What is illustration? To the average mind which has not given the question thought, illustration consists of drawings, chiefly black and white, done primarily, with commercial ends in view, for reproduction; or, perhaps, the same mind thinks of tests or stories in popular periodicals to accompany which drawings are made — drawings, likely as not, merely of heads, or, more probably, full length figures of men and girls in evening dress sittings up- on sofas in the various atittudes demanded by the authors. It is unfortunate indeed that such a conception of illustration is so widespread.
Drawings such as these are by no means illustration—unless the word be used in a very narrow and restricted sense. There should be some title to differentiate the purely commercial work, the quick and empty incidental drawings, from that great realm of art, that broadest and most meaningful division of all art, illustration. There is no such title that I know of.
It has yet to be invented. I have thought of the word cartooning, but cartooning, like illustration, has its two classes—one, the scrawls of the surface, of the moment—the other, the drawings of the master-craftsmen, the dreamers, carry- ing to the world messages of truth and inspiration as only art can do. The great cartoon and illustration are truly one.
What then is illustration? For the moment let all thoughts of ways and means, paper, black and white, above all, reproduction, escape the reader’s mind. Let him look at the word itself. It means a making clear. It says nothing of mediums, nothing of publications, nothing of reproductions. A making clear — that is illustration. That, indeed, is art. Broadly speaking, all pictures may be divided into two classes, those whose purpose is to delight the eye, and those whose purpose is to delight the mind. True illustration lies in the latter group.
I have no quarrel with the first class. It has its purpose, but the latter is supremely great. It lives when the other dies; speaks to millions, the other speaks to few. With its dreams and visions it thrills mankind, leads ever on toward the star.
The purpose of a great picture is to reveal the spirit, the ideals, of life. This sounds simple, as indeed it is, and it is this that makes any w’ork of art endure. That is the difference between an illustration, a true picture—for all true pictures, all works of art, whose purpose is the revelation of a thought of life, are illustrations—and a canvas that says nothing beyond the surface. Mediums and technique are not illustration, nor discussions of harmonies and balances, and rhythms. These may be the so-called painters’ delectation, but they are not the illustrators. They may be the means whereby the illustrator attains his end, but they are not the end.
And that is why illustration has become so intimately connected with books and magazines and reproduction. Books are printed to be sold; the publisher dare not buy a picture that gives no meaning to the world. It must convey a message — else his magazine will stay forever on the newsstand, and he will fail. And so for his book covers, his posters, his pictures in his magazines, he finds the artists who, to the world at large, best reveal understandable ideas.