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What is Illustration? A Guide to the Art of Visual Storytelling

Illustration has evolved significantly throughout history, from ancient cave paintings to contemporary digital art. Today, illustrators employ a variety of techniques, including traditional methods like pen and ink, as well as modern digital tools such as Adobe Illustrator and Procreate. 

Delve deeper into the realm of illustration and its narrative visual language by exploring its extensive history, uncovering various disciplines, techniques, and more!

According to Graphic Mama, an illustration is a visualization made by an artist to explain information. This can be a drawing, a photograph, or even a collage, as long as it retains its purpose to visually represent facts and details.

An illustration is different from a typical piece of art. While an illustration’s purpose is to explain something visually, art pieces, such as paintings, are not necessarily always connected to specific information and are a subject to interpretation.

Illustration’s rich history, according to the Norman Rockwell Museum, spans diverse cultures and eras, commencing with prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France, around 15,000 B.C. Then, moving to Ancient Greek and Italian civilizations, where it depicted narratives on ceremonial vessels, showcasing heroes, festivals, and myths.

In the Middle Ages, it was featured in illuminated manuscripts driven by religious sanctity while the Renaissance ushered in mass art production through Johannes Gutenberg’s printing innovation. Next, the Industrial Revolution increased illustration accessibility, notably in newspapers adorned with engravings, and the 1800s saw the professionalization of illustration, with successful American artists influencing a new wave.

As distribution networks expanded, illustrations became pivotal in magazines and newspapers, shaping public perception. Renowned illustrators like Norman Rockwell attained celebrity status, and Walt Disney’s contributions to animation elevated the field. In the 20th century, evolving animated films and the gaming industry underscored illustrators’ vital role in visualizing imaginative realms.

Illustrators come in diverse types, each specializing in distinct areas and employing their own unique styles and techniques. Below are some common types of illustrators:

  • Editorial Illustration

Illustrators specializing in the editorial field primarily work within the publishing sector, creating visuals for newspapers, magazines, and online publications. Their responsibilities include crafting illustrations that enhance articles, editorials, and opinion pieces, often infusing elements of humor, satire, or conceptual representations to enrich the written content.

  • Children’s Book Illustration

Children’s book illustrators are experts who receive a brief from publishers or authors to create images that accompany a story. Their role involves bringing characters and worlds to life based on descriptions, infusing vitality into stories through captivating and colorful illustrations that ignite the imagination of young readers. To excel in this field, a book illustrator must possess a keen understanding of visual storytelling and establish a creative connection with the author. This connection ensures that their illustrations seamlessly complement and enhance the narrative, making them an integral part of the storytelling process.

  • Commercial Illustration

A commercial illustrator is an individual who communicates ideas or messages to a target audience through graphic illustration. This profession is regarded as a thrilling career, offering challenges and opportunities to create visually striking and innovative graphic illustrations.

  • Illustration Techniques and Styles

Entering the realm of illustration, artists harness a variety of mediums to infuse vitality into their creations. From conventional tools like pen and ink to the digital capabilities of graphic design software, each medium plays a pivotal role in crafting a distinctive visual language that enhances the narrative potential of illustrations.

  • Traditional mediums: Pen and ink, watercolor, and more

Traditional illustration utilizes classic mediums such as pen and ink, watercolor, and other traditional tools. Artists employing these techniques often showcase a mastery of handcrafted details and a nuanced approach to shading, creating timeless and visually appealing artworks.

  • Digital illustration: Tools, software, and techniques

Digital illustration leverages modern tools and software to create visually stunning artworks. Artists in this domain use digital tablets, software like Adobe Illustrator or Procreate, and various techniques such as layering and digital brushes. This allows for precision, flexibility, and the incorporation of intricate details in a digital format.

  • Mixed-media approaches and experimental styles

In the realm of mixed-media and experimental styles, artists blend various mediums and techniques to produce innovative and unique illustrations. This approach may involve combining traditional and digital elements or integrating unconventional materials. It opens up a realm of creative possibilities, encouraging artists to push boundaries and create truly distinctive visual narratives.

In exploring the optimal way to encapsulate an idea in an illustration, the question arises: is it more effective to commence with rapid sketches or a meticulously developed concept? Below is a condensed creation process of an illustration. This methodology is applicable not only to conceptual illustrations but also extends to various commercial projects.


