Can Illustration be Fine Art?

Ever wondered what those caricatures of cows with the scenic backdrop of a farm you see on the milk cartons in the supermarket are? Are they a form of art or illustration? Its images like these that lead us to the age old question – what is the difference between fine art and illustration? This dilemma has been haunting not just artists, but also non artists for centuries.

If you go by the classic definitions, an illustration is a visualization or a depiction, such as a drawing, sketch, painting, photograph, or any other kind of printed version of things seen, remembered or imagined, created by an artist using a graphical representation. It explains, visually represents, or just decorates a written text, which may or may not be of a literary or commercial nature.

On the other hand, fine art is just art for art’s sake. Simply put, an idea, concept or thought brought to life on paper or canvas. In other words, art is the idea itself whereas an illustration is a depiction or explanation of an idea or a story.

Historically, book illustration and magazine/newspaper illustrations have been the predominant forms of this type of visual art, although illustrators have also used their graphic skills in the fields of poster art, advertisements, comic booksanimation art, greeting cards and cartoon-strips.

Most illustrative drawings were done in pen-and-ink, charcoal, or metal point, after which they were replicated using a variety of print processes including: woodcuts, engraving, etching, lithography, photography and halftone engraving, among others.

Today, there are five main types of illustrations: educational “information graphics” (eg. scientific textbooks); literary (eg. children’s books); fantasy games and books; media (magazines, periodicals, newspapers); and commercial (advertising posters, point of sale, product packaging). Many of these illustrations are designed and created using computer graphics software such as Adobe IllustratorPhotoshop, and CorelDraw, as well as Wacom tablets. The traditional methods like watercolors, pastels, casein, egg tempera, wood engraving, linoleum cuts, and pen and ink are also employed even today.

There is an ongoing debate on whether illustration should be categorized as a fine art, an applied art – or even a decorative art. However, looking back in time, one will find innumerable illustrative masterpieces thereby leaving no doubt that this visual art form deserves a place alongside other fine arts like painting and sculpture.

As we glance through the history of art, we realize that during the first 30,000 years of art, artists were able to earn a decent living working for kings, priests, pharaohs and popes and commissioned art for temple walls and public spaces.  It adorned palaces and royal tombs and the homes of aristocrats.  Then monarchs began to disappear and Popes stopped commissioning new art.  The birth of capitalism gave rise to a new commercial class that became the new patrons of art.

The talented artists who once painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel adapted themselves to their new clientele by adopting two distinct business models.  The first produced what we now call “fine” or “gallery” art for the private collections of the rich and corporate class.  The second one evolved thanks to the newly invented printing press, wherein instead of selling a painting to a wealthy patron, artists made multiple copies of a piece and sold them for smaller amounts to larger numbers of (less-wealthy) buyers.

Here are a few visuals that show the evolution of art into the field of illustration through time: 

It is this technological development that brought about revolutionary changes in the history of illustration, eventually leading to the creation of the twin pillars of modern day illustration:

  1.  The ability to create and distribute quality reproductions of an artwork to large audiences.
  2.  The ability to collect marginal, proportional payments for that art from large audiences.

These two developments created potential opportunities for talented artists.  They became the core economic model for illustration, and the key distinction between modern illustration and fine art.  Thanks to these developments, the talented masters of art who were once unaffordable under the old business model of art now became accessible to the general public.

One cannot deny the fact that because of its wider audience, illustration is often broader than fine art. But does that mean the commercial angle affects the quality and character of art? In my opinion, broader appeal to a popular audience does not diminish the greatness or quality of art.

I firmly believe that there is a very thin line distinguishing art from illustration and this distinction has nothing to do with the artist’s skill or the quality of the work.  It is equally easy to find examples of illustration that are superior to “fine” art and vice versa.  I feel that the narrative/decorative divide helps us to categorize a piece either as “art” or as “illustration” and every artist is free to exploit this aspect to his or her discretion.

While fine art visually presents an idea as it is in its purest form, an illustration is a form of visual communication or representation which defines a given piece of text. The writing as well as the illustration together explains the concept or idea. This marriage between art and typography can be seen all around us in various forms like packaging of consumer products, children’s’ books, assembly and installation instructions for furniture, electronics etc., and my favorite form of illustration – road maps. Even postcards are a form of illustration! Or would you consider them fine art?

