My first article - Illustration: a definition - Part 1

This article is part of a study that I have been working on privately. The need for a clean cut definition rose from a combination of my own exploration within the field and my experiences with students.

As I started to map out the initial framework for a definition, I began to recognise a need for a consciously realised understanding in the students I was working with at the time. After in-depth tutorials throughout the term it also became clear that decisions enacted fundamentally stemmed from a students conception of what their active role was, and what it was, by initiating that active role, they were producing.

This is a study I will continue to explore as I think that it has great value, not just for those in education, but for bringing greater clarity to this rapidly expanding industry. As more professionals enter the field each successive year, an increasing demand for innovation is placed upon individuals to succeed, Understanding the nature of what you do is imperative to producing value, for formulating yet unforeseen avenues for application.


llustration: a definition - Part 1

What is illustration?
If you have been introduced to the discipline through the production of, commissioning of or have a friend or relative in the professional field, this question has no doubt crossed your mind. My personal experience has been that instead of answering this question directly, the responses encountered have largely consisted of a speculative… What is illustration? That is a question we must continue to ask… I propose in the following series of articles that a definition can and must be made in order for its requirements, its nature and the scope of its utility to be understood universally by practitioners, students and potential clients alike.

As the synopsis suggests, I intend to introduce a definition of what constitutes an illustration, and by extension give an indication of what activity committed defines an illustrator. This article is part one in a series, it contains propositions that for the purposes of presenting this piece as an article (instead of a thesis) have been condensed into bite size statements. Upon completing this initial introductory series, I will continue to apply my definition to areas of inquiry concerning illustration, demonstrating the full extent of its validity through application to real world, practical contexts.

Before we begin I must first make an acknowledgement to the philosopher Ayn Rand and her writings on Objectivist epistemology from which the following proposition is greatly informed. I would also like to mention my appreciation of the philosophical writings of Dr Leonard Peikoff and Dr Harry Binswanger for their continued work on integration and concept formation. Inherent in the intellectual material applied in the writing of this article is the philosophic view of man as a conceptual animal with reason as his tool for prosperity.

Lets begin!
So why do we need a definition for illustration in the first place? This may seem like an odd question to ask, but its one we must answer to emphasise the relevance of this intellectual pursuit. To put it simply, a definition is useful. It gives us the conceptual basis from which to act. If you ever have the pleasure of producing an illustration you will at some point be faced with the question; how do I illustrate? not simply how do I illustrate this particular article or how do I render this particular reference, but on a more fundamental level how do I go about the activity of illustration? what makes the image i am currently working on an illustration? Perhaps you have been faced with the task of commissioning an Illustrator, in which case I assume that you have likely been faced with a similar challenge What do I ask the Illustrator to do? How much guidance do I give? Do I need to provide them with any information? What should I expect from an Illustrator?

Having a comprehensive definition provides you with the full spectrum of intellectual equipment required to answer these questions and proceed with the task at hand. Just as a F1 driver requires the knowledge of what F1 racing is in order to complete a circuit successfully and unscathed, so we need a definition of what illustration is in order to understand the activities required to produce an illustration. If we were to reach for an answer from a regular household dictionary we’d strike nothing but examples of the word itself in application, although vaguely informative, these definitions are dependant upon an assumed understanding of what illustration actually is on a fundamental level. To elaborate, an example of this would be; Illustration, noun ‘a picture illustrating a book, newspaper etc’. Although there is an indication of what an illustration does and how it is used, it is not a comprehensive explanation. For anyone trying to gather an accurate, practical understanding of illustration, this definition leaves a foggy void in one’s knowledge.

Observation and Formulation
To form an understanding of what illustration is, it is first of all important to gather an accurate observation of the evidence before us, then to look for commonalities present in our observations that most accurately identify the profession in totality. In the process of forming a proposition we must seek statements of pure uncompromising consistency. Logic is after all the art of non-contradiction and if our definition is to remain applicable to practice it must remain water tight.

Take a moment to look at how you come across Illustration in your everyday life, the products you buy, the clothes you wear, the websites you visit, the newspapers and books you read. Continue this thought by considering the popularity of commissioning Illustration for magazine and newspaper articles. Think of how, despite a recession, the popularity of Illustration with clients involved in advertising, fashion, interactive media etc. has not faltered. These musings demonstrate that Illustration contains an intrinsic value that the market is responding to, sure functionality is an obvious attribute, but how is an illustration functional? Yes Illustration is decorative, but what does it decorate? what links can be made between these attributes and the scope of its current application.

One very clear observation can be made and that is how illustration is employed to convey ideas, products, topics, themes, dimensional observations and fully formed concepts. The functional quality of illustration is intrinsically linked to the versatility demonstrated by the industry on the whole in doing so. This versatility gives us an indication on what level an illustration operates. From this I conclude that an important unifying attribute of Illustration is in its relationship to concept formation. Whether or not it is initiated through client commission, marketplace application or personal exploration, we can see first and foremost that Illustration has the capacity to convey a seemingly limitless variety of concepts.

Shine a light
A definition can’t be made on this observation alone but we can continue in the following article to explore how this unifying attribute of versatility is possible, and by extension illuminate the true nature of Illustration.

Thanks for reading, stay tuned for part 2!

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