Graphic illustration is art found on flyers, fabrics, book jackets, advertisements, packaging, posters, and websites. It helps express visual ideas, convey messages, sell products, teach students, and promote brands. In our increasingly visual world, it feels vital to our everyday lives. And yet the field of graphic illustration can be hard to define.

So what is graphic illustration, and what is the difference between illustration, graphic design, and other methods of visual communication? How do graphic illustration artists differ from other types of artists and designers? What kind of specialized work do they do?

Here, we’ll delve briefly into the history of illustration, examining how it developed into its own professional field. We’ll also cover a world of graphic illustration artists, examining the special techniques, toolkits, and skill sets they employ to create their work. Finally, we’ll compare and contrast graphic illustration with other types of graphic art and design, offering you a better understanding of how to differentiate between them.  If you’ve ever been curious about the wide world of graphic illustration—or are interested in what it takes to join the ranks of successful graphic illustration artists—read on.

The Basics of Illustration

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A Brief History of Illustration

An illustration is an image used to communicate, educate, or decorate. For tens of thousands of years, humans have used illustrations to tell stories, convey ideas, and promote specific messages. Prehistoric cave paintings, like those found in Asia and Europe, are considered some of the earliest forms of illustration. Ancient humans and even Neanderthals made images of herd animals and hunting scenes by using clay, charcoal, and other naturally occurring pigments on rocks and cave surfaces. Many scholars believe that those early images were created not only as a form of decoration but also as a way to communicate with others and promote specific information about animals, hunting grounds, and religious experiences.

Early Civilization

As civilizations developed around the world, humans relied on illustration to communicate and entertain. In ancient Egypt, a set of codified illustrated characters combined with types of symbols—later known as hieroglyphics—became the main method of communication. Illustrations of gods, pharaohs, wars, feasts, and famines were applied to papyrus scrolls, burial chambers, sarcophagi, and religious sites. In ancient Greece and Rome, illustrations that depicted gods, myths, political leaders, and scenes of everyday life often decorated art, mosaic tiles, and drinking vessels. In ancient India, scroll painting illustrations of Hindu gods and goddesses were created as early as the fifth century B.C.E, and early Buddhist frescos began to be illustrated only three centuries later. In Mesoamerica, archaic period tribes created pictographs and other illustrations on rock walls, wood, animal skins, and skulls. Traditional Chinese illustrative painting began in 450 B.C.E. and is one of the oldest formalized ornamental traditions in the world. Back then, artists brushed ink or colored pigments on silk, paper, and ceramics, beautifully portraying detailed landscapes, human figures, and botanical illustrations – and some continue to do so today.

The Middle Ages and Beyond

During the European Middle Ages, Christian religious orders began to create hand-illustrated manuscripts of the Bible and other important religious texts. Monks committed their lives to creating and copying books, depending heavily on well-drawn illustrations to convey the most important stories and ideas to a largely illiterate audience. Illustration also flourished in Islamic countries in the Middle Ages and beyond. Muslim artists have traditionally focused on expanding illustrative calligraphy into a graphic art style and creating innovative and beautiful illustrations out of the Koran’s text itself.

With the invention of printing presses in both China and Europe, illustrations took on new importance. Engraved prints and woodcuts allowed 15th-century artists to create works that could reach a wider audience. Artists began to use illustrations to convey all kinds of information: to depict medical treatments, convey agricultural and geographic information, communicate veterinary practices, showcase original inventions, entertain audiences, and visually explain scientific theories. As printing technology developed, so too did illustrations. By the 19th century, artistic renderings on book jackets and interior pages, posters, newspapers, booklets, and prints were widespread and immensely popular. Many publishers invested heavily in recruiting and retaining illustration artists, knowing that their editorial publications would sell much better if illustrative images were included.

Modern Illustration

In the 20th century, modern illustration came into its own. Before photography became an important visual medium in its own right, illustrators were considered a reliable source for images that could convey specific scenes and important messages. During the world wars, American illustrators (now sometimes to referred to as “graphic illustrators”) using modern drawing and printing techniques were called on to help educate the public by producing illustrations for informational posters, brochures, and billboards. Many mid-century advertisements depended on illustrators to showcase their products in an appealing way. Brands worked with illustrators to perfect their illustrated logos, and publications like The Saturday Evening Post employed famous illustrators like Norman Rockwell to portray idealized versions of family and everyday American life.

Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, graphic illustration moved into film and television as animators like Walt Disney created carefully rendered cartoons to entertain and delight national audiences. In the second half of the 20th century, digital platforms and technologies were developed. Graphic illustrators were called on to help create video games, websites, mobile applications, cyber icons, and better user experiences for new online audiences.

Today, graphic illustrators are employed in a wide range of industries, including publishing, television, film, digital media, logo design, web design, and more. Whenever an artistic rendering is needed to convey an idea, send a message, sell a product, entertain an audience, or depict a scene, a graphic illustrator is a perfect person to help make it happen.

