#Illustration Explorer | Part 1

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The Soldier — graphite drawing.

WHAT IS ILLUSTRATION (and difference between it and Fine Art)?

Yes, yes, yes!  For those aware of the long-standing intellectual argument as to the perceived or actual difference between illustrators and fine artists, it’s been covered before! I don’t care. It’s a good place to start with this blog series because there are still many people who aren’t aware of the conflict, and it’s important that they find out.

It’s important because some of them will decide to become collectors of original or quality reproduced fine art, instead of picking up something relatively inexpensive or overpriced at Walmart or Ikea. Some who read this post may be novice or experienced amateur artists seriously considering pursuing art as a part-time or full-time career. Some may be concerned about what on earth is their husband, wife or kid getting into. Some may have no problem making a living as an illustrator but will have difficulty getting much of their work shown and sold in galleries. Some who get to the point of being able to exhibit in galleries and speak with invites may even need to convey to someone else that what they’ve created is an illustration; thereby making it clear that they understand the argument and are not pretentiously passing their work off as something it may not be. Some illustrators are going to come up against a high, thick and hard wall of art snobbery from certain fine artists, collectors, critics, historians, gallery owners, committee representatives and curators. I know that I have. Some may just be curious about this aspect of the art world without delving too deeply into it. These are the reasons why going over this topic again is significant.

Bear in mind that in spite of the argument that I’m about to shed light on, there are illustrators and fine artists who are well-aware of the conflict but really don’t regard illustration and fine art as all that different. That’s because they fully recognize and embrace the many aspects of creating visual art that is equally shared by both illustrators and fine artists. The stupid argument — that’s right I said stupid, is left to those who still insist on taking a side.

Firstly, here’s a quick definition of visual art:

They are art forms that create works which are primarily visual in nature, such as ceramics, drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, and often modern visual arts (photography, video, and film making) and architecture (more definitions for you in my glossary near the top of the blog).

Getting down to it, illustration is any visual art that is created to enhance, explain, or beautify something. The explanative aspect tends to be my personal favourite when illustration is specifically used as a means to tell a story. Illustration is also frequently created for utility; hence illustration is also a commercial art. Hang on to that fact for the next section.

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Lowlands — created with digital 3D scenery generation software.

Understanding the Difference

It’s not always easy to tell illustration from fine art just by looking. Knowing the difference comes from understanding the motives and means behind creating and potentially obtaining a piece of artwork. Whether or not illustrations are what many refer to as fine art depends on who’s asking. It may even depend on who’s buying. I can tell you that the majority of the established art world — the world in which art is collected for various reasons and the appreciation of art is always highly subjective, largely holds that illustrations are not fine art. Whether you and I like it or not.

At face value I really don’t like this opinion but, in fair consideration, here’s why the majority of art — ahem! — experts, scholars and collectors don’t regard illustrations as fine works of art:

Illustration is commercial art. It’s as simple as that, and it really does make sense when you sweat the details of the matter.

Primarily, a work of fine art is supposed to be created and collected because of its emotive impact.

There’s something going on in an artist’s head; it has to be expressed. As far as visual art goes, it’s not enough to just say, write out or dance out what’s on the mind. It has to be drawn, painted, sculpted, photographed or “Photoshopped”; brought to light in some visually artistic way.

A true art collector sees the creative output of a visual artist, and is moved by the work. The art may evoke a sense of admiration or even disgust. It could be one or more senses of happiness, sadness, loneliness, whatever. Whatever that emotional impact is, it is strong enough to make the collector want to possess the artwork. This sentimental connection between an artist and a collector to a piece of work, is profound and the main reason — if not the only reason, why an artist will sell a piece, and why a collector would invest in a piece. It is because that sentimental connection is the prime — not exclusive, motive for producing and purchasing a piece — even when its price is sky high and the potential for a collector to auction it off later for even more money, is why a piece is one of fine art.

Many still conclude that fine art is art that is created with a high level of skill, and that’s what separates fine art from commercial art. This is a false notion.

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The Limb — a fictional world created with digital 3D scenery generation software.

The prime motive for creating an illustration is to sell it to someone or an enterprise that needs it to enhance, explain, or beautify something — as stated above. The prime motive for acquiring an illustration is so that it can be used to increase financial worth. This doesn’t mean that there’s no sentimentality attached. It also doesn’t mean that the produced work is of substandard quality to that which is considered fine. It also doesn’t mean that commercial art is less popular than fine art. It is about how the importance of monetary gain is placed in relation to sentimentality. If profit precedes sentimentality, then the art is commercial not fine.

