Wednesday, October 05, 2011


Over the years, many people have wrestled without progress over the difference between art and illustration.  The internet is riddled with silly theories on the subject:
In illustration the intent is most often the selling of a product.  When something noble is put to ignoble ends, there is a deterioration of value. 
The distinction lies in the fact that Art is the idea (brought to life) while an illustration is only a depiction (or explanation) of an idea.
Fine Art is art for art's sake. Even if you are doing a commission for a client, it would still be fine art.  But illustration is illustrating a story or idea.
Even talented artists and illustrators have been tormented by the distinction. Illustrator Robert Weaver complained:
Until the illustrator enjoys complete independence from outside pressure and direction, complete responsibility for his own work, and complete freedom to to do whatever he deems fit-- all necessaries in the making of art-- then illustration cannot be art but only a branch of advertising.
With all due respect to Weaver, it's difficult to think of a fine artist with "complete independence from outside pressure and direction" whose work was not worse off for it.  

Despite all this hand wringing about the difference between art and illustration,  the question seems more concerned about social status than the quality of a picture.

The real difference between art and illustration has nothing to do with the talent of the artist, or the quality of the work, or its morality, or its intelligence.  It's far too easy to identify examples of illustration that are superior to "fine" art in each of these categories, just as it is easy to identify examples of fine art that are superior to illustration.  It takes no effort to puncture any categorical distinction between the two types of work.

In my view, there is no inherent difference between art and illustration except the way in which the artist is compensated. For the first 30,000 years of art, artists earned a decent living working for kings, priests, pharaohs and popes.  Art was commissioned for temple walls and public spaces.  It adorned palaces and royal tombs and the homes of aristocrats.  Then kings began to disappear from the earth. Popes stopped commissioning new art.  They were replaced by a new commercial class, fueled by the birth of capitalism and the invention of the corporation.  This class became the new patrons of arts.

Art's sponsors and subject matter changed, but the quality of the work did not. The same talented artists who once painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the walls of the Great Temple at Karnak simply migrated to the new bosses in order to feed their families.

Artists adapting to the new realities found two primary paths.  The first was to produce what we now call "fine" or "gallery" art for the private moneyed class and corporate art collections.  The second path opened as a result of the newly invented printing press: rather than selling a picture to an individual  patron,  artists could now make multiple copies of a picture and sell them for much smaller amounts to large numbers of (less-wealthy) purchasers.  If this option had existed during the golden age of Greece or the early Italian Renaissance, you can bet some of the greatest artists would have taken advantage of it.  In fact, when this business model first began to emerge with the invention of etching, some of the greatest artists, such as Durer and Rembrandt, quickly embraced it:

Rembrandt turned to etchings as a way of selling multiple copies of a single image to Dutch merchants.

The story of that technology is the true history of illustration. There would be no modern illustration without two key developments:
  1.  The ability to create and distribute quality copies to large audiences; and
  2.  The ability to collect small, proportional payments for that art from large audiences.
Because of these developments, the most talented artists (who most people could never afford to hire individually under the old business model for art) could now create beautiful pictures in to entertain and delight the public.  The artists are paid with a tiny fraction of the price of a magazine or book or video game or movie ticket.  By aggregating tiny payments from vast audiences, we paid handsome sums to great magazine illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker, just as we pay handsome sums to the talented creators at Pixar today.   Similarly, commercial artists who illustrate products for mass markets get paid very well when a penny or two from each sale goes into the manufacturer's design or marketing budget. Michelangelo never had the option of getting paid that way.

To understand how new opportunities opened up for artists, look at this series of pirate illustrations by Howard Pyle, the father of modern illustration.  As the technology for reproducing his pictures improved, the public became more excited by illustration and the demand increased dramatically:

The earliest Pyle pictures were printed in magazines only after wood engravers carved Pyle's images into wooden printing blocks.
The engraver even signed the recreated image (see inset). 

Crude color was added to enhance the early images.

Later, audiences grew as the invention of photo engraving captured the subtler and more sensitive aspects of Pyle's originals .

Improved printing technology finally reproduced the full colors and technique of the original, leading to the golden age of illustration
and a proliferation of illustrated books and magazines.

Note how the quality of reproductions, and the newly sophisticated vehicles for delivering them to the public,  transformed the economics of art and inspired new bursts of creativity.  This was the Cambrian explosion of modern illustration.  A handful of black and white journals with a few sparse wood engravings, such as Scribners and Century, evolved into dozens of splashy, well designed, full color magazines.  

In sum, the twin pillars of modern illustration are 1.) quality reproduction, and 2.) the ability to collect marginal payments from large numbers of viewers.  These two developments created a new economic model with robust opportunities for talented artists.  They are the only categorical difference between modern illustration and "fine art."  

Doesn't the method of payment affect the character of the art?  Yes, but a better question is: does it affect art for the better or worse?  It is undeniable that because of its wider audience, illustration often appeals to broader taste than fine art.  But as Shakespeare proved, broad appeal to a popular audience is not incompatible with greatness.  Even more importantly, the broadness of the illustration audience combined with the relentless scrubbing of the commercial marketplace seems to have inoculated illustration from much of the narcissism, decadence and irrelevance which has now infected the "fine" art market.


Anonymous said...

