Types of Illustration – Styles and Techniques
Learn what illustration is, how it evolved through time and what types of illustration, styles, and techniques there are. + Examples!
Learn what illustration is, how it evolved through time and what types of illustration, styles, and techniques there are. + Examples!
We noticed that there are several definitions of what illustration might be and what types of illustrations there are… Each time we tried to find a video, article or some other source throwing light on the subject – we got lost or we didn’t get enough information; or we had to look at several places to be able to systemize our findings…
That is why we decided to put a piece together on the topic of:
as our attempt in creating a comprehensive, yet easy to read article about illustration.
We figured out that many people get confused by the definitions given for a “designer” and an “illustrator”, and even if they get a notion of what an illustrator does, they get lost in the next stage – recognizing different types of illustrations and explaining what they like. First thing first, let’s
It is very hard to tell these apart, but you won’t be far from the truth if you say that:
often relies on a set of elements – images, typography, etc. and organizes them in engaging compositions. The main task of the designer is to focus the attention of the viewer on a certain visual concept, idea, detail, part of the design and to make an idea appealing and memorable.
more often produces the imagery themselves and not necessarily work on the whole design of the “product”. The illustrations are often supportive to other mediums – for example, illustrations often accompany newspaper articles, books, magazines and they most often serve to support and better translate ideas, texts and/or further explain them. More often than not, illustrators try to keep the balance between visual and text and try not to steal all the focus on the illustration.
Still, many illustrators and designers would switch hats and act as the opposite – nowadays, competition in art fields is fierce and artists have to be able to show multidisciplinary skills.
One of the definitions we like is from VisualArtsCork.com:
An illustration is a drawing, painting or printed work of art which explains, clarifies, illuminates, visually represents, or merely decorates a written text, which may be of a literary or commercial nature
To answer this question we have to look back in history. Before photography existed, the only way to express ideas were with the help of illustrations. Often in more recent years, illustrations had to be quite realistic, because there was no photography to serve this purpose. Logically, a huge market for illustration were magazines, newspapers, and books. With time, illustrators gained more freedom and their creativity and originality were now more valued than their technical skills and ability to draw realistically. That also explains the majority of styles in illustrations that appeared. But before moving to the most common illustrations styles,
We can basically divide the types of illustration, based on the technique used, into two large groups: Traditional illustration and Modern style.
Techniques for making illustration changed over time, as materials are also changing and evolving. Artists relied on paper, paints, pencils, but with the digital era evolution, even artists accustomed to traditional mediums and materials started working digitally – with the help of 2D and 3D software such as Photoshop and 3DMax and Maya, for example. The digital tools and techniques imitate traditional materials and effects achieved with them and it is easy to switch different materials and experiment.
One of the oldest types of illustration was the hand-drawn one. Another popular technique was:
It is an ancient technique which you can see in some of the world’s oldest surviving manuscripts. It was popular during the Middle Ages and became the illustration type of choice after the invention of the printing press. Carved block illustrations made it possible for mass-produced books to have beautiful illustrations all printed from the same master cutting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art explains that woodcut illustrations were also extremely popular in feudal Japan.
Distinctive for this technique are the contrasting colors if any; the contrast between dark and light areas in the illustration, as well the relatively big strokes. It is still a preferred technique of many contemporary illustrators who love the rougher feel and the textured look of these illustrations.
Here is a video that will show you a little bit of the work that goes behind such type of illustration – woodcut technique:
Other types of illustration, according to the technique, which requires some preparation, material base and specific knowledge about the production process are the
In traditional pure etching, a metal (usually copper, zinc or steel) plate is covered with a waxy ground which is resistant to acid. The artist then scratches off the ground with a pointed etching needle where he or she wants a line to appear in the finished piece, so exposing the bare metal. The plate is then dipped in a bath of acid and the acid “bites” into the metal where it is exposed, leaving behind lines sunk into the plate. The remaining ground is then cleaned off the plate. The plate is inked all over, and then the ink wiped off the surface, leaving only the ink in the etched lines. The plate is then put through a high-pressure printing press together with a sheet of paper and the paper picks up the ink from the etched lines, making a print. You can read more about the different metal etching techniques at Wikipedia’s page.
Depending on the metal etching technique used, the illustration can look like watercolor (aquatint) or it can look like pencil drawing – with very fine lines and hatching. The above 3 examples are showing the versatility that can be achieved in illustration with these techniques.
You can see a very interesting video showing the creation process of such an illustration here:
Now let’s have a look at the type of illustration that doesn’t require much of a preparation to start working, and that’s:
Maybe one of the most popular types of illustration is the pencil one. It is rich material, which allows you creating soft shadows and transitions, as well creating sharp, accurate lines. Sometimes, illustrators choose to keep the pencil sketch very loose and to draft with a pencil – later on, they finish off the illustration with another material.
