Types of Illustration

Types of Illustration – Functions and Styles of Visual Depiction

Over the centuries, illustration has been the foundation for all of our visual traditions and civilizations, which artists have used to visually describe and portray concepts as well as stories. Just like art, illustration can objectively reflect what is taking place in the world around us, as well as creatively interpret theoretical and mental ideas. Diverse simple illustration styles can be used, by use of various media tools, to convey information, transform cultures and evoke emotions. In this article, we will be showing you what illustration is, different illustration types, and much more.



What Is Illustration? 

The term “Illustration” is derived from “Illustrate” in Latin, which has the meaning of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.  In other words, illustration is a visualization that is made by various artists, which could be in the form of a painting, drawing, engraving, collage, photo, and so on, where the illustration need not be drawn, but could also merely be a photo in a book that explains what is written.

So, an illustration can be a means whereby a specific idea is explained without the necessity of written text.

What is Illustration “Illustration beats explanation” Western Engraving & Colortype Co. (1916); Kindred Fuel Co., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You may look at a certain picture and be able to see the whole story behind it without reading any text. If you want to convey a story using an illustration, it means you are transmitting or passing on a certain meaning with the means of an image only. 

Many simple illustration styles are portrayed in various formats such as children’s books, magazines, and comic books. However, just like many other art styles, illustration has also evolved together with technological advances.

From the traditional hand-drawn illustrations, digital art has emerged, where the computer now gives you digital illustrations that serve to clarify any written text. So, if a drawing or image is not explaining anything, is it still an illustration, or is it a work of art or a graphic design? Let us now try to explain the differences. 


Works of Art

A work of art can be a sketch or a painting, but it is still a standalone piece that does not require text or an idea or story to convey its message. So, it seems to be very much the same as an illustration. There appears to be a very fine line between a work of art and an illustration, and as different types of illustrations communicate strong emotional messages through vector graphics or oil paintings, the two are virtually interchangeable. 

However, art is creating an expression of the artist’s inner world, whereas illustration is rather creating an explanation of an idea.

Illustration Ideas Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786) by William Blake. This watercolor illustration is located at the Tate Britan in the United Kingdom; William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The main objective in an artwork is aesthetics, while the main objective in an illustration is an explanation. The illustration combines the customer’s specific goals and needs, while artwork can be accomplished without any of those. 


Graphic Design

Graphic design is understood to be the message and the medium, rather than merely conveying a message. This means that graphic design can be an ordinary events poster that conveys vital information about dates, venues, and so on, whereby creative visual elements are also used in the text. The core task for the designer is creating a successful product that will, on all points, meet the requirements of the customer and also meet the needs of the audience they are targeting.

However, the aim is not to focus entirely on the image itself but also to have the marketing goals in mind.  

Modern Illustration Cover of the Thanksgiving 1895 issue of The Chap-Book, designed by Will H. Bradley; Bradley, Will, 1868-1962, artist., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Main Types of Illustrations

Illustration has been practiced for centuries, or millennia, in the form of cave paintings as well as ancient hieroglyphics. Etchings have been found dating back to the 10th century and even before. Illustrations have been classified into two main groups, traditional illustrations, and modern illustrations.


Traditional Illustrations

Traditional illustrations are defined as work that has been performed by hand where artists make use of mediums like pencils, charcoal, and paint, and use different surfaces to portray their work such as paper and wood.

Others in ancient civilizations also used rocks and stones.


Woodcut Illustrations

This technique of creating an illustration that could be replicated dates back to the Chinese Tang dynasty, where instead of drawing on a piece of paper, they would carve the illustration into a flat piece of wood which gave you a three-dimensional effect.

They would then use a roller dipped in some ink to cover the top part of the wood, leaving the carved indentations ink-free.

Famous Illustration Styles The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1830 – 1832) by Katsushika Hokusai, located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States; Katsushika Hokusai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sheets of paper were then used and pressed against the wood, which would absorb the ink, making the indentations clear. Today, this same technique is used to make stamps, where the illustrations or designs are carved into rubber, which can then be replicated on paper. The woodcut illustrations left you with jagged and rough edges, which were effective in producing the shading effect.

This form of etching style became very popular in the seventeen and 1800s, where the earliest example is the “Diamond Sutra” from the ninth century, and “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Hokusai in 1830.


Pencil Illustrations 

This form of illustration is very popular because it is so easy and simple to create an illustration using a pencil. Pencils are available in various values, hues, and weights, for example, you have the graphite pencil, and mechanical pencil, and do not forget the colored pencil.

With different pressures applied to the pencil, you can create broad shading or fine lines, and it is easy to do, even your kids can express their ideas with a pencil. This is why it is a preferred option by many artists, and many carry their sketchbooks around with them to capture anything that appeals to them.

