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.

The Importance of Negative Space in Visualization

The relationship of positive and negative form plays an essential role in understanding and applying visual literacy. Compositionally speaking, the things that are left out, and the spaces between elements of a composition are equally as important as the elements, objects, and figures that are placed into a composition. Negative space coordinates the positive elements with one and other. In other words, it is the negative space in a composition that provides definition and harmony.

To understand the importance of negative space it is important to understand how persons perceive the scenes they view on a two-dimensional picture plane. To begin with, it is impossible for the mind to comprehend both negative and positive elements in the same instant. This physiological limitation creates a conflict in a viewer’s perception that can be visually stimulating and entertaining. Yet for some viewers it can be somewhat annoying. One perceives only the positive or only the negative. This is a fundamental concept of visual literacy.

Two shape interpretations, but in either example only the vase or the faces can
be perceived in a given instant. A demonstration of figure ground, i.e. object 
and space by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin.


Two-dimensional compositions are more or less divisions of space. Space is the area around and within an object, form, or shape. Space in front of or behind an object does not exist on a picture plane. It can only be implied. Space, whether it is within an object or around it, can be either positive or negative.

An example of implied form and space through compositional 
illusion. Artist: Norman Duenas.

Space within and around form used to define figures. 
Artist: Eric Goodwin.


Forms and shapes are either positive or negative. This applies to both objects and the space that exists around them. In a conventional two-dimensional composition, objects constitute positive forms, while the environment they exist in makes up negative space. This rudimentary principle is based on sight and perception. Therefore effective use of negative space is essential to a two-dimensional composition. It is far easier for viewers to be attracted to see positive elements within a composition than it is for them to see negative ones. However it is the juxtaposition or coexistence of the positive and negative form to space that creates order. Artists such as M. C. Escher created many interesting works exploring this concept of juxtaposition.

A supreme example of negative and positive juxtaposition. Path of Life.
Artist: M.C. Escher.

Criminal and hero juxtaposed. Artist: Simom C. Page.

Negative positive male and female justaposed. 
Artist: Malika Farve.


Perspective in two-dimensional art is an approximation to represent an image spatially, or as the eye would see it in reality if it existed, i.e., it is the technique used to represent three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional picture plane. Objects that are closer to the viewer are larger and as their distance from the viewer increases they become smaller. They may also be foreshortened and display a reduction of chroma and contrast. Any tangential relationships within a composition tend to counteract spatial depth. There is a significant difference when regarding perspective between what is seen in reality and what appears on a picture plane. In the real world, there is no such thing as negative space. Things are either closer or more distant, but every space is occupied. On a picture plane, by necessity, a form of editing and translation must occur to impart perspective. The use of negative space plays an important part in achieving an acceptable composition.

Perspective is used to create an impression of scenic space while using tangential 
relationships for spacial contrast. Artist: Mads Berg.

A composition with multiple perspectives. Artist: Tamer Poyraz Demiralp.


Everything in a two dimensional composition is implied. In other words, it is not real but merely a recording of something that exists in another state -- be it in reality or the imagination of the artist. In order to be visible, forms and elements take up two-dimensional space. And in a narrative or representational work, in an attempt to convince a viewer to believe and understand what is being represented, all aspects of a composition are implied.

Though the use of positive form and negative space, it is a mental
challenge for a viewer to ignore the implied face. Artist unknown.

Stylizied elements are composed to imply narrative content. 
Artist: Adam Francey.


Although viewers seek to ascribe meaning to a visual composition, they don’t necessarily go about it by carefully examining what they are looking at. This forms the basis for the illusory nature of two-dimensional art. Viewers believe in first impressions. The visual elements they see in a work of art are given “the benefit of the doubt” that they represent tangible things by a viewer. Therefore, an artist through remarkable elaboration, unique stylization, or extreme simplification of form can suggest an object or a concept. This can be done using positive elements or negative ones. Although it is acceptable for a viewer to rely on first impressions, an artist must look beyond them.

Two types of dog. Artist: Nick Kumbari.

Six animals are represented here. Artist: Carolyn Remy.

Positive form as both negative and positive. Through association a viewer 
puts the scene together. Artist: Frank Miller. Scene from Sin City. 