Above you saw 3 different approaches to pencil illustration – monochrome, with clean lines and richness of the line weight; one with colored pencil with very smooth and soft shading of the volumes; and one rough, sketchy and dynamic illustration, because of the energetic line work and the search for shapes and volumes. The last approach is very common for creating initial character design concepts.
You can watch a video, in which an artist talks about working with pencil, his process and you can observe him working:
The next type of illustration, based on the technique used, which is also often mistaken for a pencil one is the
Charcoal illustrations are often not as precise as pen and pencil illustrations but are a preferred choice for illustrating short stories, fast sketches, nooks. Charcoal’s blendability lets the artist create a range of textures, representing materials and shadows, people, objects and the natural world. Artists often use fingers and tissues to blend the soft material, smudge and create smooth and soft shadows.
In the above illustrations, you can see how the charcoal helped in creating rough, loose sketch of a horse. Then, another artist made very fine detailing of a human face in another piece. Last, but not least, an illustrator created soft shadows, blending and texturing. Probably, the main difference, compared to pencil illustration is, that the line of the charcoal is always slightly thicker, softer and darker in quality. The reason why example 2 and 3 are so different is because of the way the charcoal is produced: charcoal pencils consisting of compressed charcoal powder and a gum binder, which produces a fine, sharp line; while vine charcoal provides a smooth, softer line.
You can see how the material allows you to achieve these effects in the following video with tips on drawing with charcoal:
Talking about soft quality of an illustration and smooth transitions in shading, we should mention as next technique on our list:
Lithography comes from the Greek word for stone. Originally, the technique used an image drawn with oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth, level lithographic limestone plate. Today, most types of high-volume books and magazines, especially when illustrated in color, are printed with offset lithography, which has become the most common form of printing technology since the 1960s. You can read more about the technique in Wikipedia’s article dedicated to the topic.
You can notice that the above lithography illustration examples share one quality, although they represent different style and imagery – there is a certain level of softness about all three of them. At some spots, the color even looks washed out and pale.
Watch a video of this printmaking technique:
Another type of illustration with which one can achieve softness, smooth transitions and lots of nuancing is the:
In watercolor illustrations, the main thing is to use color pigments and to create nuances and different transparencies by adding water to the color. The overall feeling of watercolor illustrations is soft, airy, with lots of depth. Illustrators prefer it for illustrating cookbooks, feminine and fashion types of illustration, children book illustrations, as it is very light. It is one of the easiest ways of creating splashes of color, merging one into another – common threats for the mentioned illustration styles.
You can watch a wonderful demonstration of watercolor illustration here:
As a cousing of the watercolor illustration, we can point out the
Gouache paint is similar to watercolor modified to make it opaque. It offers rich, thicker, bit darker shades than watercolor and can be even reworked some years later. Commercial artists often use gouache for works such as posters, illustrations, comics, and for other design work. Most 20th-century animations used it to create an opaque color on a cel with watercolor paint used for the backgrounds. Using gouache as “poster paint” is desirable for its speed as the paint layer dries completely by the relatively quick evaporation of the water. You can read more about the technique on Wikipedia.
You can wacth a wonderful demonstration of gouache illustration here:
The next type of illustration that we are going to look at is the
Acrylics is one of the most prefered techniques for beginners – it is relatively easier to work with them, than with watercolor or oils. Still, the artist can achieve both similar effects to oils and watercolors. One can paint with them on almost any kind of surface and they become water resistant, once they are dry. These paints are very versatile as they also come as fluorescents, metalics and other interesting effects.
You can see a process of creating an acryllic illustration here:
A little bit different from the last techniques we looked at is the
Collage comes from the French coller, which means ‘to glue’. It is a technique, where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, often from different materials, to form a new whole. This type of ilustration is hugely popular in the recent years, and even is considered as an inspiration for the big trend – material design. Often, illustrators use the shading from the different layers of their collage to achieve a beautiful 3D effect and to achieve depth. You can see in the above illustrations, how this technique was interpreted beautifully from different artists.
Another great process video for this type of illustration; the illustration is then used for a cover of a book:
And last, but not least is the
Illustrating with ink allows the artist to create strong areas of contrast. Most of the illustrations are done by using one tint of ink on a light surface, which again helps achieving high contrasting pieces. Inks are widely accessible and affordable material, easy to transport and to work expressively with. May be you remember the high contrasts of the woodcut? Well, inking allows you to be more mobile and to create even finer lines.
Sometimes, achieving of gradations in value is hard, unless, working with ink and brush as it is in the first example illustration. Value can be ahieved also by using dots and strokes with different weight and different distance from each other, as in the second example. In the third illustration, the artist wonderfully combined heavily shaded, rich in value areas with elegant, simple ink linework.