I'll offer what works for me: illustration tends to favor narration over the decorative (not a pejorative term in times past), and fine art (assuming it is not dysfunctional) tends to favor the decorative over narration. Rockwell's work is just as ill-suited to adorn the Würzburg Residenz as Tiepolo's work is ill-suited to the cover of The Saturday Evening Post (and I'm not referring to subject matter). Of course, there can be near equilibrium (Cornwell as an example of an illustrator).

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- under your test, does fine art that tells a story ( Renaissance, pre-Raphaelite, Goya, Homer, Sargent, Hopper, blah blah blah) count as illustration or fine art?

Do book illustrations that decorate a text (illuminated manuscripts with floral borders that don't advance a narrative, Korans and other Islamic books decorated with abstract geometric designs, those 19th century books of poetry by Riley and others where each facing page is decorated with a realistic drawing of flowers, but which don't contain a narrative to be advanced, blah blah blah) count as decorative fine art or book illustrations?

Peter Sattler said...

I agree with etc.'s practical/functional distinction between art and illustration.

One might add, though, that illustration's reliance on "narrative" is actually a function of its reliance on a "story" outside itself. Even the word "illustrate" implies that it takes its cues from some external "script" (actual, commercial, or editorial) that takes precedence.

I think we would say, for example, that a really nice picture of a puppy or an abstract squiggle does not function as "illustration" of a war story. (And if we decide that the puppy or squiggle *does* function as illustration, we will have made that decision probably by puzzling out some way in which the image "fits" and supplements said war story.)

Works of "art" can also link themselves to pre-existing stories of course, but when we think of them *as* art, we tend not to focus on those supplementary qualities. We stop worrying about whether the painting adequately "illustrates" the Bible story or whether the portrait looks like Countess So-And-So. We grant art its formal and practical independence.

In other words, I agree with etc.'s ideas. But I think that the narration/decorative divide is a distinction we make when decide to look at something *as* art or *as* illustration. These definitions come to the art, in part, from the outside.

But one should note that artists can bring these ideas and approaches to their work as well. Artists look at their own words as art or as illustration, too, and that influences the kind of work they make.

And that leads me back to David's post. It seems slightly perverse to brush off all the practical effects of working in a world where your creations are seen (and judged and compensated) as essentially secondary to some larger narrative, as opposed to working in a world where they are primarily seen as independent of those outside narratives.

(BTW, David, do you think your definition of illustration works in the Internet age? Does a drawing of mine become "illustration" the moment I scan it and send it out others -- or, more particularly, when I ask for micropayments for access to my images?)

Peter Sattler said...


I think your arguments and rhetoric rely a bit too much one finding some watertight definition that covers all cases ("what about exceptions X, Y and z?"). Asking about such exceptions and inclusions it worthwhile, but it ultimately seems a bit self-serving, asking of other definitions a level of universality that you do not seem to apply to your own.

Take your statements that "there is no inherent difference between art and illustration except the way in which payment to the artist is processed" or that "reproduction [that allow one] to collect marginal payments from large numbers of viewers." Aren't these open to the same kinds of counter-examples, real and hypothetical?

* Does a painting become an illustration the moment it is reproduced for distribution, like the posters you buy in art museum shops?

* Does my collection of drawings become illustrative the moment I have them scanned, bound, and sold?

* Are any artist's lithographic prints illustrative by definition, simply because of the means of reproduction -- or perhaps the number of real or potential buyers? (How about a run of 10 copies, or a run of 1000?)

In the end, your definition is interesting -- and I like how it deflates the distinctions in to nothingness.

But it doesn't seem to speak to the real world. When someone wants to becomes an illustrator or thinks of his work as illustration, he is not (just) thinking, about the means and method of reproduction or distribution, is he? Isn't he also think about the expectations we have for illustrative art -- and isn't that therefore just as real a part of the functional definition?

[This was written in response to your reply to etc.]

Anonymous said...

I never intended to present an absolute dichotomy; just generalizations, as I think that's about as far as one can get on this issue. As far as specifics go, I'm perfectly happy leaving it up to the individual to determine that.

kev ferrara said...

I would say there are qualitative distinctions inherent in art's variations. That is to say, a great artist generally produces a higher quality aesthetic currency than a weak artist, and there are qualitative distinctions one can draw between primarily decorative works, primarily descriptive works, primarily entertaining works, primarily exploitative works, primarily editorial/allegoric works, and images that aspire to some truth value through the methods of rhetorical poesis.

These legitimate distinctions have nothing to do with the overly vague, but value charged, labels assigned to one commercial realm by another, which can only be parsed politically. Politics being the method by which rational self interest distorts market knowledge for the purpose of gaining competitive advantage.

Graham Yarrington said...

Interesting argument. I think your two major differences are pretty spot on. For the record, I dont mind these long text posts. This is 100% my favorite place on the internet to learn about illustration. I love when you compare classic/contemporary illustrators. A professor of mine was very pleased when i brought up Bernie Fuchs in class today. Please make it be known if you ever speak in New York, I would love to hear one of your lectures on illustration in full. Keep up the good work, whenever you make a new post my day gets a little better.

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc and Peter Sattler-- The exceptions to our rules are what will put each of us to the test.

Whenever possible, I try to approach these knotty issues using good scientific method. (I recognize that this exercise is not true science, but I admire the methodology and think it is a healthy goal to strive for. Helps keep me honest.) Scientists seeking out the "rules" of nature humbly acknowledge that "nature is as nature does"-- if something occurs that violates one of our "laws of nature," it just means that our law was wrong, and we have to rewrite the law to include the new phenomenon. We can say for example that it is a natural "law" that the sun will come up in the morning, but if the sun doesn't come up tomorrow it just means we have to rewrite the law to take into account the contrary event.