However, the pencil has its limits, as you are not able to combine two colored pencils to produce a secondary color like you can with paints. You will also require a special type of tool like a kneaded eraser to smooth any rough textures formed by the graphite on your paper.


Charcoal Illustrations 

Charcoal gives the illustrator a lot more blending capability than a pencil can but does not have the same precision as a pencil. Charcoal is available in stick or pencil form and is a much darker black than a pencil. You can also use your fingertips to smudge it, creating a smoother shading effect.

Charcoal is used mainly for quick sketches and cannot easily be erased, so illustrators are encouraged to make decisive strokes, and try to ignore small mistakes.

Illustration Techniques Drawing XIII (1915) by Georgia O’Keeffe, located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States; Georgia O’Keeffe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Charcoal makes thicker, darker, and softer lines than a pencil does. Artists use charcoal to create contrasts with textures and shadows, while designers use charcoal to add tones to their work that are rich black shadows.


Watercolor Illustrations 

Watercolor illustrations are done by simply mixing some pigment with water, making it better and easier to handle than oil or acrylic paints. This makes it more transparent, allowing the light to permeate through the watercolor illustrations. This form of illustration is ideal for illustrating scenes that do not need precise or bold work, as the watercolors tend to blend and bleed on the paper with a lot less control than in other mediums.

Watercolor illustrations are used by illustrators for illustrating things like cookbooks, fashion magazines, and children’s books, and it is very easy to merge the colors into one another.


Pen and Ink Illustrations 

Pen and ink illustrations are also very popular with illustrators, as it gives you a lot more precision with a sharper contrast than colored pencils. However, you will have to use a series of fine lines to do the shading.

Ink is affordable and easily available, and the pens usually come with various size tips, allowing you to create finer lines.

Calligraphers and illustrators often go for the old-fashioned fountain pens, as you can vary the thickness of the lines by altering the pressure on the pen, as well as creating different gradients when forming the words or letters.


Acrylic Illustrations

Acrylic paint illustration is most suited for the beginner, as the thickness and texture of the paint allow you to blend and apply it easily without bleeding through as watercolor paints can. This type of illustration medium is very versatile, as it allows you to blend the colors in an almost endless spectrum.

As acrylic paint is very fast-drying, as well as water-resistant, it will leave you with a lot less room for errors.

You can also apply the paint to canvas, fabric, or almost any kind of surface. The paint can also be mixed with water, which will make it thinner, allowing you to layer it, and ultimately giving you a three-dimensional texture.     


Metal Etchings

Metal etchings are usually done on a copper, steel, or zinc metal plate that is completely covered with a wax that is resistant to acid. The artist will then scratch off the wax covering with a sharp-pointed etching needle, and it will then expose the bare metal. The metal plate is then taken and dipped into an acid bath, where the acid will eat into the exposed areas of the plate.

The wax coating is then removed from the plate and then ink is applied to the whole surface of the plate. The ink is then wiped off the plate, leaving ink only in the etched lines on the plate.

Example of Illustration Techniques The Soldier and his Wife (16th century), etching by Daniel Hopfer, who is believed to have been the first to apply the technique to printmaking; Daniel Hopfer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The metal plate then passes through a printing press with high pressure, together with some sheets of paper. The paper collects the ink from the engraved lines. Depending on the technique used, the illustration can appear like a watercolor painting, or it can give the impression of a pencil drawing. 


Modern Illustrations

Today, illustrations have evolved, and artists now make use of computers with digital programs. These digital techniques and tools imitate the old traditional system, which produces modern illustrations. The same effects are achieved, but it is much easier to switch and change materials and techniques.

Modern illustrations have been around for a few years, and you now have capable and smart apps, which allow the illustrator to combine shapes and lines and also recolor their works of art.

The available combinations seem to be endless, such as graphics, collages, and text, with filters and effects that illustrators can use to bring any design they can imagine onto the computer screen. Let us now consider some of these modern digital illustrations.


Freehand Digital Illustrations

Computer programs such as Procreate, Abode Illustrator, Affinity, and Corel Draw allow the illustrator to use digital tools such as pencils or paintbrushes. These can be used to make freehand sketches or drawings similar to that which is made with an actual pencil and piece of paper.

The tool that is preferred is a touch-sensitive stylus like Apple Pencil or iPad that can replicate a drawing on paper more meticulously. 

There is also a big variety of brush settings to choose from as well as many plugins to download that allows the illustrator to produce various textured brushstrokes with numerous effects. However, even with all these advantages, many illustrators prefer the old-fashioned method of freehand drawing, where they can better express themselves with the qualities contained in the traditional illustrations.


