from traditional to modern illustration: a digital journey

By Gabriela Quiroz

The origin of the word ‘illustration’ is ‘illumination’ in the context of a spiritual or intellectual enlightenment, a fitting name for an art form that has been part of our human experience, changing and adapting with us from our early beginnings. Ancient pictorial depictions of important events evolved through language and technological advancements into narrative images in illuminated scripts. This journey gave birth to a amalgam of traditional techniques and styles, all of which were ultimately and completely transformed by the launch of the Macintosh computer. This revolutionary invention set illustration on a course of digitalization, mass-production and innovation, turning illustration into a highly valued art form, increasingly engaging a global market.

The earliest known illustrations appear on the cave walls in Lascaux, France (ca.15,000 B.C.) as images created with rudimentary tools and pigments to document life and hunting expeditions. Later on, in ancient civilizations like Greece, illustrations depicted heroes and festivals, mythological tales, funerals and ceremonies. And in Italy, illustration flourished as a religious art form.

During the middle ages, narrative pictorials appeared in religious and sacred writings known as illuminated scripts. However, once the mechanical printing process appeared, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1452, the creation and distribution of woodcuts and engraved prints grew exponentially, and other art forms like music and literature found a broader audience.

Meanwhile in Japan, Ukiyo-e originated as a result of ink-brushed wood block printing, an illustration style characterized by expressive lines and bold colors. This illustration style’s portrayed folk tales, heroes, important figures, and daily Japanese life and traditions. A prominent example of this style is Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

By the mid-1700s, illustration became increasingly common as technology improved and allowed for rapid printing and wider distribution. The main reproduction processes were engraving and etching, until the introduction of lithography in the 19th century.

One of the most renowned figures of the 19th century was the French artist Gustave Doré. His ethereal and diabolical depictions of Dante’s Divine Comedy through the use of engraving techniques are some of the most influential examples of this medium.

Later on, improvements in printing technology freed illustrators to experiment with color and rendering techniques. These developments in printing as well as the mechanization of paper-making made illustrations more available and accessible, increasing production and lowering costs.

Digital illustration became a reality in the mid-1980s with the launch of the original Macintosh computer. This technology allowed designers to use software to bypass lengthy traditional processes, saving artists money -no need to buy materials like paint, paper, drawing tables, solvents, etc.- and time -time they could use to focus on other key areas such as creativity and innovation.

Currently, software such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, allow for fully digital illustrations. Some old-school illustrators may view this modern approach too sterile and devoid of charm, but it’s evident that some of the best illustrators -in what is now a modern and highly competitive business- use both traditional and digital techniques. For instance, London-based artist, Marija Tiurina, is an amazing illustrator who works both digitally and traditionally. Her illustrations range from personal to commercial, and from dark to playful, using a variety of traditional methods including watercolors, and drawing inspiration from traditional existing works.

Several other artists are also taking advantage of what both processes have to offer. Fortunately, and thanks to social media, traditional illustration has made a fresh resurgence, and both traditional and digital illustration have found a way to coexist beautifully and creatively.