So I leave you to ponder on this and decide for yourself what you would like to put under the category of illustration and what you consider as fine art. Personally for me, any form of communicative expression is art, be it illustrative or not, for every drawing or doodle is a window to a deeper abyss that holds the true message  or meaning behind the work and also expresses the artist’s personal beliefs.

DISCLAIMER – All the information, data and imagery in this blog post is for informational and educational purpose only. Some images and data may have been taken from the links included below and I give full credit to these websites/pages, thereby in no way claiming them to be my own. Other data is based on my personal experiences and opinions.

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Art as Magazine Covers


Ever come across magazine covers designed by famous artists of the likes of Da Vinci, Van Gogh or Picasso? If you haven’t, then read on!

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that many famous masters of art have contributed their artistic prowess towards the creation of some of the most innovative and awe-inspiring covers for these periodical publications.

Here’s a blast from the past of a few acclaimed works of distinguished artists featured in some of the most well-known and historical magazines known to man.  

Works of Henri Matisse

The renowned artist Henri Matisse was hired by the publisher George Macy to illustrate a limited edition of 1500 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, concurrent with the book’s initial mid-1930s publication. But, Matisse chose to illustrate Homer’s Odyssey instead. The leather bound foil stamped case cover was unlike anything created by this artist before.

Matisse also designed the cover for his own book of paper collages, Jazz and very often also designed covers for other authors and magazines. One such case is his cover for photographer Henri Cartier Bresson’s 1952 book The Decisive Moment. This solely displays his own art and hand-lettering.

Other covers designed by him include the 1946 edition Lettres Portugaises (Portuguese Letters), credited to the 17th-century Franciscan nun Mariana Alcoforado, and the 1952 biography of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, for a limited edition of 380 copies. It also included 8 original lithos, two as the endpapers and the other six within the interior. Two years prior he designed a limited edition of the fifteenth century French poet Charles d’Orléans, a work Matisse began in 1943, interrupted by the war. All limited editions of 1200 were signed and numbered by Matisse in pencil on the frontpiece lithograph.

He also designed several posters throughout his career for which he would usually leave space for others to place set type. However, there are some that feature his distinctive hand-lettering.

Works of Pablo Picasso

Besides Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Known as the father of the Cubist movement (alongside Frenchman Georges Braque and fellow Spaniard Juan Gris) he  is also credited with the co-creation of collage (with Braque); the invention of constructed sculpture; as well as myriad printmaking, ceramics, stage design and painting periods and styles throughout his long career.

His experiments with graphic design led to exhibition posters for his own work; however there were magazine and book covers as well. There were also commissioned posters for the French Alps town of Vallauris, to promote their area as a perfume and pottery center of production following World War II. Picasso lived there beginning in 1948, and designed and illustrated these posters through the 1960s.

Of particular interest in these works is his approach to designing typography. In addition, reoccurring themes appear, similar to his other work, such as goats, bulls, doves and the human face. Along with the exhibition posters he also designed peace posters. He was a member of the Communist Party throughout his adult life, and remained neutral during both world wars and the Spanish Civil War, strongly advocating peace.

A poster for film “The Battle on the River Neretva” (1969) was made by Pablo Picasso, and it was only one of two movie posters that he made. He did it as a great fan of Yugoslavian movies and, according to people who were involved in filming, he did not ask for money for the poster–all he wanted was a case of Yugoslavia’s finest wines. This special poster was printed in only 80 editions.

Works by Dali, Picasso, Braque & More

As evident above, in the early 20th century, the line between fine art and graphic design began to fade, which eventually became clear in the design work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Here are some more captivating magazine covers by the likes of Dali, Matisse, Picasso, Braque and other famous fine artists to further support this:

Salvador Dalí

The world of fashion in itself is surreal in nature thus making the father of Surrealism, Dalí and fashion magazine, Vogue a perfect match. He created many works for the magazine, one of his earliest being its April 1944 cover. The artist employed many of his usual concepts, from the open and accented perspective, to images of stones, insects and a horseman. Even his rendering of the magazine title is a surreal collage of images and textures.