Student project by Arianna Cristiano
Student project by Arianna Cristiano

What Do Graphic Illustration Artists Do?

Graphic illustration artists are known for their creativity, dexterity, and ability to produce visually interesting images—by hand or with the help of digital pen and pointer tools. To become a graphic illustration artist, you’ll need a strong work ethic and a propensity for artistic expression. But there are other ways to prepare yourself for a career in the field, too. 

Some graphic illustrators begin by pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in art, design, or illustration. Many go on to get post-secondary degrees, too. While in school, graphic illustration artists study the building blocks of design and learn the techniques they’ll need to develop a distinct personal style. Courses often cover drawing, painting, art history, digital illustration, business basics, and entrepreneurial practices, too—all skills that are essential for graphic illustrators as they build careers in the field.

Once a graphic illustration artist graduates from school and/or develops a portfolio that expresses their signature style, clients can hire them on a freelance, part-time or full-time basis to create work for magazines, books, advertisements, digital projects, and more.

Depending on the type of illustration they create, some graphic illustrators depend on traditional materials such as pens, pencils, or paints to create original designs. Often, those artists scan hand-drawn work into a digital program as the last step, using the added tools to edit and distribute their art. There are even graphic illustrators who work almost exclusively with digital tools, using only computer-based programs to create the lines, shapes, and shadows they need.

Colors and Shapes in Graphic Illustration

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Tools of the Trade

Most modern graphic illustration artists use a range of analog and digital methods to create their work. That may include one or some of the following.

  • Many graphic illustrators use a personal computer or laptop with a crisp display monitor and a fast processing speed. Because the original Adobe programs were built for Apple computers, graphic illustrators traditionally prefer Macs over PCs. But now that Adobe and other illustration programs work just as well for Microsoft operating systems, the industry standard has begun to change. More than ever, the most important thing for a graphic illustrator looking to invest in the right computer is to know their needs and buy the equipment that works for them.
  • An electronic drawing tablet is considered a must-have for graphic illustrators who want to quickly and accurately draw on a digital platform. The electronic tablet allows artists to create illustrations naturally, but directly on their computers—skipping the steps involved in scanning traditional pen and paper illustrations.
  • A pointer tool like a mouse or a stylus pen allows graphic illustration artists to maintain artistic control and create the right lines, shapes, and shadows every time. Some illustrators take it a step further with an ergonomically advanced mouse to ensure that their wrists and elbows are protected while they sketch the wanted images.
  • A Pantone reference library can ensure that the colors graphic illustration artists use in their artwork are correctly calibrated with their clients’ signature color schemes, which means that there is less of a possibility for miscommunication or expensive print mistakes down the road.
  • Adobe Creative Cloud, known to many as the Adobe Suite, includes the digital programs that most working graphic illustration artists create, edit, manage and distribute their work. Adobe applications like Illustrator and InDesign can be expensive, but they are necessary for anyone hoping to work in the graphic illustration industry.
Student project by Charles Yang
Student project by Charles Yang

Graphic Illustration vs. Graphic Design  

How does graphic illustration compare to other graphic arts-oriented professions? So much of the work—not to mention the tools, skills, and art history—of the field may seem similar to graphic design. Even with all of the information, it can still be hard to understand the distinction.

While much of what graphic illustration artists and graphic designers experience and use daily may be the same, there are three key differences between the two careers.

  • They focus on different concepts in school. Graphic illustrators largely focus on developing their creative educations; they often take drawing and painting classes as well as courses on art history and digital illustration as a part of their degree programs. Graphic designers, on the other hand, may be skilled artistically but tend to focus on product, publication, and website design principles rather than on honing their fine art techniques.
  • The solutions they design can look very different. A graphic illustrator is primarily concerned with the way their original work looks. Graphic designers, on the other hand, must also consider the typography, color scheme, composition, and other visual elements that make up the entirety of the project. They may even use an unaltered photograph to enhance a project—something that a graphic illustrator is less inclined to do.
  • They are hired for different reasons. A graphic illustrator’s main focus is to draw and create new designs. That means that they can work for companies doing things like product packaging, book illustrations, jacket covers, comics, and brand logos. Graphic designers, on the other hand, are often called to help brands create a visual identity, a coherent advertising look, or a user-friendly website. They may take a more global approach to make sure that visual communication efforts are effective, consistent, and appropriate to the client that needs their services.

How to Become a Professional Illustrator

Lisa Congdon uses a mock creative brief to guide students through the process of completing a creative assignment from start to finish.

Get Started with Graphic Illustration Today

Although graphic illustration shares a lot of similarities with graphic design and other careers in visual communication, the field has its own methods, tools, creative priorities, and rich artistic history. If you have a propensity for creative expression and want to make your own original images, graphic illustration may be the perfect field for your personal and professional aspirations. Embark on your journey as a graphic illustrator today by enrolling in a class on the basics or brushing up on professional practices, and you’ll be creating new designs for clients in no time.