If there lots of examples begin to accumulate that are inconsistent with our definitition of illustration or fine art,it is probably time to change our definition.

Peter, I try to be very sensitive to applying a double standard when testing the principles we are discussing. There is no worse sin in this type of exercise than "asking of other definitions a level of universality that you do not seem to apply to your own." My answer to all of your examples is basically the same: My proposed standard doesn't apply to what posterity might do to a picture (for example, whether future generations reproduce it as a poster in a museum gift shop) or whether you decide someday to scan and bind a collection of your fine art drawings. I really intended my definition as a test of what brings the art into being. What motivated the artist to create the art to begin with? how was it paid for? what were the artist's intentions and economic incentives?

I do agree that printmaking is essentially a fine art precursor to the business model of illustration. But if we are talking about "modern illustration" (as opposed to ancient illustration, where you could argue that Rembrandt's painting of biblical scenes or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel are illustrations under Etc, etc's definition) I think we can all reach a pretty clear, common understanding of the difference between fine art lithography or etching on one hand, and modern illustration on the other.

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TheDonQuixotic said...

Hey David, I have been following yoru blog for a long time, and I've loved your posts a lot. I couldn't find your email, so I decided to comment on this to ask you a question.

I'm an undergrad at Brandeis U, in Boston, and I was wondering if you would like to come speak at my department's career panel. It's a fine arts department, with very little attention paid to the commercial or illustrative sides of art. I am an undergrad rep, and it's my job to bring speakers. I was hoping you might be able to come. You are in the Boston area right? The career panel is in Nov. You can contact me at

Mellie said...

David, I think you have nailed it.

You offer a very neat explanation of why illustration tends to be more stylistically conservative than contemporary "fine art", i.e. the need to appeal to a broader commercial audience and suit mass reproduction.

Illustration has a different character to fine art because of the conditions of its creation and reproduction, but trying to argue that one is superior to the other is a sterile debate.

larry said...

I like truffles and wagyu beef as much as the next guy, but growing up on a working class family with fa brood of siblings, I have a soft spot for peasant food - the food my parents could afford. I would have a hard time convincing many in the culinary arts that a stock pot of chicken, white rice and canned creamed mushroom soup is delicious, but that, or a vat of mom's spaghetti and meatballs, has the power to bring me back to a happy place.

The funny thing is, that I agree with your arguments over the last two posts, but I have to consider that it may be the ends justifying the means.

I love illustration and representational art, but I have to consider that for a very affordable price, my home as well as every home in america had great illustration delivered to their door, occupy their space, parallel their lives and it may be hard to separate the nostalgia of family get togethers, the smell of moms cookies, or the thrill of christmas morning with the art that lie on their coffee tables.

I know that the above is not an argument, nostalgic and great are not mutually exclusive. Certainly art directors did a fine job of commissioning the very best art. And consumers most certainly wouldn't have purchased the magazines at such rates were it not for said art, but would they have purchased said art without the benefit of the magazine?

I can live with apples and oranges.

JonInFrance said...

Thanks for replying to my comment on the last post - I thought I'd been a troll for a moment there, oups! OK, so what about film - moving pictures - do you think if those old masters were alive today they'd be content with static images? Apart from that, I think the intellectual fibre (= sincerity?) comes through. The proble with the Heritage Illustatration October Sale auction is the concepts/attitudes are so puerile -adolescent art

MORAN said...

I'm personally sick of hearing artists argue about this but they can't seem to stop. Critics too.

"I think the question is a fake one, concerned more about social status than about the nature of art."

Yes! Finally some truth. So why are we still talking about it? Thanks for a new perspective. This is the best answer I've seen so far.

Tom said...

Hi David
You are right but at least the western artist of the past illustrated religious stories that at a fundamental level deal with our essential human nature. Pirates, Santa Claus, Ford motorcars and Rexall well what can one say. To lump Howard Pyle and Norman Rockwell with Rembrandt and Tiepolo seems just a little nutty to me.
In contrast to the West, Chinese art was essentially philosophy and expression of the universal intelligence that runs through all things. In China art was never put into the service of other disciplines, whether they were of an economic or of a religious nature. Much of the art work in the early 20th century in the West has been an attempt to find out what art is, once it was freed from the it’s economic bank book as Mark Rothko observed. One only has to read Clement Greenberg to get a sense of this project. James Joyce did a much better job then Greenberg though. For Joyce what is art is what is proper to art and only in the service of art. Rhythm and the arrangement of the work is art’s true subject and it is the only thing that can give rise to the aesthetic emotion.

To get a feel of that emotion I quote the painter Wang Wei,
“These beautiful days in Hsiang-yang,
Make drunken my old mountain heart”

WW said...
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António Araújo said...


wholly in agreement. The endless discussion of what is and is not Art can be made much more objective in the form "which of us will be getting the money?".
If not for the fact that there is grant money, prizes, and so on, to be claimed, who would care if placing a urinal in a wall counts as art or not?(and of course, apart from the money there is the fame, social status, etc, but these are variations)

For someone who doesn't have his finances dependent on the outcome, these high philosophical questions become therefore less interesting than such side issues as "how did Franklin Booth manage to make those thin white lines" and "how do I get my gouache to flow from this %$%# nib".

