Contemporary Illustration

Illustration today is a very difficult subject to define. Some may say that it sits in a no-mans land between fine art and design due to the vast number of styles that have emerged over the past decade. This range has allowed the discipline to enter a plethora of opportunities in different markets. There is therefore a high demand for more unique styles to be developed and matured. Work that once seemed modern is now seen as being too digital and clinical, whereas individual and dynamic styles are becoming far more popular.  Clients are now looking for personality within styles and quite often quirky humour. To be successful, illustrators must continue to observe and adapt to whatever is in fashion at that time whilst adding their own unique ideas to it. For example, the repetitive pattern and swirls produced by vector graphics was a popular choice a short while ago, but is now being avoided as it is seen to be outdated. As computer software becomes updated so quickly, it allows for new ideas to be continuously explored. As there has become such a vast encyclopaedia of design and techniques that are always evolving, it would be a very difficult job to try and define every one individually. However, here are a few styles that are very popular yet very different in subject, technique and style.

Typical example of vector graphics that is becoming outdated.

Typical example of vector graphics that is becoming outdated.


The word collage originates from the French word ‘coller’ — meaning glue. Traditionally a collage would consist of cutting out and gluing down many different materials, for example, handmade paper, newspaper, fabric, and photographs. Collage allows the artist to create a completely new scenario, often rather surreal and eclectic. Positioning of the elements within a collage is very important to create the correct viewpoint, as the slight movement of a photograph could change the whole perspective of the final image. Collage is also effective when no narrative is needed as it allows for ‘cut and paste’ impression. Although traditional techniques are still used, they are often combined with photoshop techniques to create a more modern style. Photoshop permits options of textured appearance, change in colour and proportion and much more. However, some may argue that this modern day approach lacks in substance as the final piece would be completely 2-dimensional and not give as much impression of depth compared to a more 3-dimensional handmade piece.

Heather Landis 'Lead the Way'

Heather Landis ‘Lead the Way’

Emma Rios "Bombass and Parr" Book Cover

Emma Rios “Bombass and Parr” Book Cover


Manga is traditionally a Japanese genre of comic books and style of illustration. It is one of the most widely used styles in Japan today and is becoming more and more popular throughout the world. Manga has been in used as a style for centuries, evolving throughout the decades, yet the fundamental aspects of drawing remain the same. These detailed illustrations are primarily used for Manga comic books, but if successful enough, are animated into short episodes or even films called Anime. Traits of the Manga style include whimsical and colourful backgrounds and the characters facial features are often very similar, portrayed with large eyes, a small nose and a small mouth. To produce this style, the artist usually draws an initial line sketch and then renders the image with computer software programs.

Manga Illustration by Nobuhiro Watsuki

Manga Illustration by Nobuhiro Watsuki


When most people hear the word ‘typography’ they will usually associate it with the clean and precise lines of graphic design. However, recently there has be a far more illustrative approach to type where more imagination has been put into making the words look more appealing to the eye. Quite often artists will shape words into an associated image so that the image actually contains the word. As the message is already being conveyed through the actual words, the illustrator may often convey a second meaning, or reinforce this message through their visual approach to the typography.

Sam Bevington 'Sugar Skull'

Sam Bevington ‘Sugar Skull’


This contemporary style is quite often illustrated using black ink and watercolour but can be created using a multitude of mediums. It could almost be described as impressionist in its spontaneity and allows for excitement and fluidity in imagery. It is not a perfectionist style but instead uses its mistakes to add character to pieces as ‘happy accidents’. These illustrations are often isolated on a background of crisp white or cream paper and create an impression of being drawn in long fluid lines rather than many sketchy marks. Illustrator Christina Drejenstam explains,

“I draw almost exclusively in black and white with one accent colour, I also like to leave a part of the picture incomplete for the viewer to fill in.”

Lines that don’t meet fully against one another is another trait that loose illustration possesses which adds to the style. From an early age we are taught to keep colour within the lines but loose line illustration allows the artist to oppose this rule and create a feeling of freedom. The impression of movement that loose line illustration holds reflects the ever-evolving aspect of this style as well as contemporary illustration as a whole. 

Christina Drejenstam Wine glasses

Christina Drejenstam Wine Glasses

(Unable to find reference material as research was carried out previous to blog assignment.)


Illustration: From Caves to Computers – A Brief History

Illustration – A depiction that is used to educate, elucidate, inform, decorate and stimulate.