Vector Graphics Illustrations 

Vector illustrations are very popular amongst graphic designers, and it is done using the same computer programs that we mentioned above, for freehand digital illustrations. The vector illustrations make use of a computer program like Photoshop that produces images that are similar to photographing or scanning an object. The program is raster-based, which means that it is based on pixels, which is resolution dependent and makes use of tiny dots which contain unique tone and color information that produces the image.  

This form of vector illustration is used extensively in making logos or any other branded images that appear on the computer screen, which can be blown up to that of a billboard size.

Many beginners using this program draw freehand shapes and lines to maintain the human touch in their visual images. However, the program with its mathematical nature enables the illustrator to connect and draw exact points, combine geometric shapes, and adjust curvatures over multiple layers.

You are also able to adjust line weights to look more uniform, instantly produce various shapes on the grid and automatically align various elements, helping you to create precision and perfect styles and images.

Programs like Corel Draw and Illustrator will allow you to export your created illustrations with or without any transparent background using the PNG, SVG, PDF, or some other file format.  



Various Illustration Styles 

All of the mediums that we have discussed above are used for different purposes, some for physical products and others for digital outputs. Using word styles means using different genres in illustration, whereby the individual artists express their views, which makes it very hard to define. However, there are a few genres that can be defined in the illustration, and we will discuss them below.


Concept Art 

Concept art is best described as an illustration that portrays a certain figure, or environment idea without committing any details. Designers whose job it is to create video game environments, for example, need to feel and show a specific level of a game-like perspective, using lighting, or material qualities of a certain space that they will enlarge or expand at a later date.

A concept art illustrator works with artistic creations like videos, films, graphic novels, or advertisements helping to create a style and design for certain visual elements and to target audiences.

Fashion designers, theme park designers, and industrial designers, like car manufacturers, can use the skills of a concept artist to give them an illustration of what the ultimate product or environment will look like, and then the specialists will begin to fill in the finer details. 


Children’s Books 

Children’s books are the places where we can encounter illustration more than any other, as there is a very wide range of topics, fantasy worlds, and characters where illustrators can reveal their distinct styles. 

Illustrators can portray friendly faces that are pleasing to young readers, and exquisite fantasy worlds that just ignite the young reader’s imaginations.

Illustration Styles in Books The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by John Tenniel (1820 – 1914); John Tenniel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is very evident in hand-drawn classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as in the contemporary computer favorites, showing the realistic and full detailed illustrations with simple and child-like drawings. 

A children’s book illustrator creates illustrations that give visual representations of the written text mostly for those under 12 years. The illustrator works for the publishing company and begins to create illustrations and sketches that will work best for the specific book.


Comics or Graphic Novels

This form of medium is unique in the field of literature, as it can unfold just like a movie. Here the characters can appear in a sequence of actions that follow from one frame to another. Textual devices like balloons, onomatopoeia, or captions that indicate the narrative, sound effects, dialogue, and any other information you need to supply. 

Illustrators use graphic novels or comics to get their story to unfold through scenic shots or frames that may include a narrative or dialogue. Comic illustrators use social media to produce a short series of animated elements that deliver a joke or story in only a few frames.

Styles of Illustration Cover of Fantastic Comics #1 (1939). A common comic-book cover format displays the issue number, date, price, and publisher along with an illustration and cover copy that may include a story’s title; The original uploader was Konczewski at English Wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A comic book illustrator creates illustrations for cartoons and comic books where the illustrations need to integrate into the text and express the character, situation, idea, story, or concept convincingly and clearly.


Books, Publications, and Editorials 

There are some expensive geographical books, natural history publications as well as some children’s books that have illustrations that were colored in by hand in the early stages of printing or illustrations. Today book illustrations are designed using various techniques, and the style used depends on the author’s vision and topic.

Most illustrators want to develop striking covers for the books, trying to win the viewer’s attention as well as give an indication of what the book is about. Many times, it is the cover design and not the book itself that sells it.

An editorial illustrator works for journals, newspapers, or magazines and creates illustrations that support the ideas and concepts of the article without the use of textual explanations. They help in assisting the reader to understand the editor’s viewpoint and convince them to read the article.


Illustrations in Advertising 

In the past, advertising relied on photographs of places, products, or people for a specific brand to be identified.  Today, they can be hand-drawn or in vector style that has a striking effect, making a lasting impression on the interested parties, much more effective than a photo.

A product illustrator creates paintings or drawings of certain products and their features for the advertising agencies, and the clients use these illustrations on their packaging, brochures, and websites to attract potential customers, as well as to identify their particular brands. 


