Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Origin of the Word Illustration

With this article being the 100th posted on the Informed Illustrator, I thought it was high time we knew a little bit more regarding what we are all about. So I decided to research the single word that is most commonly used to describe what we do…illustration. I began by consulting four of the largest dictionaries of the English language. I also found some interesting examples of usage to accompany the definitions.

© 2014 Don Arday.


It is claimed that the first known use of the work arose sometime during the 14th century, but there is difficulty in firmly establishing if, and when, it did occur. The word illustration is derived from the Latin “illustratus”, which translates to “make bright”. It is also claimed that illustration was introduced as a replacement for “illumination” an earlier word in use. The first known use of illumination also occurred sometime during the 14th century. At that time the word can be attributed to unknown historians who described medieval manuscripts as having the ability to “light up” their texts. 

Googlebooks Ngram Viewer

The Google Ngram Viewer is a lesser known resource available from Google that provides data about the usage of words and phrases that have appeared in books over time. When a word or a phrase is entered into the Google Ngram search engine, the viewer displays a graph showing when it has occurred in a corpus of books over a specified time period. An Ngram search can be assigned by a specific country or language. The following graphs indicate 
the usage of “illustration” from the year 1500 on, first within the American English corpus and then within the British English corpus. The main difference between the two occurs from 1500 and 1650. This is owing to the fact that the publishing industry in American did not become widely established until the mid-17th century.

Data furnished by Googlebooks Ngram Viewer.

Data furnished by Googlebooks Ngram Viewer.

The American “golden age of illustration” is credited to have occurred between 1880 and shortly after World War I. Coincidently, the Google Ngram search 
also substantiates this by showing the most quotations of “illustration” in American English books appeared during this period than at any other point in the past 350-years.

Data furnished by Googlebooks Ngram Viewer.


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

il·lus·tra·tion (ĭl′ə-strāshən)
n. 1. a. the action of illustrating : as the condition of being illustrated.
b. archaic: the action of making illustrious or honored or distinguished.
2. a. something that serves to illustrate: as an example or instance that helps make something clear.
b. a picture or diagram that helps make something clear or attractive.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

il·lus·tra·tion (ĭl′ə-strāshən)
n.1. a. The act of clarifying or explaining.
b. The state of being clarified or explained.
2. Material used to clarify or explain.
3. Visual matter used to clarify or decorate a text.

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged 

illustration (ˌɪləˈstreɪʃən)
n 1. pictorial matter used to explain or decorate a text.
2. an example or demonstration: an illustration of his ability.
3. the act of illustrating or the state of being illustrated.

Random House Webster's College Dictionary

il·lus·tra·tion (ˌɪəˈstreɪ ʃən)
n.1. something that illustrates, as a picture in a book or magazine.
2. a comparison or an example intended for explanation or corroboration.
3. the act or process of illuminating.
4. the act of clarifying or explaining; elucidation.

An Illustrator’s Definition

An illustration is a two- or three-dimensional pictorial image created to render, explain, elucidate, enhance, and call attention to an object, concept, description, expression, narrative, or a specific article described within by way of visual representation.

A Designer’s Definition

An illustration is a visualization or a depiction made by an artist, such as a drawingsketchpaintingphotograph, or other kind of image of things seen, remembered or imagined, using a graphical representation.

A Purposeful Difference

There are many characteristics that set apart an illustration from other forms of art. One main distinction is that illustrations are seldom presented in their original form, but are mainly seen when reproduced and disseminated within another form of media such as a magazine, book, on a website, etc. And, of course, there’s always Frank Stella’s viewpoint on illustration, “But, after all, the aim of art is to create space - space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.”


  • The illustration on page 30 shows the parts of an engine.
  • A book with many photographs and illustrations.
  • The illustrations he provided were very effective.
  • They selected photographs to use for the illustration of the book.
  • Illustration is the key to good communication.
  • This delay is a perfect illustration of why we need a new computer system.
  • Examples are included, by way of illustration, to show the meaning more clearly.
  • You have to make thousands and thousands of drawings before an illustration is perfected.

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