An illustration can be defined as a mode of conveying information through graphical content or flyers or any mode of visual representation to deliver the content with utmost clarity. The word comes from the Latin word illustra’tio, illu’stro meaning enlighten and irradiate.

A most common perception about illustration is that it defines the pictures that you might see in a book. Most people assume illustrations as the drawings that precede animations in the design process.

The main objective of an illustration is to provide a visual representation to describe a text. Printing is the current process for reproducing illustrations, typically with ink on paper using a printing press.

An illustration is a unique discipline when compared to other art disciplines due to its distinguished communicative intent of the pieces. Also, this particular trait leads to a sub-specialization in different genres.

In terms of graphic design, illustration is a very vast field with many branches of specialization. The two major techniques are Traditional Illustration and Modern Illustration and they are explained as follows:

The traditional illustration is the type of illustration process that refers to the form of hand-drawn artwork.

Whereas, modern illustration can be defined as the outcome software such as Photoshop and Illustrator.

Traditional Illustration Classification

The traditional illustration is one of the earliest recorded illustrations to appear in the form of cave paintings that depicted major real-life events. Since ancient times, traditional illustration has undergone a drastic change, assuming diverse forms and instilling a feeling of uniqueness.

Pencil Illustration

Generally, Artists sketch their ideas and apply varying shades, effects, and line weights with the help of pencils. But, depending upon the varying requirements, artists do make use of color pencils to convey their thoughts and make the illustration look decorative as well as unique.

Watercolor Illustration

Watercolors are the types of colors that are obtained by dissolving various color pigments in water solution. Normally watercolors are used by artists to paint a paper, canvas or plastic. It is observed that the material which gives the best result for watercolors is the paper.

Watercolor can be of two forms transparent and translucent, which gives you freedom for making your imagination true on your canvas.

Lithography Illustration

At an early age, it is said that people used wax, fat or oil to draw on the smooth surface of a limestone plate. However, the discovery of lithography has changed that and currently, offset lithography is widely used to create an illustration.

It is observed that the combination of Lithography and traditional illustration styles complement each other very well.


This type of illustration was popular during the Middle Age and has eventually become the illustration type of choice with the invention of the printing press. You can see that it is one of the oldest technique according to the manuscripts.

Acrylic Illustration

One of the ideal type of illustration for beginners where artists use acrylic to paint on various surfaces such as cloth or canvas to build an illustration.

One of the perks of using acrylic paints is that they are available in different finishes and have the ability to become water-resistant once they dry up.

Classification of Modern Illustration

With the advancement of technologies day to day, there has been a technological revolution in the field of illustration work which took it to the next level. The invention of electronic tools has made it easier for creative artists to develop their work at a faster pace and without much turbulence. The discovery of electronic handwriting device has been a blessing to the digital illustration.

Modern illustration can be broadly categorized into two main categories, which are discussed below:

Freehand Digital Illustration

In this type, we have digital media, which allows you to use a wide variety of tools for the developing process. With the help of various tablet and stylus combinations, a detailed digital illustration can be created. It is similar to the other illustration processes but it contains the same features as of an ancient technique. It uses a unique method while developing an illustration.  

The freehand digital illustrations help in creating very smooth light and shadow transitions, thus being able to develop a complex background with fine detail. One of the limitations of this illustration type is that are in a raster format and printed only in certain sizes without losing the quality.

Some of the real-time applications of this type of illustration are storyboarding, recreational art, illustrating books, animation, different design processes, and so on.

Vector Illustration

Vector illustrations are executed with the help of a computer. They find a way to connect multiple points using lines. One of the special features of this illustration type is that they have enormous scalability. Vector illustrations can be saved in PDF, EPS, or SVG extensions.

On comparison, the vector illustration technique is better than freehand digital illustration and is primarily used in print media. The application of this illustration varies from text and typography to performing operations such as rotate, skew, stretch, and changing the graphics for obtaining the desired results. There are lots of vector illustration subgenres that exist, among which I can mention map illustrations, character illustrations, abstract illustrations, and a lot more.

Styles in illustration

Illustration styles are often named after the technique used for their creation. Broadly, these are classified into traditional style and contemporary or modern style. However, style is used by artists to distinguish their works and mark a signature.

We can organize the illustration genres as follows:

Conceptual Illustrations

Conceptual illustrations are metaphorical in nature that is either a thought or imagery occupies the position of realistic information. Such work also does contain some elements of reality at times. Yet, the main objective still lies in conveying the mood, metaphor, and subjectivity. Examples for this kind of illustration include:

Children book illustration

Children book illustrators are known for creating illustrations that target a young audience, most of which features a bright color palette improving the scenes for better understanding. This type of illustration is very specific and the characterization makes it much easier to understand the plot.

Narrative illustration

This kind of illustration doesn’t target just a young audience but it is used for delivering the content from a text. Generally, this illustration technique represents the content in a more realistic way and never deviating from the intention of the author or illustrator.


Historical illustrations are basically paintings depicting portraits or landscapes using which the artist conveys his thoughts. This kind of work was famous before the evolution of photographs,  certain sceneries were exaggerated, they were realistic enough to be termed as literal.

Abstract or distorted designs

A form of illustration in which the work is done by representing the text through imagination. Also, two abstract artworks will look very different from one another due to their subjective nature.

Editorial illustration

The type of illustration which deals with creating illustrations for magazines, newspapers, and publications is known as editorial illustration. Such kinds of illustrations are created to engage the readers in the content. Editorial illustrations are known for their way of representing the text literally at times and also representing the text in a fully metaphorical manner depending on the situation.

Book covers and publications

Old geographical or natural history books contained illustrations that were designed by hand at first and then reprinted. Presently, book illustrations are designed in many different ways and then printed. The covers of the books are designed using illustrations, which attracts the reader to dive deeper into the book. A cover often hints the story of the book and presents a sense of humor, seriousness, culture, or movement.


Advertising illustrations are meant to create an interest in the readers’ minds about the product or services a company offers. Many companies use advertising illustrations as a medium to communicate with their customers about the motive of their services or work.


A touch of intimacy can be given in a customized and elegant manner with illustrations. Illustrated packages are designed for the sole purpose of delivering a competitive edge to the product. The applications of packaging illustrations that bring most benefits are products related to kids, bakery and jewelry.

Fashion illustration

This kind of illustrations are used to develop images to represent fashion campaigns and design, they feature the clothes of a certain brand, designer and the bodies are commonly more elongated than usual.

Branding / Logo

It is one of the most unique sets of illustration which demands a specific set of skills. For example, a logo should be recognizable and readable at smaller sizes. Therefore, the illustrator should carefully plan the size, color and adjustments of the logo design.


Many illustrators are passionate about developing graphic humor pieces in such a way that they are ingenious and easy to understand for the audience that they are aimed at. They can be comprised of either single panels or multiple ones. Each illustration tends to bring a uniqueness to the work.

An illustration is a powerful tool in any form as it has the unique ability to tell a story, evoke an emotion, and make the presentation seem very realistic.

About the Author

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Bogdan Sandu

Bogdan is a designer and editor at DesignYourWay. He's reading design books the same way a hamster eats carrots, and talks all the time about trends, best practices and design principles.