An illustration by any other name ...

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An illustration by any other name ...

From Castle.Proxies.AuthorProxy

Published on before 2005

Increasingly I believe that the distinction between art and illustration is artificial, and perhaps basically meaningless.

When a painting which is illustrating something, is done rather mechanically without much feeling or technical brilliance and with no strong emotional or thematic focus, we are more likely to say it's “illustration.”

But really it's just a poorly done work of art.

In fact, I would say that all fine art "illustrates" something or other.

A portrait illustrates what a specific person looks like, and if it's a really good portrait, it also captures the essence of their personality, and successfully blends that with all of the major parameters of fine painting in a superlative fashion, those being: drawing, modeling, perspective, illusion, tonality, color, paint handling, light, selective focus, etc.

Landscape and still life also "illustrates" the objects of their focus more or less successfully.

Many books are written and have illustrations specifically created for their stories.

Those "illustrations" are usually done faster and under commercial limitations, which often limits their quality. Such images have come to be called "illustrations" and paintings that seem to have qualitative limitations that remind us of those in books, tend to be degraded as little more than "illustrations". But there is nothing about that circumstance that would prevent artists from taking the same amount of time and consideration that they would when producing their other "finer" works, and producing "illustrations" which are equal in every respect to "fine art".

Conversely, there are unquestionably, an endless supply of poorly crafted "works of art" that are no better than such "illustrations".

Therefore, I conclude that there is no real difference between illustration and fine art that cannot just as readily be described as qualitative differences between any works of art.

Modernism during the past century has denigrated all works of art that show realism, as nothing more than "illustrations".

Realist artists, sensitive to these attacks, have desperately tried to distance themselves from "illustrators" in order to show the differences.... but to whom?

Modernist Deaf ears to anything we say anyway?

I think we need to clarify that the differences usually claimed between illustration and fine art are artificial, and then proudly point out that all fine art illustrates something. Otherwise it's not fine art. In fact it's not art at all. It might be fine craft, but not fine art.

Fine art "illustrates" at its best, powerful, universal, human emotions and themes, much the same as fine poetry, literature and theatre.

"Abstract expressionist" painting illustrates nothing beyond the artists willful and childish demand that anything they do is great because.... well.... it was done by them.

Precisely analogous to small children who expect their parents to celebrate their every waking movement, regardless to any objective qualitative considerations.

In fact, there are many illustrators who are suspicious about organizations that espouse fine art but exclude them. They're right to be suspicious, because of the clear hypocrisy that often is really pandering to the modernists as described above.

Artists should be included and elevated according to qualitative achievements, regardless of whether their work also happens to be potentially useful in illustrating a book.

Consider please the percentage of old master painting that illustrates the Bible.

Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini, Guercino, Lippi, Correggio, Tiepolo, Leonardo, etc. etc. were all then nothing more than illustrators if we insist on this artificial split between two mythical camps.


Founder and Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, Ross is the leading authority on William Bouguereau and co author of the recently published Catalogue Raisonné William Bouguereau: His Life and Works.