Verve: The Ultimate Review of Art and Literature

During the twentieth century, there were two main publications that led the great masters to contribute cover designs as well as interior artwork. The first was Verve: The Ultimate Review of Art and Literature. Published in Paris by Teriafe, its inaugural issue on December 1937 featured a cover by Matisse. The publication continued until 1960, with 38 editions and featured the works and writings of Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Joan Miro, Man Ray, Jean-Paul Sartre, etc. A hard covered journal sporting a dust jacket included were tipped-in lithographs by the renowned artists. Covers also featured the likes of Bonnard, Francisco Bores, Georges Braque, Chagall, and several by Picasso.

Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts

Preceding Verve was Broom, which was founded by Harold Loeb and Alfred Kreymborg and published in Europe. It premiered on November 1921 and lasted until January 1924. Loeb, related to the Guggenheims on his mother’s side, wished to bring the European avant-garde to the U.S.  Among the artists included were Juan Gris, George Grosz, Matisse, Laslo Moholy-Nogy, Picasso, Man Ray and Joseph Stella. The magazine’s cover designers included Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, El Lissitzky, Man Ray as well as lesser known artistslike Enrico Prampolini, Ladislas Medgyes among others.Unlike the ostentatious Verve, Broom featured two-color paper covers and black and white interiors with tipped-in quality black and white prints of artwork and photography and occasional woodcuts.




Salvadore Dali, Man Ray and Juan Miro contributed several magazine covers for the fashion title Vogue in the 1940s. Even Matisse made an appearance as a backdrop and while not his design Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass sculpture appeared as a prop with his blessing.

Works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Banksy, Fairey et al.


 Stuart Davis was an American painter best known for his Cubist, jazz and billboard inspired modernist paintings. Early in his career, as a political progressive, he was a regular contributor to the leftist magazines The Masses and The New Masses. During the Great Depression he worked on several murals for the Federal Art Project. Other regular contributors to these magazines included renowned artists George Bellows and Alexander (Sandy) Calder.

Andy Warhol, father of the pop art movement, began his career as an illustrator but constantly blurred the line between fine and applied arts. In addition to his better known designs for albums covers (the eponymous titled “The Velvet Underground” and “Sticky Fingers” for the Rolling Stones) and Interview magazine, which he founded, he contributed covers to several publications, including Time and Vogue. Other Time contributors included fellow pop-artist Roy Lichentstein and other famed artists Marc Chagall, Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Bearden, Ben ShahnJacob Lawrence and Alex Katz.

Contemporary artist Jeff Koons created a cover for the magazine in 2009. The magazine also invited other artists such as Jenny Holzer, Franceso Vezzoli, identical twins Doug and Mike Starn and even architect Frank Gerry.

Fashion Magazine W

The fashion magazine W has likewise hired Vezzoli and Barbara Kruger to grace their covers. Perhaps the most famous artist today in the mysterious street artist Banksy, who has created covers for Time Out magazine among others.

Artist Shepard Fairey, who also began his career as a street artist these days is primarily a designer/ illustrator who contributes covers to magazines such as Time and The Nation and produces several posters, including three popular ones on the recent Women’s March.

Francesco Vezzoli

My Artworks for Magazine Covers

I have had the distinct privilege and honor to design some magazine covers myself. Although not among the big names or labels, they are special in their own right as they are the in house publications run by some very prestigious organizations. It was a humbling experience for me and even though not all my artworks may have been published, they helped hone my creative skills and opened my mind to newer possibilities. They helped me venture into the field of graphic design and taught me the art of combining conventional art techniques with advanced digital alternatives to produce designs that would do justice to the respective magazine’s requirements.  

For each artwork, I was provided with a brief that required me to work on a particular theme for the publication in question. Here are the themes with their respective artworks and a brief description for each:

  • Health is Wealth – As the theme suggests, the objective was to depict that our most valuable treasure is physical and mental well being. According to Hindu mythology, Lakshmi is the Goddess of wealth, prosperity and fortune and an embodiment of beauty as well. She is depicted in Indian art as an elegantly dressed, prosperity-showering golden-colored woman seated or standing on a lotus pedestal, with four hands, which represent the goals of human life. I have used this very iconographic image of Lakshmi to depict the greatest wealth for us all – our health. With the help of various elements of doodle art, I have stylized her form, along with that of the lotus and the surrounding water pool. Each of her hands shows how every body part is equally important for our overall health and there is no bigger fortune that a healthy body, mind and soul.
Theme – Health is Wealth
  • Touching Lives through Welfare 1 – Depicting social welfare through art was a big challenge for me.  So, I decided to combine drawing as well as doodling to produce an abstract composition which portrays specific welfare organizations in my region. Each arm represents one such organization and together, hand in hand, they all work  in tandem towards one common goal – welfare of the under privileged. I have used geometrical shapes and patterns as doodle motifs in a multiple color palette to create this artwork.
Touching Lives through Welfare 1
  • Touching Lives through Welfare 2 – This one is another option I created on the theme of social welfare. Many people have made major contributions towards the eradication of social evils by dedicating their lives to the cause. When it comes to social reformers, social workers and philanthropists of the likes of Bill Gates, Mother Teresa, Annie Besant, Jane Adams and Jeanette Rankin to name a few have played a significant role in fighting social evils. Among my fellow Indians, philanthropists like Ratan Tata and Shiv Nadar and social activists like Irom Sharmila, Medha Patkar and Aruna Roy are also doing their bit. I have depicted these and several other pioneering social icons from around the world, who have done some outstanding work in their respective fields and brought about radical changes over the decades. This cover design is completely handmade art using a combination of wet and dry mediums in the form of water color brush pens, fine tip pens and colored pencils respectively.
Touching Lives through Welfare 2
  • The Steel Shark – As per the brief given to me, I had to create a cover design for a magazine depicting the mighty submarine in its full glory. So, I decided to take my obsession for submarines to the next level by combining doodling and digital art. In this artwork, I have personified the submarine as a shark which truly epitomizes its stealth and menacing power. I rendered this personified version with prismacolor pencils, whereas the underwater seascape has been rendered digitally. I have used the technique of doodling to render the waves arising from the sea.
The Steel Shark
  • Theme Pollution – This one is extremely special for me as the artwork which made it to the cover page of a magazine is also part of my ongoing Navrasa Series. (Please refer to previous blog posts to know more about this series). This artwork is an attempt to depict two sides of the same coin. While one side shows how fortunate we are to have Nature’s blessings in the form of her beautiful flora and fauna, the other side opens our eyes to how we are destroying this beautiful gift by polluting our environment.

This is evident as human decay in the form of the skeletal hand I have portrayed in the painting. The cigarette between the crooked bones of this hand represents the toxic poisons we are exhaling into our atmosphere through our industrial chimneys. Not only does this smoke symbolize the industrial infection that we are spreading but also the impending doom of nuclear warfare. The skeletal and decomposing remains of the elephant represent the consequences of our ignorance resulting from selfish acts like poaching, deforestation and our greed for more.

The left side of the artwork shows what Mother Earth will look like in her full glory, if we give her the chance to live. The foliage of green leaves with a scattering of blossoms, the lush green grass and the robust image of the elephant set against a bright blue sky all bear witness to the Nature’s masterful creativity.

This is a mixed media artwork where I have employed every medium ranging from oils, to acrylics as well as impasto and decoupage. I have achieved the visual effects for the elephant’s head through acrylic pouring. The text on top is actual newspaper cuttings which have been fused with the acrylic pour backdrop with the technique of decoupage. The various 3D effects providing texture to the foliage and the elephant tusks have been achieved with the help of the hot glue gun. I have taken special care to highlight the difference between a healthy tusk and a decaying one by depicting the latter in a mangled and fragmented state. The remainder of the painting has been rendered with oil paints.

It was a great learning experience for me to work on designs for magazine covers. Even though not all of them got published, each and every one is very special for me as they broadened my horizons and helped me step into the world of graphic design or visual communication, where the sky is the limit. Who knows? Maybe I can delve into book covers, illustrations, posters or logos next!

DISCLAIMER – All the information, data and imagery in this blog post is for informational and educational purpose only. While there may be copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner, I have only made it available with the sole effort to stimulate creative progress and artistic enrichment. Some images may have been taken from the links included below and I give full credit to these websites/pages, thereby in no way claiming them to be my own. I have also used these links for reference purposes and collection of data; therefore I give full credit to the respective web pages. Most of the data in this post is based on my personal experiences and opinions and I am not responsible for any material that is found in the links at the end of this post.

Sources and Photo Credits –