The first evidence of illustration came in the form of cave paintings from approximately 40,000 years ago. These cave paintings were used to record the events of that time and communicate with others, just like modern-day illustration. The earliest known cave painting was found in the cave of El Castillo, Northern Spain. This date coincides with the earliest known evidence for Homo sapiens in Europe and are believed by scientists to have been drawn by Neanderthals. Since then, illustration has been on a roller coaster ride to achieve the status that it holds today.

Cave Painting of El Castillo

During the 1400’s, Chinese woodcuts were used as the main medium to create illustrations. This technique of carving into a block of wood, rolling with ink and placing face down onto a piece of paper was the first form of printing. The invention of the printing press soon followed and therefore allowed for book illustration. The 17th and 18th centuries were  great periods for the development of new printing techniques, due to the discovery of etching, engraving, and lithography. Printing in these eras were used mainly for journals, books and posters with well-known illustrators such as William Hogarth, William Blake and George Cruikshank often employing these printing methods.

William Blake "the Ancient of Days" 1794

William Blake “The Ancient of Days” 1794

The ‘Golden Age’ of  illustration came between the 1800’s and 1900’s, when most illustrators became involved with book and magazine publications. Well known british artists of this time included Walter Crane, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Rackham who brought a truly whimsical approach to the British illustration scene. In Europe especially, illustrative styles seemed to mimic the art of the time which included the art deco and arts and crafts movements. However, in America, the illustration scene was being taken over by the exciting and dramatic styles of ‘Brandywine Illustrators’, who were taught by Howard Pyle, also known as “The Father of American Illustration”.

Arthur Rackam "Alice in Wonderland - At this the whole pack rose up into the air and came flying down upon her" 1907

Arthur Rackham “Alice in Wonderland – At this the whole pack rose up into the air and came flying down upon her” 1907

Between the 1900’s and 1950’s illustration was in high demand for wartime propaganda posters and leaflets. These posters would often include anything from simple instructions to purely motivational messages. A very well-known poster used at this time was designed by the successful illustrator James Montgomery. There were over 4 million posters printed for the first world war and the poster was then revived for use in WWII.

Examples of James Montgomery Illustrations for WWII

Examples of James Montgomery Illustrations for WWII

To brighten spirits after the war and encourage people to enjoy life again, companies would turn to advertising to urge the public to spend money on the more luxurious things in life. This ‘Advertising Goldmine’ of the 1950’s meant that illustrations could be seen all over, including billboards, magazines, food and drink packaging and television. During the 50’s, Graphic Design and Illustration began to combine together to create a new and modern style. A group of graduates from Cooper Union observed and very much influenced this leap in the communication design. The four graduates involved were Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Reynold Ruffins and Edward Sorel, who founded the highly successful ‘Push Pin Studios’ in 1954. The studios innovative outlook and modern practice led to a revolution in design and is still in existence today.

Examples of Typical 1950's Ads

Examples of Typical 1950’s Ads

Things quietened down for illustration during the 60’s and 70’s due to advances in photographic technology. Photography became dominant in  the media and took over the art scene. Media no longer needed the hand drawn depictions that illustration had to offer, as magazines and posters were taken over by glossy photographs which provided a more realistic representation of the subject. Over the 80’s and 90’s work was still fairly stagnant for illustrators. Technology tended to override the need for traditional illustration as it was still new and exciting. However, this lack of opportunity pushed artists to find new sources of work, and there was a small niche in the music scene for album cover and poster design. Having said this, it is debated that this territory was mainly dominated by graphic designers for their geometric, straight-edged traits that were in fashion at this time.

LP Cover Design By Alex Steinweiss

LP Cover Design By Alex Steinweiss

Just as it seemed as though illustration could become a lost art, a university student in Michigan was developing a in image editing program that would change the way illustrators worked and permit a revolution of artwork over the next decade and beyond. Adobe Photoshop and other softwares like Indesign and Illustrator have encouraged a new way of working. Julian Opie is one artist who was successful in applying these digital techniques to create minimalist, black outlined portraits. He is well known for his Album cover for Blur in the year 2000.

Julian Opie Illustration for 'Blur' Album Cover, 2000

Julian Opie Illustration for ‘Blur’ Album Cover, 2000

Illustration at present is a very exciting discipline. It has recently undergone a major resurgence and the range of diverse styles and techniques continue to grow constantly. Artists and clients are being more imaginative with how illustration can be used, so it can now be seen all over the commercial market, not just in books and advertising. The broader, less prescriptive briefs give illustrators more scope to be creative and experimental. The newest techniques are being combined with traditional practice and the boundaries are being pushed further and further each day. While it is unclear how illustration will develop in the future, it is certain that it will remain a significant artistic and cultural tool for years to come.

(Unable to find reference material as research was carried out previous to blog assignment.)