António Araújo said...

By the way, kev, you are probably the guy to ask. How did Booth make those thin white lines? Did he just save the whites? Did he have some smart tools or methods beyond just going at it with a nib endlessly? I found that if you leave a fat white line and then progress into it with a nib you can thin it reliably to that point, but it does take forever and requires lots of concentration, and I imagine he came up with some better idea over time(?)
(then again, stipplers don't seem to have anything more sophisticated than endless patience, so maybe this is the case too)

(I have been obsessing over this since I got Taraba's book (41 illustrators)).

अर्जुन said...

'Today mercantilism rules [and] the painter cannot follow his inclination, but [instead must follow] those imposed by the market. He has to fool the public, and the buyer, and trick the jury.' ~ Sorolla 1899*

JonInFrance said... "The proble with the Heritage Illustatration October Sale auction is the concepts/attitudes are so puerile -adolescent art"

~ I concur, browsed the whole show, not a single image of a kid pissin' on a bitch.

Tom said... "To lump Howard Pyle and Norman Rockwell with Rembrandt and Tiepolo seems just a little nutty to me."

~ Whose oeuvre can compare with the quality of Rembrandts steady stream.

Tom also said… "In contrast to the West, Chinese art was essentially philosophy and expression of the universal intelligence that runs through all things."

~ So, art is kinda like tears?

Walter Wick said... "Commercial illustration tends to be specific to a time and place; the fine artist strives for longevity."

~ You hit that nail right on the head.

António Araújo said... "which of us will be getting the money?".

'I will paint for money any time, any subject, any size.' ~ Sorolla*

* The Painter Joaquin Sorolla by Edmund Peel, 1989

António Araújo said...

>image of a kid pissin' on a bitch

trough a hoop, no less! *That* is what makes it timeless!

kev ferrara said...


Just got 41 illustrators myself (man, what a book!). And If you like booth, you must get "painter with a pen" put out by fleskes a few years back. That book put me on the floor.

Regarding your question, I'm not the only one around here to have held Booth originals in my hands. In my opinion/recollection Booth performed his pen and ink miracles "in one" as they say. And this matches with booth's assertion (mentioned in painter with a pen) that the white lines are just white paper.

I've seen Wrightson Frankenstein originals and that's how he did it too. No opaque white, no scraping out that I could detect.

Once you have control of the pen, duplicating Booth's methods, a la carte, isn't outrageously difficult. I've duplicated some of his easier passages. But putting it all together with a composition and beautiful drawing... That is a feat of another order.

kev ferrara said...

Reminds me, I was in Wrightson's studio one day and asked him what pen nibs he used. He hefted up a cardboard box from the floor, inside of which was about 27,000 shiny new pen nibs, and said "These."

António Araújo said...

that's what I feared!...:(

Meanwhile I just stumbled upon a comment of yours in another board that says that Booth ruined his eyesight early...not too surprising, I guess, if he was saving all those minuscule whites...

Another question: I wonder if it would make sense to do that kind of drawing with a scratchboard instead (to facilitate the white on black parts). I only used a scratchboard a couple of times but I seem to remember that in the black over white parts you had good control over the nibs and that the scratching out (with a good blade) was pretty much like drawing. Do you have any experience of that? What would the disadvantages be, if one is only concerned with the final result and not with having an original in pure ink-on-paper technique?

>He hefted up a cardboard box from >the floor, inside of which was about >27,000 shiny new pen nibs, and said >"These."


That reminds me of that old anecdote about Durer's "special" brushes for making those wonderful thin hairs in his pictures (there were no special brushes)

>you must get "painter with a pen"

I was going to buy that a few days ago but then went for Manuel Auad's book (strictly because "painter with a pen" was expensive and I am trying to be austere). Do you know that one, and if so, how do they compare?


kev ferrara said...


That durer story reminds me of Nick Meglin's story about the EC guys trying to sneak a peek at Frazetta's magic pencil, only to find him using a junky stub of pencil that was sold at that time for, literally, two cents. To compound the insult, it was found, too, that Frazetta used a Disney Mickey Mouse watercolor set.

There was similar stories about the hunt for FR Gruger's methods, which were also, it turned out, not as mythic as was thought by his admirers. What became known as Gruger Board was actually Railroad Blank, a "cheap cardboard used for mounting silverprints."

Similar wonder swirled around Leyendecker.

Dean Cornwell had the best line about all this: It is difficult to convince the average student that pictures are not produced with paint. Neither are they made from the wrist. (as quoted on Armand Cabrera's blog, Art and Influence)

kev ferrara said...

Haven't seen the Auad book, so I'd be curious for your take on it. Apparently there is no overlap between the two booth books.

António Araújo said...

>Haven't seen the Auad book, so I'd >be curious for your take on it.

I'll be sure to say something when it arrives.

>Frazetta used a Disney Mickey Mouse watercolor set

Yeah! First time I heard that I thought "Mickey Mouse set" was some american expression for "cheap set", but no, he actually meant an actual frigg'n Mickey Mouse watercolor set :D

When I was a kid I couldn't afford the Rotring pens my classmates had, so I used an old rusty dip pen that used to be my mother's. I don't know how much time I spent dreaming that one day I'd have a Rotring too and then my drawings would be amazing. Years later I finally got one and found that Rotrings are crap for freehand drawing and my dip pen was actually pretty cool :D
The myth of the special tool that will give you wings is prevalent, it seems...misinformation coupled with wishful thinking...Booth, though, is proof that misinformation can turn out to be somewhat productive in some people!

kev ferrara said...

