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.)

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