Negative form as both positive and negative. Artist: Frank Miller.

Scene from Sin City. 

Association of shapes to familiar subjects. Artist: Napoleon Kwatila Bongaman.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Visual Approach to Typography 5: Style

Style as interpreted by illustrators can mean several differing things. For some, style refers to the use of a specific media, such as scratchboard, or pen and ink. For others style can refer to a manner of mark making, while for others, it can relate to a form of compositional arrangement. And still for others, it can manifest itself in an artistic genre such as art deco style, or a cultural genre such as manga. Style can even be classified in reference to a form of message, such as humorous, scientific, or medical.


Now turning the discussion to typography, style is what most illustrators believe to be the most important criteria for creating or selecting type to be used with illustration. However, style choice without the support of the other decision-making criteria such as context, function, and association can yield less than satisfactory results. To a great extent, a successful typestyle choice is based on the illustration scheme and environment, the assignment purpose, and a correlation with a verbal message. All of these criteria in combination provide guidance for the selection of a typestyle.

Like context, choosing fonts by style, requires a visually oriented thought process, i.e., a sense of visual connoisseurship. Fortunately, illustrators possess a particularly adept visual sensitivity. Typefaces present all manner of stylistic forms. By present estimates, there are over 150,000 different styles available, however that is not surprising since western language typeface design has been occurring for over 500 years. As such, choosing fonts from digital suppliers such as FontShop, can be a daunting task. A fair amount of discussion on typographic style focuses on the aesthetics of font letterforms themselves, and the functionality of the font as it relates letterform structure. Less discussion has occurred concerning the aesthetic application of typefaces in visual contexts, and particularly in the context of illustration.

Illustration is about two things, (1) delivering a message, and (2) delivering it with flair in particular style. Illustrators should think of typography in the same way, and the selection and application of typography in an illustrated environment should support the natural style of that environment, the illustration assignment, and even the style of the illustrator.

Here are some examples of stylistic type choices with context, function, or association providing the inspiration for the application and usage of typography.

Typographic style by historical and cultural association.
Poster by Victor Beuren.

Typographic style by architectural association.
Poster by Michael Murphy.

Typographic style in context to the illustration.
Poster  design by Jeffrey Bowman.

Typographic style in context to the illustration.
Poster by DXDR.

Typographic style by historical association.
Poster by Emek.

Typographic style based on function.
Poster by Richard Perez.

Typographic style by cultural association.
Poster by Zhen Huang.

Typographic style by context and usage association.
Poster by Melinda Beck.

Typographic style by subject association.
Poster by Gina Kiel.

Typographic style by usage association. 
Poster by Lisa Audit.

Typographic style by historical association.
Poster by Nate Duval.

Typographic style by cultural association.
Poster by Marianne Walker.

Typographic style based on function.
Poster by Doe Eyed.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Visual Approach to Typography 4: Association

When working with typography in an illustrative environment, there are two overriding areas of influence regarding aesthetic decisions and the application of type. The first involves the visual opportunities afforded by the illustration; it’s composition, format, use of media, and stylistic appearance. The second involves those visual possibilities that present themselves inherently in the type to be applied; it’s proportion, weight, size, and functionality. Also incredibly important, is any “association” a type font may have with an artistic or architectural genre, historical or time period, prior usage or over usage, or a specific subject.

In this instance, the word association refers to the native design appearance and attributes that are inherent in the typestyle itself, rather than in the illustration. Every font design was motivated by, and based on, a specific purpose. Certain fonts have been able to transcend their original purpose to become “versatile”, while other fonts remain stagnated by a narrow functionality, typecasting, or a stereotyped association. Use of a specific font may be for the purpose of creating a visual association to an historical or cultural form of style or usage. Type selection in this manner takes advantage of former usage and other visual characteristics a typestyle may offer to add to the content of an illustration assignment by capitalizing on any prior associations.

Architectural Association

Typography has often times been influenced by architectural style. German Fraktur fonts and Old English style fonts like Cloister Black bear a strong resemblance to the heavy stone cathedral architecture of the same period. Conversely, fonts like Gordon Heights share a stylistic relationship to an early 20th century urban environment, while fonts like Moderna relate to the use of geometry and clean lines of post-war International Style architecture. As in architecture, letterform structure plays a major role in this form of association.