The following video is a beautiful demonstration of a swedish ink master:
As we discussed before, with the advancement of the electronics and stepping into the, so called digital era, the possibilities for artists to express themselves grew rapidly and more freely. The first electronic handwriting device was invented back in 1888. Since then, the technology became more sophisticated and many illustrators and designers are accustomed to using graphics tablets nowadays – devices, which are connected to a computer. Artists use the tablet’s pen and surface to draw and the device transfers the image in the opened drawing software – such as Phothoshop. Artrage, Ikscape and other. The software programs imitate different traditional brushes, pens, various drawing tools, paper and effects.
We can divide the illustrations produced digitally into two large groups:
As you can see from the pictures below, the freehand digital illustrations allow very smooth light and shadow transitions, making a complex background and fine detail. Most of these illustrations are in a raster format and they can be blowed up and printed only to certain sizes before they loose quality. You can read more about the differences between raster and vector images in our article.
In the other group fall vector graphics/illustrations. The way the images are produced allows scaling it up and down to any size, without any quality loss. By rule, it is harder to make a smooth transition with vectors, but vector has its advantages in producing a certain style of imagery and it is very popular for web illustration. You can easily recognize the vector by its clear outlines, shapes and definition.
We are quite sure the examples we gave so far are not nearly enough, so here are some curated illustrations and portfolios we found on the web and which we think are mesmerizing examples of the different types of illustration:
Ok, if you got here, it will be probably be interesting for you to find out even more…
The first part of our guide in the world of illustration is half done and now we are moving to the next part:
Here we want to make a small remark, that by style we mean the different genres in illustration (or at least the most popular ones). However, style is used also for the individual and very specific way of expressing of the individual artists, but this could be defined much harder, if possible at all. Long story short, we can recognize the following genres in illustration:
These types of illustration include Fantasy illustrations, illustrations for Gaming, Animation and One-Pager Fine Illustrations. The term concept first appreared back in 1930s, used probably first from Disney and it was used in the automative industry as well. In concept illustration, the artists creates several interepretations (concept) of a certain theme, from which the client can choose from and see the different stages, development and the process of creation of the illustration.
Some of the comic/graphic novel illustration authours you might want to see:
Children book illustrations can be very diverse – from realistic, full with details illustrations to very simplified, child-like, naive drawings. It depends on the story, the target age group and many more. Nevertheless, children’s illustrations are colorful, narrating, there is always something happening. The characters are cute and friendly.
Some of the children’s illustration authors you might want to see:
According to Wikipedia comics is a medium used to express ideas by images, often combined with text or other visual information. Comics frequently takes the form of juxtaposed sequences of panels of images. Often textual devices such as speech balloons, captions, and onomatopoeia indicate dialogue, narration, sound effects, or other information. Size and arrangement of panels contribute to narrative pacing. Cartooning and similar forms of illustration are the most common image-making means in comics.
Some of the comic/graphic novel illustration authors you might want to see:
Did you know that luxury books on geographical topics and natural history, and some children’s books, had printed illustrations which were then coloured by hand but in Europe, none of the experimental techniques for true colour printing became widely used before the mid-19th century.
Today, a book illustration could be designed in any technique and then printed. This style is very versatile and depends on the vision of the authour and the subject of the book. Illustrators try to create eye-catching covers in order to compete with the piles of books in bookshops. It is very specific style, which demands catching the viewer’s attention, giving a hint of what is inside the book and sometimes, it is the cover that sells the book (or publication).
Some of the book illustration authors you might want to see:
While book and publication illustrations should be supporting and illuminating a certain idea, without stealing the show from the text, advertising type of illustration is meant to do just that – grab your attention and make a lasting impression on one big idea or brand/product. Many companies choose illustration as the medium to send their message to the audience, because the style better translates the idea than photography, for example.
Some of the advertising illustrations you might want to see:
The rise of digital technologies in the latter half of 20th century allowed businesses to scale rapidly and become global. With unprecedented competition, packaging came to be the way of differentiating the product on the shelf. For some businesses such as jewelry, bakery, children’s products, illustration is the most successful choice. It offers personalized touch, elegance and custom feel.
Some of the packaging illustrations you might want to see:
Branding/Logo type of illustration is very specific style, requiring a certain set of skills. For example, a logo should be recognizable and readable at smaller sizes. Therefore, the illustrator should carefully plan the details of the logo. Logos should be simple, yet grabbing attention and memorable. Sometimes, businesses need more than a logo illustration, but mascots, cartoonized version of their employees or products. With their help, the brands enhance their presence and impression on customers.
Some of the branding/logo illustrations you might want to see:
We hope you liked this article and that you were able to dive you into the magical world of illustration! Let us know how we did, what else you might want to know. We would be happy to add it to the article!
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