Defining Illustration: What is Illustration vs. Drawing vs. Painting vs. Fine Art?

When I was applying to grad school, I didn’t know if I should be a painting major or an illustration major. Once there, I would have many conversations (outside of school) in which I was asked what illustration was and/or what I intended to do with that degree. Whether you’re a potential art school student, someone who doesn’t care about art but has accidentally stumbled onto this page, or somewhere in between, I hope this post will be of help to you!

There are several ways to define illustration. The simplest is basically a picture that represents or clarifies something; for example, an illustration of a boat could be a photo, a drawing, a painting, etc. in a book, a magazine, a pamphlet, on canvas, what have you. By this definition, anything that visually represents something else is an illustration.

But in the art and design worlds, illustration is often juxtaposed with Fine Art because it’s the category of artwork that is commission-driven, rather than self generated. Medium-wise, there isn’t necessarily a defining difference. An “illustration” (that is, artwork that has been requested by a specific client) can be a giant oil painting, a photo of a paper cutting, a digital 3D model, a physical sculpture, a pencil sketch, a screen print, a digital “painting”, or anything else, so long as it meets the client’s needs. An illustration doesn’t necessarily require a deep explanation — “this piece was for a Coca-Cola ad” would suffice, whereas Fine Artists should be prepared to elucidate their work through an Artist’s Statement.

This differentiation goes one step further as well, where even self-generated work can be categorized as “illustration” depending on its visual connections to various artistic movements. For example, graphic novel and comic book style artwork are generally called illustration rather than Fine Art, even if they aren’t for a client. And there are several artists who blur the line between “Fine Art” and “illustration”, so the distinction is somewhat unnecessary. (Takashi Murakami and James Jean come immediately to mind, but think Alphonse Mucha and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec if you like ‘em historic.)

In the end I chose the illustration major because I’ve always preferred having an outside prompt for my projects, I knew I wanted to focus on making money through my work, and it seemed like I could use whatever medium I wanted. I’m thrilled with my choice, but it’s worth noting that painting majors can also do client work, just like illustrators can always do gallery and/or personal work.

Focusing on just the illustration world, here are some examples of potential freelance gigs, clients, and full-time jobs one might have in the field:

Freelance gigs and clients:

-Package designs (L’occitane en Provence, Estée Lauder, Celestial Seasonings)

-Advertisements (Oreos, Nike, Volkswagon)

-Album covers and band merch (any band)

-Stationery designs (Minted, Zazzle or your own shop)

-Book covers (Penguin Random House, Chronicle Books, HarperCollins)

-Political cartoons (New York Times)

-Portraits for a magazine (Elle, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, National Geographic)

-Vector illustrations for a tech company (Apple, Google, Airbnb)

-Event poster design (ballet, opera, music festivals like Bonaroo, charity events)

-Wedding/event invitation illustration and design (private clients)

Full time jobs:

-Concept artist at Warner Brothers

-Storyboard artist at Disney

-Textile designer at Anthropologie (URBN)

-Greeting card designer at Hallmark

-Senior artist/illustrator at Pusheen corp.

-Scientific illustrator at Salk Institute for Biological Studies

-Fashion Designer at Ralph Lauren

-Illustration Professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design

I hope this helps clarify some of your questions, and feel free to drop a comment if you have any more!

Trip Recap: Singapore

Hello everyone! As you may know, travel is my other biggest obsession after art, so I’m beginning a new series here on the blog about the vast topic. Many months ago I posted an infographic with a little checklist for international flights, so don’t forget to check that one out before taking your next big flight! ☺️

So this week’s topic is SINGAPORE! I just had the privilege of spending a day there (I know, a day isn’t enough time but I’m still so happy to have done it!!) and I’d love to share the details of what we did. So first things first — I was traveling with my partner, his brother, and his brother’s partner, and we stopped there as a layover on our way from Los Angeles to Perth, Western Australia. We landed at around eight in the morning and our next flight didn’t leave until around 6:30 that night, so we set out to make the most of it. Luckily our bags were checked all the way through to Perth, so we just had to worry about carryons. Singapore Changi Airport has baggage storage in every terminal, so you can leave heavy carryons (or checked bags) wherever your next flight will depart. Although leaving our tablets and laptops made me a little nervous, it was worth it to explore the city light as a bird!

