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Illustration: then and now

Illustration: then and now

The art of illustration from cavemen, to Peter Rabbit, to digital illustration

Have you ever wondered what was the first type of illustration? It actually goes all the way back to cave paintings where men and women used the cave walls to illustrate their daily activities. Book illustration came after the invention of the printing press but the Japanese and Chinese cultures had already used woodcuts to accompany hand written books. Delicate illustrations can also be found in western religious manuscripts.

The 17th and 18th centuries are a seminal time in the history of illustration as etchings, engravings, and lithographs allowed for a speedier process and the ability to reach a wider audience. Britain nurtured the talent of many world-renowned illustrators like William Hogarth, who concentrated on socio-satirical themes; William Blake, who is best known for his religious engravings; and George Cruickshank, who created the illustrations for Charles Dickens’ books. 

The late 1800s and early 1900s are considered the golden age of illustration with numerous works appearing in books and magazines, both in Europe and America. In Europe a multiplicity of styles developed drawing influences from the art of the time, as well as the arts and crafts movement, and art deco. Walter Crane was at the forefront of the golden age with rather traditional romantic illustrations influenced by the pre-Raphaelites. British illustrators became very popular for their children’s books illustrations.  Almost every child must have read the Peter Rabbit tale and seen the beautiful watercolours by Beatrix Potter. The mysterious stories by the Grimm brothers were also heavily illustrated with dark images by the hand of Arthur Rackman. The American illustration scene was taken over by Brandywine School illustrators who studied under Howard Pyle and created works of romantic or adventure themes. 

During the troubling times of the two world wars the work of illustrators was centred on propaganda posters and flyers. In the 1950s the Push Pin Studios were founded by Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Reynold Ruffins, and Edward Sorel. The collective is one of the most popular graphic design and illustration studios in the world that has influenced a variety of artists and has also contributed to the field with its bi-monthly publication, Push Pin Graphic, which run from 1955 to 1981. The studio exists till today under the direction of Seymour Chwast.

From the 1970s onwards the growing development of photography made illustration take a back stage role and lose its place in the market. Photography became the dominant medium used in the media world and it also took over the art scene. The late 20thcentury was a very bad period for illustration, however, the constant evolution of computers and the introduction of software like Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator have allowed for the re-invention of illustration. The capabilities of such software, the increasingly digital nature of the media world, as well as the globalised nature of today’s market has allowed illustrators and graphic artists to take the reign again. The past decade has seen the refocus on the digital graphic arts and the continued expansion of the field. Graphic artists are not only gaining momentum in the media world but also in the art field with artists such as Julian Opie carving out the field for many others, and dedicated fairs, like Pick Me Up filling up the art calendar.