfield Parrish, Jessie Willcox Smith, and John Rea Neill.

See also

Related Research Articles

Cartoon Form of two-dimensional illustrated visual art

A cartoon is a type of illustration that is typically drawn, sometimes animated, in an unrealistic or semi-realistic style. The specific meaning has evolved over time, but the modern usage usually refers to either: an image or series of images intended for satire, caricature, or humor; or a motion picture that relies on a sequence of illustrations for its animation. Someone who creates cartoons in the first sense is called a cartoonist, and in the second sense they are usually called an animator.

Graphic design Process of visual communication

Graphic design is the profession and academic discipline whose activity consists in projecting visual communications intended to transmit specific messages to social groups, with specific objectives. Therefore, it is an interdisciplinary branch of design whose foundations and objectives revolve around the definition of problems and the determination of objectives for decision-making, through creativity, innovation and lateral thinking along with digital tools, transforming them for proper interpretation. This activity helps in the optimization of graphic communications (see also communication design). It is also known as visual communication design, visual design or editorial design.

John Tenniel British illustrator and political cartoonist

Sir John Tenniel was an English illustrator, graphic humorist and political cartoonist prominent in the second half of the 19th century. He was knighted for artistic achievements in 1893. Tenniel is remembered mainly as the principal political cartoonist for Punch magazine for over 50 years and for his illustrations to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871).

Lithography Printing technique

Lithography is a method of printing originally based on the immiscibility of oil and water. The printing is from a stone or a metal plate with a smooth surface. It was invented in 1796 by German author and actor Alois Senefelder as a cheap method of publishing theatrical works. Lithography can be used to print text or artwork onto paper or other suitable material.

Engraving Incising designs by cutting into a surface

Engraving is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called "engravings". Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing and is not covered in this article.

John Leech (caricaturist) English caricaturist and illustrator

John Leech was a British caricaturist and illustrator. He was best known for his work for Punch, a humorous magazine for a broad middle-class audience, combining verbal and graphic political satire with light social comedy. Leech catered to contemporary prejudices, such as anti-Americanism and antisemitism and supported acceptable social reforms. Leech's critical yet humorous cartoons on the Crimean War help shape public attitudes toward heroism, warfare, and Britons' role in the world.

An illustrator is an artist who specializes in enhancing writing or elucidating concepts by providing a visual representation that corresponds to the content of the associated text or idea. The illustration may be intended to clarify complicated concepts or objects that are difficult to describe textually, which is the reason illustrations are often found in children's books.

Graphics are visual images or designs on some surface, such as a wall, canvas, screen, paper, or stone to inform, illustrate, or entertain. In contemporary usage, it includes a pictorial representation of data, as in c manufacture, in typesetting and the graphic arts, and in educational and recreational software. Images that are generated by a computer are called computer graphics.

Graphic arts

A category of fine art, graphic art covers a broad range of visual artistic expression, typically two-dimensional, i.e. produced on a flat surface. The term usually refers to the arts that rely more on line or tone than on colour, especially drawing and the various forms of engraving; it is sometimes understood to refer specifically to printmaking processes, such as line engraving, aquatint, drypoint, etching, mezzotint, monotype, lithography, and screen printing. Graphic art further includes calligraphy, photography, painting, typography, computer graphics, and bindery. It also encompasses drawn plans and layouts for interior and architectural designs.

Barbara Nessim

Barbara Nessim is an American artist, illustrator, and educator.

Graphic design careers include creative director, art director, art production manager, brand identity developer, illustrator and layout artist.

Technical illustration Process of visually communicating technical concepts or subjects

Technical Illustration is illustration meant to visually communicate information of a technical nature. Technical illustrations can be components of technical drawings or diagrams. Technical illustrations in general aim "to generate expressive images that effectively convey certain information via the visual channel to the human observer".

Line engraving Engraved images printed on paper

Line engraving is a term for engraved images printed on paper to be used as prints or illustrations. The term is mainly used in connection with 18th or 19th century commercial illustrations for magazines and books or reproductions of paintings. It is not a technical term in printmaking, and can cover a variety of techniques, giving similar results.

Botanical illustration

Botanical illustration is the art of depicting the form, color, and details of plant species, frequently in watercolor paintings. They must be scientifically accurate but often also have an artistic component and may be printed with a botanical description in books, magazines, and other media or sold as a work of art. Often composed by a botanical illustrator in consultation with a scientific author, their creation requires an understanding of plant morphology and access to specimens and references.

David Hughes (illustrator) Illustrator

David Hughes is an artist and illustrator.

Book illustration

The illustration of manuscript books was well established in ancient times, and the tradition of the illuminated manuscript thrived in the West until the invention of printing. Other parts of the world had comparable traditions, such as the Persian miniature. Modern book illustration comes from the 15th-century woodcut illustrations that were fairly rapidly included in early printed books, and later block books. Other techniques such as engraving, etching, lithography and various kinds of colour printing were to expand the possibilities and were exploited by such masters as Daumier, Doré or Gavarni.

Visual arts Art forms that create works that are primarily visual in nature

The visual arts are art forms such as painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, photography, video, filmmaking, design, crafts and architecture. Many artistic disciplines such as performing arts, conceptual art, and textile arts also involve aspects of visual arts as well as arts of other types. Also included within the visual arts are the applied arts such as industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, interior design and decorative art.

Outline of books Overview of and topical guide to books

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to books:

Biological illustration

Biological illustration is the use of technical illustration to visually communicate the structure and specific details of biological subjects of study. This can be used to demonstrate anatomy, explain biological functions or interactions, direct surgical procedures, distinguish species, and other applications. The scope of biological illustration can range from the whole organism level to microscopic.

Israeli printmaking

Israeli printmaking refers to printmaking by Jewish artists in the Land of Israel and the State of Israel beginning in the second half of the 19th century. The genre includes a variety of techniques, including woodcutting, etching and lithography.


  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. "What Is Illustration? A Look at Its Modern Beginnings to How It Is Used Today". My Modern Met. 2020-03-07. Retrieved 2020-11-28.
  3. "Oxford Dictionary".
  4. "".
  5. Ivan Viola and Meister E. Gröller (2005). "Smart Visibility in Visualization". In: Computational Aesthetics in Graphics, Visualization and Imaging. L. Neumann et al. (Ed.)
  6. Archived 2009-08-14 at the Wayback Machine website, Last modified: June 15, 2002. Accessed february 15, 2009.
  7. Bissonnette, Zac (February 22, 2010). "Norman Rockwell's Rising Value Prices Out His Museum". AOL Daily Finance. Archived from the original on 2010-02-23.
  8. "How Punch Magazine Changed Everything". Illustration Chronicles. Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  9. Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 193–196. ISBN   9780500291153.
  10. 1 2 Leighton, Mary Elizabeth; Surridge, Lisa (2012). "Victorian Print Media and the Reading Public". The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Prose: 1832- 1901. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press. p. 14.
  11. The R. Atkinson Fox Society: What Was the Golden Age of Illustration?