Going back to my article on John Hendrix, who suggested that there are 3 orders of creativity: the person who originates the problem (first order), the person who is given the problem to solve (second order), and the person who is given the problem to solve and the solution: all that’s left is to put the requested marks on the paper (third order); the question of ‘what is illustration’ belongs somewhere between the second and third order of creativity.
If you are asked to illustrate something, then already you are limited in what you may or may not draw. If you are asked to paint a bridge, then painting a unicorn would not be illustrating the bridge. However, you might be given the freedom to depict the bridge in a style of your choosing: black and white, watercolour and so on.
If you were asked to illustrate a bridge using technical drawing style, then that is firmly third order.
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The point of all illustration, however, is to further illumine an idea being presented elsewhere.
When I preach on a passage from the Bible, then I will perhaps find a story or anecdote which will help people grasp the idea. Often the illustration will be attempting to nail an abstract expression, or an unfamiliar idea, in such a way that it can be expressed more clearly. There is also a difference between art and illustration.
Illustration is finite. It seeks to capture a moment, perhaps an emotion. First comes the thing to be illustrated, then the illustration itself. An illustration doesn’t do anything other than expand on something that already exists: it doesn’t ask questions of the viewer. In fact the illustration is somewhat incidental to the context, with it there is something added, but without it then no one would miss it!
So if I were to complete a book illustration then I would be attempting to depict in an image something that is going on in the story so as to capture the essence of that moment. And that’s the tricky bit!
I would say that the best examples of illustration can be found in graphic novels since there is very little space for text, but there is also a limited space in which to tell the story in pictoral form. And whilst a graphic novel is art, there is a significant difference between art and illustration.