from The New Book of Knowledge®


The word "illustration" has several meanings. But it usually refers to any picture that accompanies a text. Illustrations can be drawings, paintings, or photographs. Or they can take the form of maps, graphs, or charts. Some illustrations help explain the text or provide further information. Others are purely decorative.

Early Illustrations

The earliest known manuscripts containing words and pictures were Egyptian scrolls. Scrolls were long sheets of papyrus that were rolled up for storage. (Papyrus was a paper-like material made from the stems of the papyrus plant.) Papyrus scrolls were also used by the ancient Greeks. Between A.D. 100 and 400, scrolls were replaced by codices. Codices were manuscripts with pages made of parchment (prepared animal skins). Illustrated works of the poets Homer and Vergil are early examples of codices.

The invention of paper by the Chinese about A.D. 100 began a long tradition of fine illustration in both the eastern and western hemispheres. In China, brushes and diluted inks were used for writing characters and for making watercolor illustrations on paper. In the Islamic world, illustrators concentrated mainly on ornamental designs and on calligraphy (the art of beautiful handwriting). In Europe during the Middle Ages, monks copied holy texts onto preachment. They illustrated them with beautifully painted pictures and designs.

Printed Illustrations

All early illustrations were unique. Each one was drawn and colored by hand. In the early 800's, however, the invention of the woodcut by the Chinese caused great changes in methods of illustration. An illustrator could now draw a picture on a piece of wood, cut away all the areas not drawn upon, ink the remaining raised section, and print the image. Many copies of the original illustration could be made.

With the invention of the printing press about 1440, hand-lettered manuscripts were replaced by printed books. The first illustrations prepared to accompany the printed texts were woodcuts. Later, wood engraving was invented and became a popular technique for illustrating books. Woodcuts are usually printed as black lines on a white background. In contrast, a wood engraving is usually printed as white lines on a black background.

By 1500 artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger were producing intricate wood-block prints. Metal plates were also engraved to produce an image for printing. Many variations on the metal engraving technique were invented. These included mezzotint, aquatint, and drypoint etching.

1700's and 1800's

It is difficult today to imagine a world without photography or television. But modern photographic techniques were not developed until the mid-1800's. Until then, the only means of visual communication was through painting and illustration. The public craved illustrated books. And the illustrators of the 1700's and 1800's brought the art of illustration to new levels of excellence.

In England, William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson became famous for illustrations that depicted English society. William Blake wrote and illustrated some of the most beautiful poems of the period. He etched both text and image on the same plate so that the words became part of the design. John Tenniel, a successful political cartoonist, created memorable illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872), two children's books by Lewis Carroll.

In France during the 1800's, Honoré Daumier became famous for realistic newspaper illustrations that honestly depicted life in Paris. Another French illustrator, Gustave Doré, was best known for his illustration of classic literary works. Eugène Delacroix and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were among the great French painters who turned to the art of illustration.

New Printing Techniques

The invention of photographic printing processes in the second half of the 1800's encouraged the spread of illustrated reading material. These processes, known as photoengraving and photolithograhy, involve photographing an image to obtain a negative. The negative is then transferred to a metal plate. The plate is developed, and the unexposed areas are etched away. The image that remains is inked and printed.The photographic image could be enlarged or reduced. This allowed artists to make their original drawings in any size. Photographic printing processes also allowed more accuracy in reproducing the artist's original work. By 1900, a full array of colors and tones could be reproduced.

Along with improved reproduction processes came the development of high-speed printing presses. This allowed books and magazines to be produced quickly and cheaply. Illustrated magazines became popular, creating a new need for illustrations. The American artist Winslow Homer was one of the best-known magazine illustrators in the United States. His wood-engraved images of the Civil War were first printed in Harper's Weekly.

Toward the end of the 1800's, the quality of some printed illustrations suffered from the misuse of faster, cheaper printing methods. The English writer and designer William Morris believed that book design could be improved by returning to early hand-printing processes such as the woodcut. His influence was felt all over Europe. Even today many illustrators still choose these early methods over modern printing techniques.

The Rise of Illustrated Children's Books

During the late 1800's and early 1900's, many illustrators began to focus their efforts on books for children. In England, Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac created beautiful illustrations for children's story books. Their pictures were filled with gnomes, fairies, goblins, and other fanciful creatures. Two other English illustrators were Kate Greenaway and Beatrix Potter. Kate Greenaway created charming watercolor illustrations of children. Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) and many other books with animal characters. A noted French illustrator of the period was Bernard Boutet de Monvel, whose pictures accurately captured the moods and actions of young children.

In the United States, illustrators took advantage of the greater accuracy of photographic printing processes. They produced beautiful full-color illustrations for a variety of children's books. Howard Pyle wrote and illustrated many well-known works. These included The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) and four volumes of the stories of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. N. C. Wyeth illustrated many classic works of literature, bringing the stories to life with his depictions of adventure and romance.

Modern Illustration

The popularity of illustrated magazines, which had begun to be published in the mid-1800's, continued throughout the first half of the 1900's. Many artists became famous for their magazine illustrations. These included Charles Dana Gibson, Maxfield Parrish, Dean Cornwell, and Norman Rockwell.

During the 1950's magazines increasingly used photographs as illustrations. They used them first in advertisements and later for stories and feature articles. This trend led to a decline in the importance of illustration art.

During the 1950's and 1960's, television began to replace illustrated magazines as a popular means of visual communication. As one major magazine after another stopped publishing, illustrators looked for other markets for their talents. Many found work in television. They drew storyboards (sketches used to guide the action) for commercials and television shows or created the drawings for animated cartoons.

Other illustrators turned to book illustration. Paperback publishing had become a major industry after World War II (1939-45). Thousands of titles were printed. Almost every book had an illustration on its cover. Many artists gained fame for their illustrations of children's books. Books written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), including The Cat in the Hat (1957), have become world famous. Another American illustrator, Maurice Sendak, appealed to young imaginations with his illustrations for Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and other books.

In addition to book publishing, there has been a host of new magazines. These specialize in sports, hobbies, fashion, travel, art, humor, and other topics and provide work for illustrators. Advances in computer technology are also having an impact on illustration. Using special computer programs, artists can create full-color images and combine these images with text, all in one operation.

Walt Reed
President, Illustration House, Inc.
Author, Great American Illustrators



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