Illustration, Visual arts and Graphic Narrative


Inertia and momentum in the boundaries of contemporary illustration.

The concept of evolution which is normally applied to biology to explain the constant change of species to adapt to the environment, can also be applied to areas of investigation not related to biology and is defined as a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state (1). In the history of humanity and in the “evolution” of societies, the presence of art has been related to culture from the same beginnings of human thought. Some examples of the earliest fine art can be found in the Paleolithic cave pictures (figure 1), where the artists captured the nature, the animals, the hunting and as well some of the characteristics of their primitive societies. One fact of strong importance that outlines the relationship between art and culture was the development of the written language, constructed on the basis of human understanding of conceptual abstraction and of course the artistic stylization of that idea (2).

This symbiotic association continued evolving at the same rate as the culture and materializing the result of this growth, changing gradually the media of fine art from wall caves to clay tablets, scrolls, Illuminated manuscripts (Figure 2), walls, books and canvas among others. In most cases, the primitive artistic representation was meant as an extension of communication that was turning into a self-contained creative discipline independent from our evolution-bred instincts and as way in which we assert our identities as individuals and break out of the narrow roles nature cast us in (3). However, the key feature of artistic creativity was always the link to its social environment, R. Mason referred to the idea that artistic activity, including illustration, should somehow reflect the society (past and present) that it stems from (4). The progress of technique and technology also allowed a wide variety of creative expressions.

This gradual change between art and society, and probably the total sum of the human knowledge, has been suffering a dramatic and exponential increasing in its speed since the Renaissance (5), changing constantly the interaction between each other and in particular allowing the specialization of different artistic expression. While it is true that the debate to establish the differences between fine arts and illustration has been futile and in most of the cases depends on the interpretation of the meaning of art, it is essential to point out the turning point in which each discipline took different paths and explain the constants of change for the illustrators since then.

Some authors hold that the main difference and what separates illustration from fine art is a paycheck (6). However it is necessary to outline the historical context. For the first 30.000 years of art, artists were able to earn a decent living working for kings, priests, pharaohs and popes (figure 3). When this reigning class began to disappear from the society they were replaced for a new commercial class that became the new patrons of arts (7).

In the same way, the earlier Illustrations and artistic graphic expressions were part of the social communication in some cases to reach those who could not read (2) and a most important function, for the transmission of the culture between the highest social spheres. Each single one of those art pieces, whether a book, a painting, a mural, a sculpture or any other were a unique and unmistakable piece of artwork destined for a selected audience.

In spite of this, everything changed with Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of Printing Press in 1450 creating a system that was marked in Western culture as the first viable method of disseminating ideas and information from a single source to a large and far-ranging audience (8). In the same way, the development of printmaking and the utilization of copper, zinc and wood plates (9) for the reproduction of images and in combination with the Printing Press, started a new era of democratized art and visual communication.

Under these new circumstances, artists adapted their practices through two different approaches, according to David Apatof:

The first was to produce what we now call “fine” or “gallery” art for the private moneyed class and corporate art collections. The second path opened as a result of the newly invented printing press: rather than selling a picture to a wealthy patron, artists could now make multiple copies of a picture and sell them for smaller amounts to larger numbers of (less-wealthy) purchasers. (7)

Since then, illustrators have been inherently related with mass visual communication and directly linked with the evolution of the technique of reproduction and dissemination of ideas, forcing the illustrator to improve and even to break the traditional conventions of their practices when the cultural and social inertia is shattered by sudden changes in economic, political or technological fields or even when the artistic paradigm changes. This rate of consecutive changes has been developing on each occasion in shorter time periods since the 15th century with the Printing Press affecting Illustration directly, the 17th and 18th with the improvement of etchings (figure 4), engravings, and lithographs allowed for a speedier process and the ability to reach a wider audience, the 19th and the early 20th centuries are considered the golden age of illustration. However, again since 1970s with the improvement of the technology and in particular with the growth of photography but also with the inclusion of graphic design as new creative discipline made illustration take a back stage role and lose its place in the market (10) slowed the rate of change probably up to mid the 1990s.

In this decade, again, the historical constant of technological advances and social–economic changes have marked the “evolution” of the illustration. On one side we have the new and powerful capacity of the computers, the introduction of graphic software like Photoshop, but

above all we have the establishment of internet as a mass communication media. On the other hand there is a new generation of artists with a hunger for creative experimentation and with the firm conviction in the rights of creative liberties from the point of view of their own authorial practice, looking for the total control of their own creations in the way we understand today. (11)



1. Merrian-Webster, Dictionary. [Online] 2013. [Cited:
Novenber 28, 2013.]
2. David Bland, A History of Book Illustration (London : Faber and Faber Limited, 1958), p.
3. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art (New York : Kitchen Sink Press,
1993) p. 166.

4. Robert Mason,. in Authorial illustration, from The Authorial Illustrator: 10 years of the
Falmouth Illustration Forum, ed. by Steve Braund, Mat Osmond and Catrin Morgan
(Penryn, Atlantic Press 2012) p. 16.
5. Dez Vylenz and Moritz Winkler, The Mindscape of Alan Moore, Glenn Doherty, Florian
Fischer, Alan Moore. 2005. DVD
6. Toni Fitzgerald, “Is There a Fine Art To Illustration?”. [Online]
2013. available from
[Cited: November 15, 2013.]
7. David Apatof, “The Old Question Finally Answered: “What is the Difference Between
Illustration and Fine Art?” [Online] 2011available from [Cited:
November 15, 2013.]
8. Century, Jones International and Jones Digital. “The History of Printing” [Online] 1999. [Cited: November 30, 2013.]
9. Mugnai, Francesco. ” A Brief History Of Illustration (Part I)”
[Online] 2011. available from
of-illustration-part-i/. [Cited: November 30, 2013.]
10. Fabulous Noble Team. “Illustration: Then to Now”. [Online]
2013. available from
[Cited: November 30, 20133.]
11. Steve Braund, in Illustrator as Author. from The Authorial Illustrator: 10 years of the
Falmouth Illustration Forum, ed. by Steve