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!