Sunday, September 9, 2007

Professional Labels 2: What is an Illustration?

I have been reflecting on this issue of cartooning versus illustrating. When last we visited this subject, Bob Flynn had tossed up the self-identity question: am I an illustrator or a cartoonist? The back-and-forth since has given rise to some interesting thoughts here and here and here.

I think this is a first-principle sort of problem, which requires us to ask some pretty fundamental questions. Such as, 1) what is an illustration, and 2) what is a cartoon?

Let’s start on the first, with an admittedly abbreviated answer. To begin: illustration is a lousy word, an editorialized moniker which all but identifies a given image as a primitive thought. Speaking generally, an illustration is a for instance, an example. An illustration repeats or intensifies a thought which somehow predates it.

(Sometime soon I'll explicate the wicked curveball art school meaning of the word, as in, "That looks like an illustration.")

In modern visual terms, an illustration typically accompanies a written text of one sort or another. The picture or figure provides imagistic information for passages in the text determined to be worthy of greater emphasis. Again, the assumption embedded in the word is that this text, whatever it is, precedes the image, and outranks it. It’s a small, narrow word, illustration. There are no extra folds of meaning tucked away inside it. It refuses to flex or billow. I dislike it.

But its origins are less narrow.

The Online Etymological Dictionary offers the following:


c.1375, "a spiritual illumination," from O.Fr. illustration, from L. illustrationem (nom. illustratio) "vivid representation" (in writing), lit. "an enlightening," from illustrare "light up, embellish, distinguish," from in- "in" + lustrare "make bright, illuminate." Mental sense of "act of making clear in the mind" is from 1581. Meaning "an illustrative picture" is from 1816. Illustrate "educate by means of examples," first recorded 1612. Sense of "provide pictures to explain or decorate" is 1638. (copyright 2001, Douglas Harper)

I rather like the linkage with illuminate. Throwing light upon seems like a useful idea. But even then, the tyranny of the word lurks in the wings. What must be illuminated, if not the logos, the word of the Lord?

I think the key notion for us is the secondary function associated with illustration—the assumption that the idea already exists, waiting to be handsomely clothed by the skilled (but likely dumb) illustrator. I don’t see how we get past these associations, frankly. I think the word should be replaced, but I’m not sure by what. I am certain that bicycle, cucumber, and plasma will not work.

Tomorrow or Tuesday, a reflection on cartoons. Later this week, some visual analysis of comparative examples. The usage of these words based on practical definitions and etymologies is one thing; the meaning recognizable in visual examples is a totally different affair, and exposes the fact that our common usages betray much more sophisticated distinctions than references currently recognize. Fascinating stuff. Stay tuned.

Images: W. W. Denslow, title page illustration, The Wonderful World of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, 1900; Robert Lawson, book cover illustration, The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, 1936; Richard McGuire, book cover illustration, What’s Wrong with This Book?, 1997.

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