Branding or Logos

The branding should be the most important part of the product, as an illustrative logo can make the brand more unique and distinctive. The illustrator must make the logo readable, small in size, and recognizable, so the details should be carefully planned.

Logos need to be simple, attract the attention of the viewer, and must also be memorable, making a lasting impression on the customers.


Packaging Illustrations

Packaging, similar to book covers, use fun or playful designs to convey the importance of the product. Illustrators will design a more playful and human touch to boost the appeal of the beverage, food, clothing, or any other form of a lifestyle brand. 

The main idea is to offer a personal touch, custom feel, and elegance to the product.

Campbells Soup Cans Advert Campbell’s Tomato soup product advertisement from 1923; Campbell’s Soup Co., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A product packaging illustrator also known as a product designer creates images for product packing that will help to attract potential customers. They also need to work closely with consumer safety stakeholders to ensure the illustrations of their products do not endanger any customers. 



Other Forms of Illustration

The work of an illustrator is to create designed components laid out by the designers of the project. They need to have an understanding of the overall design, and to know where they fit into the process. Knowledge of the various styles of illustration and other information is vital. Illustrators need to develop their own individual styles and need to familiarize themselves with all types of illustration.

Here are twelve types of illustrators and what they do. 


Courtroom Illustrators 

A courtroom illustrator provides a visual representation of court trial proceedings and environments. This role is of great use when judges ban the use of cameras during a certain trial, and the illustrations will inform the public of the courtroom proceedings. 

Illustration Styles Courtroom sketch showing an accused person (center, in yellow) flanked by attorneys at sentencing, drawn in about eight minutes (1983); Butch Krieger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Medical Illustrators 

A medical illustrator creates illustrations of various medical models, helping the viewer to understand the concept better. They usually work with physicians and scientists and require extensive medical training.

Illustration Styles in Medical Pictures An anatomical illustration from Sobotta’s Human Anatomy (1908); Dr. Johannes Sobotta, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Storyboard Illustrators 

A storyboard illustrator creates a graphic representation of various visual productions like animated movies, television shows, music videos, and video games. These visual representations are called storyboards and provide the viewer with an idea how what the final product will look like. 


Technical Illustrators 

A technical illustrator creates visual graphical interpretations of technical information such as blueprints, manuals, diagrams, publications, and equipment installations. They display the written content in a visual format and make use of specialized software programs.



Fashion Illustrators 

A fashion illustrator creates illustrations of fashion items or accessories and usually works for fashion magazines, ensuring that all the concepts are visually appealing to potential customers. Often fashion consultants use them to assist in helping clients with the best fashion choices.  

Simple Illustration Styles George Barbier fashion plate titled La Belle Dame sans Merci, plate 47, from Gazette du Bon Ton, 1921, issue 6; [Barbier, George], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Forensic Illustrators

A forensic illustrator, also known as a sketch artist, works together with law enforcement to help identify criminals by creating sketches of their facial appearances. They need to have communication and knowledge skills regarding the criminal justice system.


In this article, we have discussed what is illustration, the types of illustrations, and various illustration ideas. Becoming an illustrator is fun and interesting, and requires a lot of creativity as well as working closely with designers and clients, but in the end, when you can see your completed illustrative work, it is well worth the effort.




Frequently Asked Questions 


What Is Illustration?

An illustration is visual imagery, explaining words in a book, or newspaper, and can also be drawings or pictures you find on a website, or something you draw free-hand that does not have to be accompanied by any form of text to explain itself.   


What Are Some Illustration Ideas? 

Illustration ideas do not come easily but require some inspiration. For example, try to generate an illustration idea from some of your doodles; use a word assignment for an illustration idea; draw some characters that inspire your favorite food, or illustrate certain words like quiet or loud.


How Many Styles of Illustration Are There?

Illustration can be broadly categorized into two main categories, which are traditional and modern illustrations. A traditional illustration is an old way of doing things by taking a pencil and drawing or sketching on a piece of paper, while modern illustration is making use of the computer or digital illustration techniques.


What Are Illustration Techniques?

Illustration can make use of a very wide range of techniques and styles, which include, painting, drawing, montage, collage, multimedia, three-dimensional designs, and digital design. Depending on its purpose, illustration can be stylized, expressive, highly technical, and very realistic.


Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, “Types of Illustration – Functions and Styles of Visual Depiction.” Art in Context. May 16, 2022. URL: https://artincontext.org/types-of-illustration/

Meyer, I. (2022, 16 May). Types of Illustration – Functions and Styles of Visual Depiction. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/types-of-illustration/

Meyer, Isabella. “Types of Illustration – Functions and Styles of Visual Depiction.” Art in Context, May 16, 2022. https://artincontext.org/types-of-illustration/.

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