Is Illustration Art?

Is Illustration Art?
Many of you know that I am an illustrator. I am a teacher first and an illustrator second. The other day I got in a rather heated discussion with one my colleagues who is also my good friend about where illustration fits into the world of art.

He is trained as a painter, but I was still shocked to find out that he did not consider Illustration as a form of Art. What, illustration not an art? Needless to say, I was shell-shocked. Being an illustrator, I know first-hand that it is truly a form of art.

But why did HE feel this way? After our argument, I decided to figure out where his opinions came from.

We attended different schools within the same state but both of us were, of course, art majors. Each school has a decidedly different approach to Art School. His school has a more traditional approach, teaching drawing, painting, and sculpture as the core institutions of art making. My school takes a more commercial approach.

The traditional disciplines of drawing, painting, and sculpture are given their due, but students are encouraged to explore commercial endeavors such as Graphic Design, Photography, Architecture, and Illustration.

During our discussion, he pointed out that he had certain professors that scoffed at illustration being an art form.  I think that this plays a role in his opinion.  He argued that since the idea originates with someone else as is the case in illustration, then the finished product is not art.  Instead, the idea should come from the artist, in order for it to be actual art.  I pointed out to him that commissions are not the artist’s ideas, but rather those of the client.

He argued that perhaps, this was illustration.

Many artists throughout history created what a client imposed upon them.  Take Michelangelo and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for example. 

Was this Illustration?

Lightmatter Sistine Chapel ceiling

The Pope commissioned Michelangelo for this work. 

Society of Illustrators director Terrence Brown says, “People think illustrators are hired hands–[they’re] anything but, They’re artists, and they want to put themselves into everything they do, even though it has to be a picture of George Bush; even though it has to be vertical because TIME magazine is published vertically; even though it has to have the top 20 percent relatively detail-free so that the T-I-M-E shows.”  

He points out that illustrators must work under tight time constraints within deadlines.  “There’s no downtown gallery painter who even has a chance of doing that,” he said.

The focus of Fine Art may be design with the subject becoming secondary.  While illustration’s primary focus IS the subject, with design becoming secondary.  But should Illustration be excluded from the world of fine art because of the focus?  I think not.

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My friend pointed out that Illustration is commercial, and that since it is commercial, it is about money and not the art.  My argument is this: fine artists WANT to sell their artwork. 

They may sell it in a gallery or through another avenue, but ultimately they want money for their work.  If they didn’t, they would give it away. 

It’s ALL commercial. Illustration just has the ability to reach a broader audience because it is created to be printed.

I read somewhere that the division between commercial art and fine art began when illustration and photography really began to take off in the early 1900’s.  Fine artists and critics began to distinguish themselves from commercial artists by arguing that commercial art was a lower form of art.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Illustrator Alex Rosmarin states, “…illustration and drawing are two different categories and can’t be compared in a straightforward way. ‘Drawing’ includes ‘illustration’. Drawing is a universal human activity. Illustration is something you might want to do with your drawing skills. It’s like comparing ‘playing music’ and ‘playing rock’. One compares rock and jazz, not music and rock, or music and jazz.”

Perhaps we should just make art and forget all the snobbery.


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Lesson Discussion

  1. Matt, I Think illustration is of course art. From Toluse latrec to any of the painters who did work for the church. So many were commissioned. Even some of Andrew Wyeth’s work in the early years were ilustrations influenced like his father.
    You are right; your friend is becoming an elitist it seems.

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