Once we had only the essentials with us, we hopped on the train from the airport to Bugis. We had barely crossed the street and were already in a market full of clothing vendors and food stalls. We ate local fare for about $2 USD each, and it was easily one of my favorite meals of the past year. My dish had thin glass noodles, delicious boiled and seasoned potatoes, amazingly flavorful tofu, and cabbage. I accidentally ordered two plates of it due to the Mandarin-English language barrier, so I did my best to eat both. 😋

From there we walked around the area, enjoying reading our Chinese Zodiac predictions and smelling the flowers near the many temples. Since our time was limited, we caught a taxi (very easy to do) and zoomed over to Marina Bay Sands, where I had promised a rooftop view and drinks to my travel companions. The view DID NOT disappoint! Yes you have to pay, but that’s the case with all viewing towers I’ve encountered.

Whether you have a short layover or a full vacation in Singapore, I would recommend going out of your way for this experience. For one, you get an incredible 360° view of the sprawling city with its incredibly unique architecture and the limitless sea. And for the accommodation geeks out there like me, you get to check out the world famous Marina Bay Sands hotel, which is one of the largest hotels in the world AND boasts the highest swimming pool in the world. After that, we strolled over to Gardens By the Bay. This was ridiculously cool and I would also highly recommend to anyone. You can stroll and enjoy a lot of it for free, or you can pay to visit the Supertree Grove Skyway and the two domes: the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome. We elected to pay and see the two domes, and it was so worth it! The Cloud Forest has one of the world’s tallest indoor waterfalls — it was the tallest when we visited, but I believe the Singapore airport is taking that title in the near future — and is an overall epic indoor botanical garden experience. The Flower Dome, too, was amazing and well worth the price.

Overall we had a fantastic and very special layover in Singapore; we got to visit two must-see areas, enjoy amazing food and drinks, take in the views, and still make it back to the airport without rushing. We had all watched Crazy Rich Asians on the flight over together, which made seeing the landmarks in person extra exciting. If you have any tips for things to do on the next trip to Singapore, I’d love to hear them! ☺️

SMALL_Singapore Travel Journal Illo.jpeg

How To Prepare For An International Flight

I recently took a super brief trip to France to present a paper at a conference, and I made the ultimate rookie mistake - I forgot my passport! It inspired me to create this infographic as a little reminder of how to prepare before embarking on an international trip. 

Even for those of us who travel often, there is SO much to remember when packing and we're often preoccupied with other things before heading out. I hope this infographic can help you get ready for your next trip and avoid leaving anything important behind! <3 

How To Prepare For An International Flight_Elle Powell Art


Below is a collection of works I showed at a two artist show at Bitfactory Gallery in Denver, CO back in March. Thank you to all who came! Here's an article published from 303 Magazine about the show.

Prints are now available for sale in my Etsy Shop



How Illustration Can Make a Difference For Small Businesses and Nonprofits

As I wrapped up a couple commissions last week for the American Transplant Foundation, I got to thinking how else I could help other small businesses and nonprofits with my illustration work. There really are endless possibilities for how art can make a positive impact, whether it's as a gift, for marketing, or as an educational tool. Here's a list of my top ideas for how illustration (whether it's mine or someone else's!) can help your small business or nonprofit organization:

  1. Gift original, custom artwork to top financial donors, investors, business partners, longtime clients, or for employee appreciation.
  2. Commission custom invitations for your special events 
  3. Use on your annual report. Spice up your statistics with gorgeous and unique imagery!
  4. For social media. Hand-made illustrations can make your posts pop on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. 
  5. For you newsletter. Why not add some personality to your email campaigns?
  6. For your holiday card. Your constituents will love receiving a hand-made, illustrated card or postcard. It's so much more personal and genuine than just a card with your logo!
  7.  For office supplies. Hiring a designer can do wonders for your business's notepads, pens, mugs, etc. Why have boring office supplies/company swag when you can have lovely items instead?
  8. Commission artwork as a silent auction item, giveaway/raffle prize, or as a perk for sponsoring an event. (The American Transplant Foundation did this super effectively with a signed painting of The Fray at their 2016 Transplant Hero Awards gala!)
  9. Use art in your next pitch or presentation to communicate your points. 
  10. Do a community art piece, either sponsored by your business or to further the message and mission of your nonprofit. It's great to engage the world around you, and art is a FANTASTIC way to do it! 

I hope this leaves you feeling excited to incorporate more art into your small business or nonprofit. Please feel free to email me with any questions, or leave your ideas in the comments below!