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.