What is illustration?

The origin, (circa 1590) of the word comes from the Latin equivalent, illustra, or one who enlightens, adorns, and explains. In 1680 the meaning becomes “one who draws pictures”. With the development of the printing process the rise of artists hired to illustrate everything from news, politics, humorous ideas, advertising and national events grew with the public’s continuing need for information.

Their images are very  much a part of our visual history so let’s identify a few;

The Early Years 

The benevolent image of Santa Claus, (along with all the illustrations for Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas,) Civil War illustration, and the iconic Republican elephant and the Democrat donkey; all came from the mind and pen of Thomas Nast (1840-1902.) 

The settling of our American West was captured by the famous Frederick Remington (1861-1909) whose images instilled in us the reputations of the ‘rough and tough’, shoot-em up’ cowboys.


Accusations of "not true artists" ...

Iscapist literature called Pulp Fiction was a major player in the illustration /publication market. The public needed a relief from the suffering of The Depression and WWI and the rise of Hitler. These types of publications filled that need with artists such as Margaret Brundage(1900-1976), often going as M. Brundage, so as not to appear as a women painting for the pulps,  and Rafael DeStoto(1904-1992) whose career spanned 60 years with the genre.

 Unfortunately this was the era which stirred accusations from the expressionist painters that illustrators were not true artists. The argument was these types paintings or drawings where not linked to expression or creativity but just assignments for money. (Hum… I wonder how Michelangelo would have felt about that, since he was hired numerous times to complete assignments for the POPE.)

Regrettably this thought process excluded and temporarily sidetracked, from the public’s appreciation, some of the most beautiful and highly skilled publications illustrators of the 20th century:  Norman Rockwell(1894-1978),  Maxfield Parrish(1870-1966), NC Wyeth, the brothers J. C.(1874-1952), and Frank Leyendecker(1876-1924). Thankfully they have taken their rightful place as greats of the illustration art genre with sales of their work reaching into multi-millions of dollars.
With the advent of World War II many illustrators became artist-war correspondents. Thomas Lovell (1909-1997) paintings remain the most extensive Marine Corps visual history of WWII. Many artists were hired by national magazines to spur the war effort.

One of these war-time illustrators was Alberto Vargas (1896-1983). HIs pin-up girls  were reproduced in the millions eventually earning him a 16 year contract with Playboy. 

Post-war saw a decline of traditional family magazines but a burgeoning of different venues for artists to be hired. Mad Magazine, Playboy, Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated were some of the most successful magazines thru the 20th century. One artist who worked for all of them was the wonderful Frank Frazetta (1928-2010). To this day he continues to have  a huge following for his depictions of sex, violence, exotic settings and high melodrama.

1950's - 1960's

Paperback books on the rise

 Giusieppe D'angelico Pino

Giusieppe D'angelico Pino

Gusieppe D’angelico Pino (1938-2010) began a book cover career in his later years, and by 1980 was the leading illustrator of romance novels for Bantam Books, Simon and Schuster, and Harlequin to name a few.

Childrens’ Book literature became very popular after post-war as parents wanted to focus on the enrichment of their families and wonderful artists filled that void.  We all know, Theodor Geisel /Dr.Seuss (1904-1991), Garth Williams(1912-1996) who brought to life the worlds of famous children’s book authors , E.B White  (Stuart Little and Charlottes Web) , and Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie). 

1970's - 2000's

Pushing Boundaries

George Lucas has been noted as saying that without the use of illustrators his work would have never been realized. One of these greats was Ralph McQuarrie (1929-2012). His images  set the stage for the original Star Wars Trilogy. The now famous Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game was brought to life by the co-creators of Gary Gygaz and Dave Arneson.  Walt Disney Studios was back into the forefront as The Little Mermaid brought a fresh look at fairy tales. Disney legend and lead character animator, Glen Keane(1954) is responsible for bringing life to those beloved characters. And as the century was coming to an end, who could forget Mary Grand Pre's( 1954) famous illustrations of the highly successful Harry Potter book series.

Present Day

Illustration art has exploded into many directions with computer technology leading the way. Many artists are working both digitally and traditionally.  Artists are continuing to be hired to bring a third person’s concept to life. Today illustrators continue to work in  many industries and they continue to push the boundaries of imagination.

We’ve seen the fabulous work of Michael Kutsche who brought the unforgettable characters of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to the screen. Tony Deterlizzi’s imaginative The Spiderwick Chronicles and the exquisite  images from multi-talented illustrators Julie Bell and Boris Vallejo. 

The future is bright

No matter what medium an artist/illustrator uses it seems the root word of “illustra” still holds true. They continue to “adorn, enlighten, explain, and draw pictures”, bringing a myriad of creative ideas to life in magazines, book covers, card games, video work, movies, comics, toys and much more.  More and more of these types of artists are being trained and educated to take the the place of the greats which have  proceeded them.

Their work  will continue to add to our varied and creative visual history. 

SOURCES; Illustration Art: Americas Visual History, by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, May 2006
Courtesy of www.AskArt.com


ALL IMAGES  held by respective Copyright Holders