What is Illustration?

book cover, STEVEN HELLER and SEYMOUR CHWAST (2008) Illustration a Visual History. HNA Books.
book cover, STEVEN HELLER and SEYMOUR CHWAST (2008) Illustration a Visual History. HNA Books.

If someone opens a magazine or book today it is very likely to fine a picture in there, an illustration. But what is an illustration? A dictionary defines the word as follows: “something that illustrates, as a picture in a book or magazine.” or “An illustration is a visualisation or adepiction of a subject made by an artist, […] using a graphical representation.”

Humans surrounded them selfs with illustrations, as they appear in magazines, on CD covers, in books, in advertisements etc. Their purpose is, to make a topic or subject more attractive to us. It should emphasise a message and make it more memorable.

Another aim of an illustration is, to make something easier to understand (as found in: children books, educational medias etc.), due to the fact that the human brain understands and remembers something better, if it learns through a visual explanation, known as “Visual Learning”. Illustration is a form of language, a “visual language”, which is understandable for everyone, no matter of their origin, age or gender.This “language” used in several cases, due to it is not defined by a specific medium. One of the main area of application is the mass media, for the mass communication. Those two terms emphasise something very clear, the “mass”, the wide distribution of an illustration when it is published and the wide audience. Heller and Chwast mention in their book “Illustration a Visual History” (2008), that illustration is not so much limited by an edition as the medium it emerge in (print run).

However, not every illustration is the same, or can be defined in the same way. As fine art, there are existing different forms and styles. As well that both change through the time, influenced by the history and current affairs. Like fine art, it is possible to sort illustrations under specific categories, for example: comic, political, surreal, real or by the time period like: Art Deco, Expressionism, Impressionism etc.. The problem is, that often it is not obvious to which group a specific an illustration belongs. It is difficult to establish a criterion under witch all illustrations can be filed in.

Overall it can be said, that an illustration is a way to underline and support a topic in an artistic way, to help its audience to ease terms.


STEVEN HELLER and SEYMOUR CHWAST (2008) Illustration a Visual History. HNA Books.


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