Fine Art vs. Illustration

Over the years I have heard a lot of theories and arguments over what, if any, difference there is between “fine art” and “illustration” or “commercial art.” One thing that has always struck me as odd about these arguments was how little thought was given to the role of technology in art and publishing. Most people seem to argue the matter from a “moral” perspective (was the artist tying to express himself or just make money) or from a functional perspective (is the art illustrating someone else’s words or did it come from the mind of the artist?). Both of these positions seem woefully inadequate. Is the ceiling or the Sistine Chapel “only” an illustration because it was a commissioned work illustrating scenes from the Bible? This particular example is often cited by those who want to claim that there is NO difference between fine art and illustration, which may be true when it comes to quality and artistic intent, but clearly there has been a distinction and it still exists to this day.

It should be obvious to anyone who has browsed art galleries and perused the pages of an illustration annual like Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art that there are incompetent “hack” fine artists and brilliant, dedicated illustrators and commercial artist, so let’s dispense with any arguments based on quality and artistic intent. So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with technology–a subject artist are often uncomfortable with.

Simply put, up until the invention of photography (1826) and the halftone printing process (1881) “fine art” was art that one could only see in person in a museum or private collection. “Illustration” and “commercial art” was art specifically designed from the beginning to be reproduced and distributed using the available technology.

It is hard for us to imagine in this day and age of high-quality, full-color books and magazines on every street corner and hi-res web browsers in our pockets that before photography and modern printing methods many wealthy, well-educated people went their entire lives only seeing hand drawn copies of great art like the “Mona Lisa” and “The Birth of Venus.” Poor people (that is, most people) had to content themselves with crude drawings or more likely vague descriptions.

Before photography the only way to reproduce a painting even somewhat faithfully was for another painter to make a painstaking copy. In fact, up until the 19th century many painters made their livings by copying great works of art that would then be taken on tours and displayed to eager art aficionados who were unable to see the originals. For wider distribution, in say an art book, a publisher might have a wood engraving made from the original painting. Below is an 1899 wood engraving made by Timothy Cole from¬† John Constable’s 1821 painting The Hay-Wain. (You can see more of Constable’s work at Artsy’s John Canstable page.)

(Photo of engraving by Thomas Shahan)

And here is a color photograph of the original painting. It is interesting to note that by 1899 the art of photography was advanced enough that Cole was able to actually print a photo of constable’s painting on the engraving block to work from, but photomechanical engraving was still an expensive and somewhat specialized technique in the world of publishing. Cole laboriously carved the scene into the end grain of a boxwood block using a very disciplined and almost mechanical approach that turned Constable’s tones and colors into very carefully rendered hatches and dots. Cole’s work is outstanding (it took him about a month to complete The Hay-Wain) but it remains only an interpretation of the original. Printed images made directly from photographs would not become common until the early 20th century. Color photography and printing would not become cost-effective until the 1940s.

On the other hand, humans have been producing illustrated books for centuries. In ancient China books were made by carving an entire page into a wood block–text and illustrations–inking it and pressing it onto paper to make multiple copies. In Europe, after the invention of movable type, publishers began combining wood block illustrations with type in frames that could be used to print an entire page then taken apart and reused for other pages. These wood block illustrations differed from the later, more sophisticated wood engravings in that the image was carved into the face of a plank of wood (rather than the finer end grain) and was left as the raised part that could then be covered with ink and pressed into the paper like a modern day rubber stamp. Wood block printing could not come close to reproducing the fine detail and subtle shading of engraving, much less an oil painting and so illustrators were by and large defined as a specific type of artist who could create high-quality images using this kind of limited technology. In fact the “illustrator” was often two people–an artist who created the original design and a “block cutter” who transferred the design to a woodcut.

“Block Cutter at Work” by Jost Amman, a well-known 16th century block cutter.

When the linocut  technique (where the wood carving surface was replaced with a layer of linoleum) became available many artists took on the task of creating the printing block themselves. Since linoleum has no grain it was much easier to carve for someone who was not a dedicated wood-worker.

Even after photmechanical engraving was perfected (the process of creating a printing plate directly from a photograph via a chemical process) it was still prohibitively expensive for publishers to print shades of gray, and all but impossible to print color (except for expensive, hand-colored editions, like Audobons’ Birds of America) until mid-century. Illustrators were then masters of black and white “line art.” The medium of choice was often pen and ink where hatching (parallel and crossed lines) or stipple (dots) replaced gray tones. In fact pen and ink rendering remained an option for cost-conscious (and tradition bound!) publications as diverse as comic books and scientific journals well into the digital age.

There are many other black and white techniques that do not require the expense of creating a halftone screen in order to simulate grayscale–Coquille board, Zipatone overlays, scratch board, just to name a few–and a professional illustrator was, more often than not, a master of one or more of these.

Even after color photography and printing became common “illustrators” were often artists who specialized in fast drying mediums like gauche and later acrylic that could be completed and sent out to be photographed or scanned in time for tight deadlines. It was not until the advent of affordable digital imaging in the 1990s that slow drying oil paints exploded on the scene as medium for all types of illustration–not just the high profile jobs like mass market magazine covers or expensive illustrated books. It is ironic that the same technology that brought us digital painting and CGI has also allowed one of the most traditional of mediums to become a viable option for illustration.

Well, this is just a quick, very incomplete and probably over-simplified synopsis of how the “great divide” between fine art and illustration came to be. Certainly there has always been a lot of crossover. Many techniques developed as ways of cheaply incorporating images onto the printed page–like linocuts and scratchboard–have found there way into the fine arts. Conversely publishers have been willing to push the envelope budget-wise for “super star” painters like N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell. But I think it is safe to say that before the digital age the available publishing technology has been the biggest determining factor.

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