.Booth, though, is proof that misinformation can turn out to be somewhat productive in some people

Yes, good point!

kev ferrara said...

Btw, "Mickey Mouse" was an American slang term for "kid stuff" or "amateur." When applied to a technical tool, it also translates as "cheap." And I had thought the same thing as you when first reading that anecdote.

Anonymous said...

you could argue that Rembrandt's painting of biblical scenes or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel are illustrations under Etc, etc's definition

I can understand that anyone with an affinity for narrative would logically find that the narrative elements predominate in those examples, and, most any other works (I also firmly believe that identifying and processing narrative is the more natural and instinctive impulse). Thus the narrative-decorative continuum that works for me would be of little value to a person with such an affinity. For me personally, I find that the decorative elements predominate in those two examples you named, especially Michelangelo.

अर्जुन said...

António ~ The text from the era is the original edition of Drawing With Pen and Ink, by Arthur L. Guptill (introduction by Franklin Booth)

Re: Mickey Mouse ~ Music is Magic!

kev ferrara said...


My reading of aesthetics defines decoration as design that does not arrive at any cruxes or climaxes. That is, there is no hierarchy of dramatic interest or tension. Textiles, for instance, due to their repetitiousness, are clearly decorative in design and effect. Any expression of mood that lacks narrative interest, like wallpaper, a blue wall, a stucco facing, or other kinds of abstract patterning will be decorative.

A great narrative painting can be appreciated solely on it's decorative merits. Yet it is still narrative at core... With crescendoing dramatic moments playing against other static elements. Hardly close to a mere rendering of tone or textile pattern.

Harvey Dunn taught his students that the old masters were illustrators who taught the story of Christianity through their pictures.

David Apatoff said...

TheDonQuixotic-- Thanks for the offer. I am probably the least qualified person on the planet to speak on a career panel about the arts, as my own career is in a very different field. Also, I'm afraid I don't live near Massachusetts. You can write me any time at However, you might find more relevant experience in some of the articulate professional artists who comment on this blog.

Graham Yarrington-- You are extremely kind, and I appreciate it. From my own perspective, these long posts are sometimes necessary but are never the most satisfying, whether for reader or writer. I have no plans to be lecturing in NY, as no one else is quite as foolhardy as the Norman Rockwell Museum. However, the estimable Sterling Hundley is giving a talk at the Society of Illustrators on October 18th, and I'd recommend that highly.

Mellie wrote, "trying to argue that one is superior to the other is a sterile debate." Agreed!

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Anonymous said...

Since the discussion was about fine art, I assumed it would be apparent that I was using "decoration" in a broader, design context and not just for, say, a chevron pattern. I tend to like the word decoration because, one, I believe that it was the very context that fine art was born in and needs to return to, two, it connotes functionality, and three, just might serve as a check against some of the hubris that often surrounds fine art.

I thought you fully endorsed semantic creativity. :0

kev ferrara said...

I take the position that fine art was decorative because it was great, not the reverse. I can't imagine dredging for decorative works will net any fine art that toots your barge horn. Unless you are looking for Lalique.

Green Mountain Realty said...

Very nice illustrations and yes I believe that illustrations such as these most definately qualify as fine art.

António Araújo said...

Thank you for the link! I do have the 60 th aniversary edition (now called rendering in pen and ink) but it is not fully identical to the original and doesn't have the introduction.

Kev, ah, so I was both wrong *and* right :D. Thanks for the clarification on that idiomatic expression.

Matthew Harwood said...

Antonio -- drawing with a scratchboard

I've been experimenting with a technique similar to scratchboard that might be helpful for getting thin white lines.

With a round tipped stylus that won't tear the surface (I use an empty ballpoint pen), emboss lines into the surface of a white 4 ply board like museum board or illustration board. I find a hot press surface works best. Then rub over the embossed lines with a flat tipped Prismacolor pencil. I've been using color but black works too.

If you find this useful and produce something interesting, let me know . I call it the dead pen technique.

अर्जुन said...

Re: Decorative art

I highly recommend reading chapter VIII of, Frank Brangwyn and his work. 1910 By Walter Shaw Sparrow (pdf available via Google books)

"His work, considered separately and as a whole, comes within the great province of decoration…"

kev ferrara said...

That quote is out of context. Brangwyn's work, when taken as a whole, includes bowls, chairs, textiles, room design, typography, furnishings of all sorts of decorative design work, and on and on. Taken in isolation, as a fine art painter, he was an illustrator.

अर्जुन said...

""That quote is out of context.""

No it's not, just read the damn chapter. Ha!Ha!…

Anonymous said...

Unless you are looking for Lalique.

I have a Lalique monograph; I've already found him. But again, the discussion is about fine artists and illustrators. I have more in mind artists who, through cross-pollination in the visual arts (typically in what were referred to as the "sister arts": painting, sculpture, and architecture), are practically predestined to arrive at a sense of design that is decorative (see Brangwyn's Wiki bio), of whom Michelangelo is an archetype.

kev ferrara said...

Yeah, I didn't mean to say the quote was taken out of context, but that it lacked a sense of context as a statement. Sorry. (I blame it on the benadryl.)

