Why Illustration?

Why illustration? Why not just art? What is the difference? Isn’t illustration an aspect of Art and Design?

There’s a lot of ways to communicate, some more universal than others. When proposing and sharing ideas, we can write them all out, but they would be limited to the language used to write them; music is another language, more universal than words – the emotion of a melody can be understood by anyone regardless background or nationality. And then there is illustration.

There’s a reason why the expression is “to illustrate ideas”, rather than just draw or visualise. There’s a certain power to an image which speaks to the viewer without the additional help of tons of theory and conceptual justification. Illustration is the language which speaks to everyone who comes across it, and it’s up to the illustrators to convey the right message through the work that they produce.

Illustration is more than just pretty pictures in books, as people seem to think most often. Illustration can educate, it can comfort the individual, it can inspire the masses, and it can fuel a fire of revolution – what could be a reason behind the shooting of Charlie Hebdo’s satirical political illustrators… it is the most inconspicuous art form as people don’t necessarily see it as ‘real art’ (what we come across in the exclusivity of a gallery space) and so it is viewed in a completely different light. In a way it’s like we take the understanding of visual symbols for granted – we don’t even realise how often we grasp concepts and ideas from illustrated images, and this right there is the hidden power of illustration.

An illustration has the power to evoke responses, emotional as well as physical, unexpected as well as predictable. We may laugh at the funny little caricature collage of David Cameron riding a pig (UK) but we won’t be laughing when we see an urban landscape of destruction where the street has turned into a river of blood (Syria)… and at the same time, illustrations can make mentally healthy people understand what it could feel like to have depression or heavy anxiety, they can evoke empathy towards others and explain what cannot be said otherwise.

Mythologies have been illustrated since the dawn of art and craft – there are caves dotted around the world with drawings made tens of thousands of years ago; narrative after narrative on the tomb and temple walls of ancient Egypt; we see entire tales drawn over ceramic pots and vases in ancient Greece; stories carved in doors and their frames from Celtic and Slavic origins; the carved stones of Incas, Aztecs and Mayans…  And let’s only mention the entire Renaissance, where classical myth was deeply intertwined even within a highly Christian environment. And why? Is it because myths just present pretty narratives or because they may hold existential information and universal truths about the human experience? Why illustrate myths? Perhaps because with each new image, we find a new way of understanding the ‘same old concepts’, because with each new image we can redefine what we’re already familiar with not for ourselves, but for the world, in the context of our experience of life today. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an illustration can be worth millions. Because one illustration, if it’s the right one, in the right context, in the right place at the right time, can potentially change the course of history…


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