Historical Association

Curiously enough, in most cases, many typestyles that associate with historical periods were not designed during the periods their look suggests, especially those fonts that associate with ancient Greece and Rome such as Papyrus. Likewise, fonts like Medieval Scribbish and other Celtic typestyles, although inspired by the Book of Kells were not designed until the 20th century. However, many of those fonts that were developed after the popularization of moveable type, document their historical periods accurately, so accurately that they are forever associated with that historical period, like Advertising Gothic, which was styled at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Cultural Association

Perhaps most guilty of stereotyping, typestyles that project a cultural association are quite obvious when it comes to their fictitious appearance. These typefaces adopt an appearance that comes from mimicry of fonts, letters, and scripted styles that belong to another language’s set of letterform symbols. Nationalities whose alphabets are non-European are those typically used as inspiration for cultural association, such as Chinese alphabet forms for Gang of Three, and Hebraic letterforms for their reincarnation into those in English as in DS Shalom. And lastly, with some ingenuity, the English letterforms in Alhambra, were designed to look Islamic.

Aesthetic Association

There are typestyles that were crafted with formal visual aesthetic fundamentals providing artistic inspiration for their appearance. The visual sensibilities, which are related to artistic movements, form the basis for the design of fonts that carry an aesthetic association. Much less obvious than the prior association categories, aesthetic association is evidenced in those fonts that are tied less to a architectural, historical, cultural, functional, or subject based influence, but whose main inspiration is their artistic appearance. MobiusSaisa Font, and Neues Bauen are respectable representatives of this form of association. Bauhaus is a font (not shown here) that stands as an archetypal example of aesthetic association.

Usage Association

Usage refers to typestyles that were created for, or have been associated with a particular usage or situation. In some cases it was the intention of the typeface creator to design a font for a specific purpose, but in many cases it happened independently. In either case, for better or worse, certain fonts, will be burdened with an associated use. Eurostyle  (shown here) and it’s twin cousin Microgramma (not shown) represent a class of usage associated fonts that fell victim of “over usage”. Both fonts were nearly universally adopted by the industrial design community, and appeared on a number of automobiles in the 1970’s and 80’s, and their look is still in use now. Other fonts are so “typecast” because they immediately suggest a product or genre. Dunkin Sans and American Typewriter are excellent examples of limitations that are presented by usage association.

Subject Association

Similar to usage association, and arguably even more stereotypical, are typestyles associated with a particular subject. And like usage, some fonts were created specifically to do so, while others were designed to be more general. In either case, these fonts cannot escape an association to the very obvious subjects they were consigned to. However, there are situations where the choosing of subject-associated fonts can aid the personality and communication value of an illustrative assignment. Computer Font, Circus Bold and Western Font, are three obvious examples of fonts that exhibit a subject-based association.

In The Too Much Information Category

“Type casting” originated in the mid 15th century in Europe. The term refers to a process where molten lead and alloy were cast into moulds to form individual letterforms for movable type printing. This practice, known as letterpress printing, is still performed today by custom artisan printers. The alternative term, “typecast”, is generally credited to have originated in the late 19th century and related to an actor repeatedly being cast in similar roles. It now carries several additional meanings, including a couple that relate to our present subject of association, such as “a thing that represents a class or a category”, and “represent or regard as fitting a particular stereotype”.


The images below are examples of various kinds of typographic association. Focus was placed on the style and usage of the fonts in posters and illustrated logos, not necessarily on the illustration style itself. However, in most cases, the illustration style and typographic choice play off each other.

Architectural association. Poster by Anderson Design Group.

Historical association. Poster by TLC Creations.

Aesthetic association. Poster by the Olson Agency.

Cultural association. Poster by The Craft Shop.

Usage association. Poster by Dave Ault.

Subject association. Poster by the Greteman Group.

Architectural association. Logo by Brandon Pickett.

Historical association. Illustrative logo by Mieke.

Cultural association. Logo by widestudio_IT.

Aesthetic association. Designer unknown.

Usage association. Logo by David Howie.

Subject association. Logo by S-de.