But I do understand what was meant by "decorative" with respect to brangwyn at the time he was working. The flattening of shapes, highly designed as shapes, often outlined, bold colors and values... In order to "stay on the wall" and project the cartoon a great distance.

But there is great deal of overlap between those tenets and the tenets of magazine and book illustration. "staying on the page", strong value statements, punchy silhouettes, and all that. (the extent to which mural art flattens depth is easily matched by any number of illustrators.)

As well, if you read old book descriptions, on any number of occasions you will see the word "decorations" substituted for "illustrations", particularly in the English tradition. Over here, decorations tended to mean vignettes that incorporated typography and pure design elements.

I really can't think of an artist whose sense of design isn't in some way decorative. The one inviolate principle of decoration is visual harmony. And there's gazillions of ways to make that happen.

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Anonymous said...

I think there is far more to it and you are oversimplifying; there may be "gazillions of ways" in theory, but in reality there are very few ways to make it look right. I don't think there are too many artists around today that you could hire to work in that style; there were conventions, built up and refined over time, that have been largely lost. Everyone, fine artists (those working in a representational style) and illustrators alike, is far more literal (or has a diversion of curious subject matter), which brings me back to what I was originally asserting; subject matter and narrative are not nearly so important in a decorative/mural style as their treatment, and I think Tiepolo is a very good (and relevant) example. The problem is, because of the modern affinity for literalness, hardly anyone can see past the subject matter and narrative.

António Araújo said...


thanks for the sugestion, I have played with that kind of technique in graphite drawings, and it does give nice results... but it doesn't allow for the main pleasure of scratchboard, which is that you can rework the surface almost endlessly and spontaneously, scratching out the whites *after* the blacks are there. With indentation you have to plan ahead...also, as you said, it works better for dry media than ink...also, the marks you can make with a blade are really really thin by comparison, so you have to scale up...

By the way, one nice variation of your technique is this: you can make the indentations with a "live" pen (of a certain color) and then rub over that with *another* color. With several indentations of different colors you could get nice effects.

kev ferrara said...


So you want to define Fine Art as the particular style of mural design that you find most attractive? And in order to qualify, the work must be done in one of the "few ways to make it look right?"

This argument boils down to a particular set of classical criteria: Repose, balanced in color and composition, strictly measured in ratios, breadth, Apollonian in subject and story, planar depth rather than illusionistic, allegorical, highly designed shapes, smooth and elegant drawing, etc.

Since this prescription lets out the possibility that Romantic art may be considered fine art, I'm assuming that your actual argument here is that the word "fine" in Fine Art means "classical." And you find the classical the most pleasing style as decoration.

Anonymous said...

So you want to define Fine Art as the particular style of mural design that you find most attractive?

I don't recall offering a definition of fine art; I said that I believe decoration was the context that fine art was born out of.

This argument boils down to a particular set of classical criteria

So then you should be happy since you have it all down?

StimmeDesHerzens said...

Many moons ago I asked on this blog what the difference was--at the time I felt that I was an ignoramus for asking such a foolhardy question...
"The wedding ring is prominently displayed for readers who believed men and women shouldn't be rolling around on sheets like that unmarried." Hilarious! I had to go back and look more closely. (Her hand was lovely, unlike 'you know who's' hands in his FINE ART~)
re: behind the veil. now your turn. :-) gB

Matthew Harwood said...

The origin of the term Fine Arts comes from the English translation of the French Beaux-Arts.

“Beaux Arts style was modeled on classical 'antiquities,' preserving these idealized forms and passing the style on to future generations.” Wikipedia

kev ferrara said...


I'm still just trying to figure out what you meant in your first post. In order to do so, I am trying to discover what you mean by your terms. If you can't or won't define your terms how can anybody know what you are actually saying?

kev ferrara said...

Thank you for that bit of info, Matthew.

Matthew Harwood said...

Using the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts definition, Picasso’s painting Guernica might be "fine art" but not Fine Art because of its intentional break with the classical western tradition.

WW said...
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Anonymous said...

I really don't know what more I could add, other than I suspect that working in architecture and decorative objects has benefits that are far underappreciated; such work typically precludes the direct bias of human form, and is somewhat abstract but yet has definitive form, unlike the more nebulous varieties of modern abstract art.

I do hope we're not hogging the discussion here.

kev ferrara said...

If the argument is that there is an educational overlap between a decorative artist circa 1890 and a classically trained painter/muralist of the same era like, say, Kenyon Cox, then I completely agree.

It is interesting to note that, if you delve into the etymology of many of these words, you will see that illustration shares a root with illustrious. And to make something illustrious is a method of celebrating it, and in order to properly celebrate something (or acknowledge it through ritual) one must set the proper mood, and this is the purpose of decorating.

Jeffrey Price said...

David, I am trying to reach you to discuss the Famous Artists School. I have acquired some of the archives of the school and I am researching the history of the various schools and particularly their demise. Phone me at 203-846-2550 if you can, or write

Jeffrey Price said...

Very nice blog. I'm particularly interested in the Famous Artists' School. I have acquired a portion of their archives, and I am researching the various schools and in particular how it all ended with lawyers and such. I am desperate for information, and so much has been lost. Any information about this will be greatly appreciated. My phone is 203-846-2550 or you can email.

Anonymous said...