The initial step is to find clarity and clearly define the main idea, as illustrated by a conceptual brief. For instance, envision creating a blog illustration about AI aiding in email writing. It’s crucial to understand and define the project’s essence before delving into the creative process.

Design & Refine:

Now armed with a defined concept, it’s time to enter the realm of ideation through brainstorming and mind mapping. Research is pivotal, immerse yourself in the subject, gather references, and create a mood board. Then, move on to sketching, beginning with quick and rough drafts to validate the composition. Refine the strongest sketch, and progress to selecting a color palette, creating colored sketches, and making those crucial decisions before the final illustration.


The culmination of the journey lies in the finalization stage. Execute the illustration according to predefined formatting and technical requirements. Starting from general forms, gradually focus on textures and fine details. Ensure color harmony by checking the contrast and making adjustments if needed. The last step involves presenting the finished illustration to the client. Whether through mockups, self-designed previews, or comprehensive slides, effective presentation enhances the chances of client approval.

While the process may vary slightly based on experience and project specifics, periodically evaluating and exploring new approaches ensures continual growth and adaptability in the art of illustration.

According to CareerExplorer, an illustrator is a visual artist with a specialization in crafting images and designs, and contributes to various mediums like books, magazines, advertisements, and digital media. Their artistic skills are deployed to convey ideas, narrate stories, and enhance the visual appeal of projects. Employing both traditional tools like pencils, ink, and watercolors, as well as digital resources such as graphic design software, illustrators create visuals that complement and effectively communicate the content of texts or concepts.

Illustrators undertake a range of tasks and responsibilities integral to their role. They begin by closely collaborating with clients, such as authors, publishers, or art directors, to grasp the project’s requirements and objectives. Through a thorough review of the brief and discussions about expectations, illustrators gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. Subsequently, they engage in concept development, brainstorming, and generating initial ideas that align with the project’s tone, mood, and intended message. The creative process advances with sketching and drafting, where illustrators visualize their ideas through rough drafts and thumbnails, establishing a foundation for the final artwork.

Depending on project specifications, they carefully select artistic mediums and techniques, choosing between traditional tools like pencils and paints or experimenting with digital software and tablets. The illustration creation phase involves bringing sketches to life, refining details, and incorporating color, texture, and depth to achieve visually engaging and aesthetically pleasing results. Collaboration with clients is a continual aspect, with illustrators incorporating feedback and suggestions throughout the process, ensuring the final illustrations meet expectations and align with project goals. Adhering to specific timelines and deadlines, illustrators manage their time effectively, handling multiple projects simultaneously while maintaining the quality of their work. Additionally, illustrators prioritize staying updated on industry trends, techniques, and styles, continuously enhancing their artistic skills through research, workshops, courses, and engagement with fellow artists and illustrators.

In the dynamic field of illustration, professionals navigate diverse career paths, choosing between full-time employment and freelance opportunities where they have the autonomy to set their pricing structures. The median annual wage for illustrators in the United States stands at $49,120, with nuanced fluctuations depending on factors like the size of the employing company, project complexity, and the illustrator’s specialization. For those venturing into freelance work, a systematic approach involves establishing a base rate by working backward from the envisioned yearly salary, accounting for working days and personal considerations. Freelancers then confront the choice between two payment models: flat rate and hourly pricing. Flat rate pricing, a prevalent method in freelance illustration, entails estimating project duration to establish a fixed compensation.

Over time, as illustrators gain experience and refine their understanding of project timelines, they can accurately gauge the number of hours required for various projects. On the other hand, hourly rates, shaped by factors such as desired annual income, industry standards, and individual expertise, can vary widely, ranging from $25 to $465 per hour. This range accounts for project intricacies, specialization, and the illustrator’s career progression.It is essential to recognize that an illustrator’s hourly rate is a dynamic component that may fluctuate based on the project’s complexity, the illustrator’s evolving expertise, and their overall career trajectory. 

