All About Illustration

What is Illustration?

An illustration is a visual explanation, description or interpretation of a concept, text, point or process. Illustration literally means to ‘illustrate’ and ‘make clear’ through creative media. Contemporary illustration is produced in a wide variety of ways and could be anything from a small print produced with water colour and ink to a full digitally drawn/coloured Children’s picture book using programmes such as Photoshop.

Illustration can be categorised as either interpretive(i) or technical(t). Interpretive meaning it is the illustrators aim is to interpret the meaning of a text and technical meaning the illustrator aims to show how something works or operates. An illustration can be either of these categories or both.

The History of Illustration

The origins of illustration date back to the cave painting when Paleolithic artists used what they saw around them such as cave walls and coal. In the East, the earliest forms of illustration were created using woodcuts (woodcut is a printing technique in which the artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood and prints it with ink).

Before he 15th century, books were hand illustrated. They were made working over cow leather and using the ‘illumination’ technique where thin layers of gold were used to illuminate the illustration.

Intaglio printing began around 1430. This method of printing involves cutting, scratching or etching into the printing surface which could have been anything from copper and zinc to plastics or coated paper. The printing ink is rubbed into the marks made and the surface wiped clean.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, etching and engraving were the main techniques used for reproduction.In the beginning of the 19th century, steel or copperplate engraving was a widely used technique. That was then gradually replaced by wood engraving. Later on, lithography, after being kept secret until 1818, was introduced and greatly improved reproduction quality. Lithography is another printing process in which a flat stone of metal plate is used and the image is mapped out using a greasy substance while another solution, that the ink will not stick to, is used in the empty areas. Ink is then rolled over the surface to create the image. Chromolithography, introduced in the next century and similar to lithography, is a method for making multi-colour prints. During this time, improvements in printing technology allowed illustrators to experiment with colour and rendering techniques.In America, this led to a “golden age of illustration” lasting from the 1880s until the early 20th Century.

Genres of Illustration

Publishing (i+t) – Book Covers / Content / Cookery Books / Textbooks / Educational / Picture Books / Young Adult / Graphic Novels / Comics / Scientific / Instructional / Documentary / Reportage

Merchandising/Maker Seller (i+t) – Fabric and Surface Design / Interiors Wallpaper / Fashion / Illustration / Cards / Printed Products / Gallery / Installation / Toys / Self-publishing / Theatre

Concept Art (i) – Story Boarding / Set Design / Character Design / Fantasy Art / Film / Animation / Games

Editorial (i) – Newspapers (print & online) / Magazines (Print & Online) / Trade and Consumer / Lifestyle / Company Reports

Advertising (i+t) – Branding / Campaigns / Cinema / Online / Print / TV / Marketing

Design & Packaging (t) – Retail / Design / Packaging / Product Design


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