If Cox is your gateway into appreciating the style then I'm glad; but personally I don't find his more literal academic influence particularly compatible.

kev ferrara said...
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kev ferrara said...

I don't know why you would make an effort to ferret out a weak cox.

Along with many others easily googleable, I think this one makes the point::

Anonymous said...

Honestly Kev, I see both examples as being pregnant with banal Classical Realism; yours was first trimester and mine was in labor.


kev ferrara said...

Seeking proper form, serious golfers strive to create a divot with each swing of the club, scooping out a bit of the ground as they contact their ball. No matter how far or how accurately the ball travels, this piece of sod will only ever move a few yards beyond the original striking position, as it has no aerodynamic qualities.

Thankfully the game is such that it isn't concerned with overcoming the inabilities of the sod. That would be a dull and pointless game indeed.

David Apatoff said...

I have been away practicing law for the past few days as this conversation galloped ahead. Some of what I would have responded has been superseded by other comments, but I will now do my best to catch up. Thanks to those who went forward with an interesting dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read any of the previous comments. All I have to say is: Illustration is intended for the average "simple-minded" folk and fine art is for the pretentious status-hungry "elite".

It's possible to enjoy both in a more personal way beyond such categories but most people belong to either category or a mix of both.

Anthony Z said...

BRILLIANT! (I know I'm late to the party, but I've got to say it!) I have been thinking along these lines since, as a high school kid, I read this quote:

“The only difference between a fine artist and an illustrator,” said well-known 20th century illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, “is that the latter can draw, eats three square meals a day, and can afford to pay for them.”

We were taught in art school that Fine Art was first, and Illustration is this new, somewhat embarrassing red-headed stepchild. But, as you point out, the truth may be the exact opposite. Illustration is as old as the patron - artist relationship, as old as the pyramids or even the cave paintings; and "fine art" really came about much later with the ascendancy of the merchant class over the noblemen and the Church.

As you say, Despite all this hand wringing about the difference between art and illustration, I think the question is a fake one, concerned more about social status than about the nature of art.

Exactly! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Aside from argument about who gets paid, I can't help but think of the pro-life issue. When does life begin? At conception? The intent, the narrative- should that not be the main pillar of illustration? Where does the illustration begin? In gestation as narrative? It's future is somewhat predetermined. It has perimeters. That does not deflate its value in comparison to established fine art. This refined art may demand more from the artist and when the artist is successful in communicating a new vision within the limitations of the narration or a new understanding of a narrative itself, it goes beyond being a gratuitous work for a fee.
With regard to illustration being of less status that fine art-who cares? The market place, where another narrative about art insure value of the status quo.

Kymberly said...

I was taught that the difference between fine art and illustration is the intent of the artist not the viewer. The viewer judges weather fine art is good, bad, ugly or kitsch. I was also taught that art for art sake is kitsch not fine art. This is because fine art's intent is to move society forward. I have also learned that many believe portraits are not fine art but are illustrations.

Anonymous said...

So, John Howe and Kathe Kollwitz, it is all the same. It is just matter of payment?

Anonymous said...

So, John Howe and Kathe Kollwitz, it is all the same. It is just matter of payment? Really? Really?

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure of the distinction you're trying to draw. Kollwitz was an illustrator whose drawings appeared in magazines such as Simplicissimus and on books such as Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury. She made a living from multiple copies of etchings and posters. In fact, some guardians of "fine art" think her graphic art is too shrill and propagandistic, appealing to the masses rather than qualifying as refined, first tier "fine" art. But I assume that's not your point.

But if your point is that "fine" art is by definition more pure or honest or dramatic or less commercial because Kollwitz was all of those things, I don't think your point holds up. Kollwitz was a superb graphic artist and a superb human being. But there are good and bad illustrators, just as there are good and bad gallery painters.

Unknown said... name is cat ...i'm interested about the the differences about fine art and illustration... i read the article and the comments ...and i find it very interesting...can someone tell me some books or other articles about this subject... i will be very greatful ...!

Terry Calhoun said...

Two words: Gaetano Chierici

schildersbedrijf doetinchem said...

Very nice illustrations and I believe that illustrations such as these most definately qualify as fine art.

Lizzy_D said...

This discussion brings to mind an experience I had many years ago as a high school art student, applying for a summer seminar at a university. I had to present a portfolio to a group of art professors from the university, which, at that time, was filled with pen and ink illustrations and a few paintings.

During my interview, one of the professors asked me who my favorite artist was. I replied innocently, "Norman Rockwell." "Oh," the professor sniffed. "He's an illustrator." You could have cut the disdain in his voice with a knife. I didn't reply, but privately I thought to myself, "Yeah, so what?"

That attitude really put me off, and although I didn't get invited to the seminar, I didn't feel too badly about it. Ever since, that attitude still rankles me as an overheated expression of snobbery. To imply that a Norman Rockwell or a J.C. Leyendecker are lesser artists because they functioned in a commercial art environment is ridiculous.

One of the reasons I was so glad to find your blog is for just such that reason. You showcase all of those artists who worked for magazines, in advertising, in publishing, in graphic novels and comic books, and they should be appreciated for the artists they are. They have talents as prodigious and varied as you can get and there is just as much to learn from them as from the Old Masters.

Shelley Whiting said...