The art of illustration boasts a rich history spanning centuries, with countless renowned artists leaving an indelible imprint on the global stage. Utilizing their artistic prowess, illustrators create visual interpretations of ideas, narratives, and concepts found in various media, including books, periodicals, and newspapers. With a unique ability to breathe life into stories, illustrators hold the power to captivate audiences, and their impact on the realms of art and literature has served as a wellspring of inspiration for generations of readers and fellow artists. Read about a few of these famous illustrators and their contributions below.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), the esteemed English author, illustrator, and conservationist, is renowned for her cherished children’s novels starring endearing animal characters, notably “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” Raised in a privileged environment that fueled her love for nature, Potter, who received home-schooling, developed an early passion for art and natural history. During family vacations in the countryside, she avidly sketched and painted creatures and insects she encountered. In the late 1890s, Potter embarked on a prolific journey of writing and illustrating a series of beloved children’s books, starting with the iconic “The Story of Peter Rabbit” (1902). This book, initially created as a letter to her former governess’s children, skyrocketed to fame, becoming one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

Potter’s creative legacy continued with over twenty more children’s books, including titles like “The Story of Jemima Puddle-Duck,” “The Tale of Tom Kitten,” and “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle,” all featuring her distinctive whimsical animal characters and intricate graphics. Beyond her literary and artistic pursuits, Potter demonstrated a deep commitment to conservation and land ownership. Acquiring several farms in England’s Lake District, she delved into farming and dedicated herself to preserving the local landscape.

Today, Beatrix Potter’s enchanting novels captivate audiences worldwide, transcending generations. Her enduring legacy as a groundbreaking author, artist, and conservationist remains honored and cherished.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), the esteemed American painter and artist, is celebrated for his timeless depictions of everyday life in America, notably gracing the covers of renowned magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Look. Commencing his career in the early 1900s as an illustrator for publications such as Boy’s Life and St. Nicholas, Rockwell’s trajectory soared in 1916 when he started crafting covers and drawings for The Saturday Evening Post, yielding some of his most iconic works.

Renowned for their warmth, humor, and nostalgic portrayal of American life, Rockwell’s illustrations captured the spirit and character of everyday Americans, often featuring scenes from small towns and rural landscapes. Notable among his masterpieces are the “Freedom of Speech” series, illustrating President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and “The Four Freedoms,” a collection used to promote war bonds during World War II.

Beyond his prowess as a painter, Rockwell excelled as a printmaker, consistently exploring themes and subjects parallel to his illustrative works. Today, he stands acknowledged as one of the most significant and influential illustrators of the 20th century, with his art revered for its wit, warmth, and enduring appeal.

 Mary Blair, a favored artist of Walt Disney, honed her artistic skills at The Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles during the mid-1930s. Joining The Walt Disney Company in 1940, Blair contributed concept paintings for iconic projects such as Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and The Lady and the Tramp (1955). Alongside her husband, Lee Blair, a fellow Disney artist, she embarked on a South American tour with Disney and other artists in 1941. Upon their return, Blair’s concept art, distinguished by vibrant gouache and tempera colors, influenced films inspired by the trip, including Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944).

Her distinctive artistic approach, marked by imaginative and swirling designs, left an indelible mark on Disney’s feature films of the 1940s and 1950s. Walt Disney entrusted her with pivotal roles in creating visuals for films like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951). In 1953, Blair departed from Disney to focus on illustrating children’s books and raising a family. However, she made a brief return in 1963 at Walt Disney’s request to contribute to Disney’s showcase at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Blair’s concept art for the “It’s a Small World” ride gained immense popularity and later found a permanent place in Disneyland and Disney World, marking the culmination of her significant contributions to Disney’s creative legacy.

The arrival of digital illustration has transformed the landscape of artistic creation and sharing. Through digital illustration tools, artists can craft intricate and complex designs that were once challenging with traditional methods. Utilizing computer software such as Adobe Illustrator, Procreate, and CorelDRAW has democratized digital illustration, making it accessible to artists worldwide.

Collaboration in the artistic realm has also been greatly facilitated by digital illustration. Cloud-based storage and sharing tools enable artists to work simultaneously on the same project, enhancing efficiency and streamlining the creative process. Moreover, digital illustration has transcended its origins in print media, finding applications in diverse fields like web design, social media, video games, and animation.

To learn more about illustration, check out RMCAD’s illustration program, available on campus and online. Interested in learning more about what career opportunities illustration offers? Check out 5 Illustration Careers You Can Pursue with a Bachelor’s Degree!


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