What Is Illustration?
Surprisingly few people seem to know exactly how to define illustration. Perhaps this task is made difficult because so many visual art disciplines are identified by the artistic mediums associated with them (e.g., painting with paint, photography with photographs, printmaking with prints), whereas illustration is propelled by purpose—the intention to visually communicate ideas and information. Its formal and technical approaches are extremely varied and secondary to intent.
To illustrate is to signify and lend clarity to a subject by visual (usually pictorial) means. This can be accomplished in innumerable ways, addressing a wide variety of audiences. The etymology of this term makes perfect sense: the word illustration comes from the Latin root, illustrare, which means “to make bright or to illuminate.” Across the great spectrum of illustrative genres—from the most didactic, data-packed info-graphic to the most expressively nuanced book cover—all illustrations aspire to communicate, to illuminate meaning. As embodied meanings, every illustration is a complex constellation of visual signs, serving to elucidate a subject in literal, metaphorical, and/or evocative terms.
The potency of any illustration is dependent on the visual literacy
of its audience: the ability of a people to construct and derive meaning from visual information. Because the illustrator usually communicates to “the here and now,” a keen awareness of visual signs in their contemporary context is vital (see Chapter 2, Theme Box 7, “Saussure and Peirce: Semiotics
”). Whether quickly understood or more slowly decoded, an illustration’s merit is judged by its ability to dynamically engage and convey significance to a specific audience. As we attempt to understand the purpose of illustrative art from any period, we must remain cognizant of the myriad forces that, at the time of its making, contributed to its significance and cultural relevance (see Theme Box 1, “Giving Illustrators a Voice”
). This first chapter introduces the concept of illustration by looking at a selection of examples that predate the widespread use of printing for distribution of images.
Pictorial Narrative in Upper Paleolithic Art
Illustration has deep roots. Art from the Upper Paleolithic
era (from approximately 50,000 to 10,000 BCE) demonstrates that pictorial communication came well before written language. Just about every book on the history of art begins with the earliest known pictorial narratives: Paleolithic art from ancient hideaways such as the Caves of Lascaux (ca. 17,300 BP) and Chauvet, France (ca. 32,000–26,000 BP); and Sulawesi, Indonesia (ca. 40,000 BP) display the work of remarkably facile hands and profoundly elegant economy of visual notation. These poetic images of animals, allusions to ritual, and manual, anthropomorphic (
resembling human form) signatures help us map the legacy of the illustrator (Figure 1.1
Most theories point to cave paintings as possessing some communicative purpose. This alone tells us that the impulse and practical need for apprehending the essence of a subject has been with us for millennia. The images on cave walls are alternatingly descriptive, metaphorical, and diagrammatic. They are figurative in both senses of the word: representing both forms observed from life and metaphors for abstract ideas. Some archaeologists assert that the images of large beasts—horses, deer, bison, rhinoceros—
are a means of capturing (at least in spirit) these elusive and prized creatures (Figure 1.2
Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas, Patagonia Region, Santa Cruz Province, ca. 11,000 BP.
Created between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago, diminutive handprints boldly silhouetted by pigment may be read as emblems of self-empowerment through mark making—the nonverbal signatures of our ancestors. They foreshadow similar assertions of identity found in modern-day graffiti.
Photo by Thomas Schmitt, Getty Images.
Curiously, while the prey depicted on the walls of caves is expressed with sensitive realism, the instruments of capture—weapons and human forms—are, in contrast, often markedly abstract. Perhaps the pronounced difference in these pictorial approaches is meaningful, suggesting that juxtaposition of the observational with the abstract is part of the “function” of the pictures. Abstract notation of an idea such as “capture” (an iconic spear or net), drawn in conspicuous contrast to the realistic representation of the prey, readily suggests two things in opposition to one another. The locations of these paintings, deep in caves, protected both art and art-maker from erosive elements and ancient interlopers, and they remain places where idea and image are interwoven in elegant pictorial narratives.
Ritual in the Book of the Dead
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is not a book at all, but a group of papyrus scrolls produced during Egypt’s New Kingdom
period (1550–1077 BCE) and entombed with the dead as a practical and spiritual guide through the perilous “underworld” to rewards in the afterlife, which Egyptians envisioned as an actual place. Referred to by Egyptians as The Book of the Coming Forth by Day, the scrolls were by no means a singular text, but unique and individuated collections of written and illustrated incantations, which were placed in the tomb with the deceased. The texts were selected from a canon of approximately two hundred verses handed down from the hieroglyphs (
pictographic script) inscribed on the walls of Old Kingdom
Pyramid tombs (ca. 2686–2181 BCE). While the ancient pyramids were built exclusively for royalty, during the Middle Kingdom
(ca. 2040–1786 BCE), funerary rites were democratized and spiritual beliefs changed so that ordinary citizens could expect to partake of the afterlife too. Consequently, inscriptions formerly made only on tomb walls appeared on coffins and were eventually written on papyrus scrolls in a portable format known as The Book of the Coming Forth by Day, but more commonly referred to as the Book of the Dead (Figure 1.3
Books of the Dead were actually scrolls buried with the deceased; they included incantations meant to facilitate a successful journey to the afterlife. They remained prevalent as funerary texts in Egypt well into the Late Period (712–332 BCE). Over time, illustrations became more important to their potency, and some later scrolls even include poorly copied texts or unfinished sentences, suggesting the written word was eventually subordinated to the narrative information in the vignettes. Among the most profound and enduring documents of ancient funerary traditions, the Books of the Dead also comprehensively locate the roots of illustrated text many thousands of years in the past.
The earliest Books of the Dead appeared during the mid-fifteenth century BCE and were sparsely illustrated. Egyptians were polytheistic and did not view religious texts as singular divine conceptions, which freed them to craft each scroll to suit the spiritual aspirations of the specific deceased. Wealthy persons selected spells for inclusion and engaged scribes to copy those incantations, while artisans were commissioned to illustrate the text with vignettes. Uniquely crafted scrolls were common among the upper and middle classes, while those of more modest means could purchase standard versions with blank spaces to enter the deceased’s name and title. In time, specific chapters were illustrated with greater frequency and a repertoire of pictorial possibilities developed.
Typically, the customized illustrated scrolls depicted the individu...