I agree there shouldn't really be a distinction. Some of the best art I've ever looked at were books. I remember John R. Neill's illustrations for the OZ books when I was kid. Still think they're extraordinary. I think it's just to put down illustration as a low form of art. It's ridiculous.

kings Ndubuisi said...

illustration and fine art does not mean the same thing., although they are closely related words. These two words are sometimes used interchangeably. By definition, fine art is that aspect of art dealing with beauty i.e aesthetic, and they includes drawings, paintings and sculptures. Coming to illustration, it is a form of fine art that represents objects or images without paying much or no attention to tone, depth, nature etc. Illustration is simply drawings or sketches! They can be paintings too. Not every illustrations qualify to be called fine art. This is because works of art under "fine art" have their characteristics which some illustrations might not meet.

Anonymous said...

I was never an illustrator, just a commercial artist -- a "graphic designer" as they're called today. But to me the difference between "fine" and commercial art always seemed pretty clear: the commercial artist does art to order, their motive being to feed the kids and cats and pay the mortgage; the "fine" artist does it as personal expression, their motive being emotional release and, with luck, communication.

Sure did love those Dorne illustrations. Anything I ever learned about drawing, I learned from studying them.

Debra Gruszecki said...

I am a working artist from Buffalo NY. Grad. From SUNY Buffalo State. I designed a health insurance companies logo...oversaw work of 20 graphic designers for Hearst...they make ads for phonebooks...I have worked as a professional illustrator...exhibited in local and regional shows...worked as a visual merchandiser...did graphic design for many years...If you like making art or writing...I have also been both an editor and writer...just do it. I have made my living doing this since 1982. My art teacher in high school was not warm and fuzzy...I just blew through the art program at state. One art teacher there threw prisma pencils at me and told me I could not mix color one day. I will be doing an interview there at the Burchfield penny center in January. I remember being taught by Matt Mulhurin...illustrator...fine artists and commercial. You can have intellectual debates forever but creating is for everyone who wants to go I also work with the physically and mentally challenged making art. If you listen to everyone who says you can't you would never get out of bed in the morning.

Unknown said...

The difference between illustration and fine art is context. The pop artists explored this: A Campbell's Soup painting put in a magazine advertisement is illustration. An artist rips that page out of the magazine and pins it up in a gallery as part of their show and it becomes fine art.

The point of the art gallery is a context cue. A toilet seat at the hardware store is a product. A toilet seat on the curb is trash (or a treasure to some). A toilet seat drawn in a catalog is an illustration. A toilet seat in a gallery is widely seen as fine art. Because the toilet seat has so many contexts, in a gallery people might see it and ask, "What is art?" or "Is this gallery/artist legit?" or it may get them to think about what toilet seats mean to them. So galleries and artists are valuable because they help us pay attention.

To some, a page from a comic book blown up and painted on canvas (a fine art cue) will always be an illustration and never fine art. And it can go the other way too: I've seen many illustrations in magazines that I would consider to be fine art. The pop artists showed us that an image can be both an illustration and fine art depending on context.

In our living room, a box of tissues is used to wipe our noses. In a gallery, the tissues can become fine art. When I return home from the gallery, can the tissues now be seen as fine art? It used to be that artists would have to sculpt, paint, or build something themselves for it to be art, but now they can have assistants or a factory do this while the artist gets the credit for presenting the idea, the thoughtfulness.

In any case, it's entirely up to the viewer, and it's much easier to identify something as fine art if everyone says it is and presented in that context with cues.

monelle said...

Just in case anyone believes that fine art includes imagining something, while illustrating "just" follows a story, I suggest that an artist who suddenly comes upon a beautiful landscape while wandering around outdoors and decides to paint it, has in fact been handed at least part of their vision on a platter; while someone who reads a book and must come up with a picture based on words, which or may not include any descriptions, must truly use their imagination. But perhaps no one believes that anyway ...

Janet said...

To me a bunch of people got together and created a category so that people can be further labeled and oppressed all in the name of making themselves feel superior to another. It is that simple! Creating is art. Period.the rest is nonsense and meant to oppress people.

Adina said...

Works of “art” have never been seen outside of larger narratives. Certainly not if we think about the old, religious business model mentioned in the post. While the religious text itself was refined from much older cultural experiences such as shamanism and the “Dream Time” more rich with images and performances. But you may also take any abstract work of “art” today and call it “decorative” - it still tells you a believed “story” about how we envision what makes us human, social status, scientific discoveries, and so on. It’s the premise of art to be seen by other people than the artist so to that effect, it must and does connect with a larger narrative outside of itself.

Adina said...

Ha, so perhaps the issue is really what “she” is thinking about, more than “he”. I mean, I see this argument as taking on a very male perspective about the so-called “real world”. But I would be very happy to share what I am thinking about as regards my career as female artist/illustrator.

Adina said...

Hm are you sure? What about Alfons Mucha? Essential human nature, packed tight into product labels and posters. It was in the service of something greater and spiritual, that’s how he saw it personally. So I see it as subjective preference for some artists to argue their works (out of context) were “greater” based on a principle which the subject himself prefers. Thing is, “the sacred and the profane” are always dancing together, it’s what I learned from pop culture in a practical way. China was/is as patriarchal and classist as any, so although I am moved by the aesthetics, it has been a long time since I stopped fangirling whatever the school system I grew up with totted as universally valid, beautiful, higher and more spiritual. If I take one look at my whole “universal higher wisdom” library it spells “white supremacy” across the shelf.