Art Term Tuesday: Drawing v. Illustration

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

What words do you often find yourself using interchangeably, despite their having a finite definition? Image vs. picture? Or perhaps you often refer to specifics with generics, painting instead of acrylic on canvas? Maybe you never realized the words have precise meanings that differentiate them from one another, for example, drawing versus illustration.

Often used interchangeably when referring to works of pencil on paper, drawings and illustrations are two of the most common visual arts utilized to maintain the attention of, and convey a message to, a group of people. Despite this, drawings and illustrations render two different types of artworks: drawings are standalone works of art that use the technique of representing an object with lines to convey the message of the artist while illustrations are functional works of art that clarify a text, whether a book, newspaper, journal, or magazine.

Look closely at this abstract artwork by Abraham Walkowitz. Made with crayon and graphite pencil on paper, is it a drawing or an illustration?

An abstracted, geometric drawing of a city. The houses appear cut up into pieces along a road that runs through the bottom center.
Abraham Walkowitz, American, 1878-1965. Cityscape. Crayon and graphite pencil on paper, ca. 1915. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Fred Doloresco, 1990.15. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Recently on display at FWMoA, Salvador Dalí’s Stairway to Heaven exhibited multiple artworks by Dalí. (If you missed viewing it in person, check out the Curator’s Tour with President and CEO Charles Shepard or our virtual tour.) Are these drawings or illustrations?

A drawing requires observation, and brings the ideas, perspectives, and imaginations of the artist to light. Though most connected with pencil on paper, drawings also include works made with charcoal, crayon, pen, pastels, and markers. These instruments can be put to paper, wood, canvas, or board. Whether black-and-white or colorful, drawings represent the ability of the artist to demonstrate their feelings and ideas, depicting a message without auxiliary text. A two-dimensional representation, drawings are drafts (sometimes sketches) for other types of visual media, like paintings, used to render the scale of a smaller work to a larger canvas or mural, or stand-alone as finished compositions.

This pencil study for a painting shows a landscape. A river runs between mountains, with a cloudy sky in the background. Rocks in the river break up the composition and lines suggest movements and rapids within the water.
Frederick Judd Waugh, American, 1861-1940. Untitled, Study for a painting. Graphite pencil on paper, ca. 1922. Museum Purchase, 1965.96. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A drawing belongs to the artist alone, though it may also attempt to render a person, place, or thing as exactly as a photograph. The snapshot of a person reading, a street in a foreign city, or glasses on a table, produced through observation by the means of lines, are all drawings. If the snapshot, however, is accompanied by text, then it is an illustration.

A color scene of a street in Haiti. In the background, against a grey-blue sky is a mountain with trees dotting it. A road runs through the center with houses on either side. Walking towards the viewer are a few people, including a woman with a filled basket on her head. Puddles in the street suggest recent rain.
Alex Kortner, American, 1905-1999. Street Scene in Haiti. Watercolor and graphite pencil. Gift of Mrs. Talbot and Mrs. Maurice Chadwick in memory of Miss. Phyllis Bales, 1974.38. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Dalí’s illustrations of the 1934 edition of Les Chants de Maldoror, a prose poem by the Comte de Lautréamont, and the 1960 edition of Dante Aligheri’s The Divine Comedy function as clarifications and descriptors of the text in which they are found. These drawings are not the feelings or ideas of the artist himself, per se, but are visual representations that provide emphasis or accentuate pieces of either Les Chants de Maldoror or The Divine Comedy. The artist obviously brings his own perspectives and ideas, and may interpret the text strictly or loosely, but regardless depend on the text as the inspiration for the artwork. Providing faces to characters or settings to scenes, these visual representations can also take the form of graphs and charts. If providing faces, the artist will render the image as closely to the description in the text as possible, while graphs and charts are illustrated to help readers visualize a theory or concept. While drawings standalone, illustrations require the accompanying text for their full appreciation and comprehension.

Illustrations are sometimes drawings, but drawings are not always illustrations; just as an illustrator is an artist, but not all artists are necessarily illustrators. What about authors who illustrate their own text? Kara Walker, whose book is currently on view in the exhibition By Women: A Selection from the Permanent Collection, created the pop-up silhouettes that accompany the text. These are still illustrations, however, as though they came from her mind they work with the text to tell the story, and cannot stand-alone to convey their message. Illustrations depend on the narrative and function to help readers understand and visualize the accompanying written content; a drawing, however, conveys an artistic expression that doesn’t require text for viewers to comprehend the message. Illustrations can be pencil and paper, watercolors, lithographs, paintings, engravings, or linocuts.

Consider an illuminated manuscript. Popular in the 1100s through 1600, these hand-written books that contain gold foil included painted decorations such as initials, borders, and miniature illustrations. Originally used solely for religious purposes, an illuminated Bible or Book of Hours (a book that included everything needed for pious practice—psalms, prayers to the Virgin and saints, a calendar of feast days, and prayers for the dead) provided illustrations of specific passages for the illiterate population. Much like authors who hire illustrators today, many of the books were written by scribes but illuminated by other laborers. Though we may recognize an illustration of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to tell Mary she is pregnant with Christ, the accompanying text dictates that illustration and the devices and colors chosen. The illuminator does not imbue their feelings of the event or use their imagination to add other real or fantastical players to the scene. They are bound to the story which they bring to life visually.

Do you prefer to draw your own feelings and imaginings or bring words to life through illustration? The next time you read a book, consider the illustrations. Did the illustrator stay true to the narrative? How would you illustrate the words?

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