It’s fascinating. The distinction actually has a sort of honour about it, doesn’t it?

The twist is that a lot of illustration happens to be created and purchased with sentimentality as the leading motive but this supposedly doesn’t happen enough to warrant illustration to be regularly regarded as fine art.

Just to be clear; I am proudly an illustrator who values fine art, has often illustrated purely in the spirit of a traditional fine artist and has sold such work as commercial and fine art. I fully respect and enjoy both, and I intend to continue doing as much of both as I can for as long as I can. Apart from understanding the arguments, I really could care less about the dissension. I think it’s ludicrous for artists and art lovers to be looking down at each other over this.

Apart from this, there are people who distinguish fine art from commercial art due to an assumption that fine art is strange; reveals unconventional thinking, and the more extreme the better. Another narrow perception, in my humble opinion, which limits creativity when the notion is clearly meant to convey and celebrate unlimited creative freedom.

For example, many people are now reasonably familiar with the work of the American abstract impressionist painter Jackson Pollock. His best known fine art comprises extremely large sheets of canvas, fireboard and other substrates with pigment dripped, splashed and poured all over them although with keen forethought — vision, as to how the overall composition was to end up. Techniques associated with what’s referred to as action painting. Your average person looks at work such as these, hears of the prices these sell for, and typically remarks something along the lines of, “@#?*&%! a four year-old could-a done it!” A completely understandable reaction but the art experts regard Pollock pieces as fine art because they show an eccentrically creative mind. Perhaps even a tortured mind. The prevailing hypothesis, without an official and public diagnosis, is that Pollack suffered from bi-polar disorder which he self-medicated with alcohol until he killed himself.

Really, I think the notion that odd or avant-garde art is fine art is used as a means to identify fine art for intellectual and even utilitarian purposes. After all, how else would you be able to distinguish illustration from fine art in a market that claims to create and collect art primarily for the sentimental appreciation of them?

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A cartoon panel for a recipe book.

So, consider the art of my all-time favourite American illustrator, Ralph McQuarrie. His best-known work are the conceptualizations and matte paintings used to create Star Wars films (other illustrators used to create matte paintings for the Star Wars films of the 70’s and 80’s include Chris Evans, Mike Pangrazio, Frank Ordaz and Harrison Ellenshaw). They are certainly created with vision and emotional pride, and are executed with tremendous skill. These specific works of art; however, never would have been created if McQuarrie was never professionally hired to create them for the production of movies — artistically creative in their own right, that have continued to generate phenomenal financial wealth for decades afterward. Instead, Ralph would have made other phenomenal illustrations. His artwork is commercial. They likely will never be regarded as fine by the majority of the fine art world.

A lot of times, aspects like subject matter plays a part in preventing an illustration from being regarded as fine art. Although they are categorized as contemporary art, sci-fi and fantasy art like those of McQuarrie, Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell (I like to include Olivia de Berardinis in these genres even though she leans far towards pinup, and whose work actually has potential to be collected as fine art) are still not considered fine art by the established art world. This is simply because such visual art is rarely likely to be displayed in highbrow galleries, not recognized and funded by governments as intellectual creations, not a major subject of study and discourse in art schools and aren’t recognized as being highly influential in shaping Western culture (although I do believe the latter is increasingly becoming true).

Timing also has an impact on the acceptance of a visual art as either a commercial art or fine art. Because William Blake existed when he did (b. 28 November 1757 – d. 12 August 1827), his work is regarded and collected as fine art. If he lived in our time, however, many of his paintings and drawings would be regarded as fantasy art and would unlikely be collected and fawned over by fine art connoisseurs. In fact, many of today’s art historians regard Blake not as a fantasy artist but certainly as the greatest inspiration behind fantasy art.

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Inferior Conjunction — digital illustration created with the use of three different software.

Now consider a profound occasion when illustration becomes collected and valued like fine art. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about comic books and graphic novels. I don’t know about you but I love them. Reading them, writing them, illustrating them, the history of them. I’m going to give you just one example out of many, a feel-good story, of how a commercial art can be valued like Blue Chip fine art. Maybe you’ve heard this one before.

Gustave Wenzel was a German immigrant to the US who became a fairly successful entrepreneur.  One of his businesses back in the 1920’s was the collection and sale of comic books.

Fast forward to 2012, America’s northeast coast was hammered by Hurricane Sandy.  The late Gustave’s grandson Brick Wenzel, and his wife Britta lost Salty’s, their Jersey Shore ice cream shop, to the storm.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) priced the loss out to be approximately $800,000US.  Brick and Britta were advised that they’ll have coverage paid by Christmas of that year.  Unfortunately, things didn’t go as hoped because on account of skyrocketing premiums, the Wenzel’s had cancelled their insurance shortly before the storm hit.  The Wenzel’s fell on financially difficult times.

While sorting through stuff that survived, more than 12,000 of Gustave’s old, and apparently well-protected, comic books were discovered after being locked away and forgotten for the past 18 years.  This collection covered all genres; sports, westerns, romance, satire, science fiction, fantasy, detective.  You name it, it was represented.

The books were appraised and auctioned off through Vincent Zurzola, president of Comic Connect.  A return of $300,000 was enough to get the Wenzel’s rebuilding a new Salty’s in Lavalette, NJ.  People do collect these things just as they would of fine art.

The one true concern that comes from all of this is that of bias. There is no logical reason to view these terms of fine art and commercial art as triggers to turn noses up against one visual art or the other, even though that’s the reality that is unlikely to change anytime soon. One should not be considered highbrow while the other as crude. Both are highly respectable, creative and valuable expression. Illustration is highly respectable.

Now, all things considered, the following questions are posed to you:

  • Do you regard illustration and fine art as completely distinct entities?
  • If you do, does it really matter to you; why or why not?
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18 thoughts on “#Illustration Explorer | Part 1

  1. I am now at the stage where I do not find it nessersary to label anything..be it a bird or an art work or an illustration….if I ‘like’ it and it , for me , has emotional qualities…great…that is all I care about..!

    • They’re back in business, doing well and I believe that $300,000 was just an initial return. Illustration has profound impact as an art collectable!

    • I’m sorry. A number of the posts in this series will be wordy. Part 2 will be a little less so in comparison to this one.

      I’m glad that you like my old work. There will be some new art included as the series progresses, even some demonstrative stuff for people to try if they’d like.

  2. It is an interesting question you posed there, and more so interesting after reading your piece. Certainly I do think the two can overlap, and they are both similar in that they are abstract art forms. The subject matter point is very, very intriguing. It sort of makes me think that the human mind is conditioned to be biased towards certain thoughts and imagery. With fine art or really any compelling kind of art, it has to evoke an emotion within me (which is what you inferred) – and also to make me see from another’s perspective.

    • As you’ve mentioned it, I have to wonder if bias of art or anything, even of people — perhaps especially of people, is due to conditioning, choice or both? I actually looked it up. I’ve come across the cognitive science explanation of choice-supportive bias.

      Basically, the theory seems to suggest that we are largely inclined to independently just make up and amplify biases in an effort to make choices for one entity or decision over another, even if those biases are illogical. It’s a weird prejudicial way of committing ourselves to things as though we are incapable of making up our minds without feeling and perhaps showing malice toward options that we don’t want to align ourselves with; even if those options truly do not threaten us in any way.

      The theory does recognize that on a less frequent basis, a person’s bias can be purely the result of conditioning. They can be taught, inspired or even brainwashed to resent certain arts just as we know that there are people who come from environments in which they are conditioned to vehemently hate other people for no logical reason, even to their own detriment.

      Both possibilities of the human mind are rather frightening to me.

      So far, the theory doesn’t seem to explain someone like me who fully accepts both commercial art and fine art; at least where the visual arts are concerned. In consideration of the acceptance or tolerance of people, I don’t accept all that I meet in life due to experiences I’ve had with certain specific individuals who were directly and overtly threatening to me. I am accepting of both commercial art and fine art as neither has ever done me any harm. In fact, both have actually helped me to be more free, expressive, independent and strong.

  3. What you write here about illustrations versus fine art, goes to any discipline of creative work. There is obviously a distinction between the two, but it’s not necessarily obvious. The two fade into each other. Like in my world of photography, commercial photography can also at times be fine art photography and vice versa. It’s just hard to make a clear distinction, but as you say any kind of fine art need to have an emotional impact of some sort. But who is to define when that is or not is? The matter of fine art has been discussed as long as fine art has been around. In the end, for me, I don’t really care. If something moves me, touches me, I am willing to spend time with it. If not I pass by in silence. 🙂

    • Yes and no.

      Yes, there are overlaps between fine art and commercial art but no, it’s not just my perspective. The differences are actually accepted standards in western art. What I find annoying is how certain artists and art aficionados see the differences and standards as reason to either try to dissuade each other from practicing the types of art they do or make snide remarks about each other. It’s far too cliquish.

      My perspective is to live and let live. Just enjoy the art.

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