Fine Art vs. Illustration

Every now and then there seems to be a flurry of writing about the differences between fine art and illustration and in the past few days I’ve again been seeing articles popping up on the subject. This time the articles I read have been bucking up illustration; “there’s no difference between illustration and fine art.” And working both as an illustrator and a fine artist, I want to instantly agree with that sentiment.

Remainder, 2011, graphite on paper ("fine art")

But there are differences: illustrators create work on commission and almost always work with an art director or editor. They start with a brief, an article or an idea that comes from someone else. Of course there are exceptions to this; a children’s book author/illustrator is creating both the text and the art, and existing art that is used as an illustration didn’t start with an idea from someone else. But in general, an artist creating an illustration isn’t the originator of the idea for the art (whether that idea comes from an article, brief, or specific person to be rendered). And, in the end, the client has to be pleased with the artwork. The art director or editor also expects that any changes they ask for to the artwork (minor or major) will be executed. And unless you’re Brad Holland, the changes will be made. This back and forth with an art director can be a great collaborative experience; many illustrations I have done have become better with an art director’s input. Some have become worse. In contrast , fine artists don’t start with an idea from someone else. Their work is solely their own. I know galleries want their artists to continue to create work that they know will sell and in a sense are trying to art direct their artists; but in the end it’s the artist’s decision whether to continue working on art that they know will be accepted by their gallery or not. It’s their decision what to work on, what the subject is, the style, the color, the size.

And, at the end of a project, illustrators get paid for the work they create. Usually their contract specifies that they be paid whether the work gets used or not. Fine artists not working on any kind of commission create work they hope will sell. There’s no contract and no guarantee. In this vein, artists who create portraits on commission are in the same boat as illustrators. They create works of art that start with a subject not of their choosing and have a client to please. Hopefully they have a contract that makes sure they get paid whether the client is happy with the work or not.

Lee, 2011, walnut ink and watercolor on paper ("illustration")

There are fantastic works of art that have come to exist because they started as commissioned illustrations. And there are fantastic works of art that arose only from the artist’s singular vision. I create both fine art and illustration. I know I think differently when I am doing an illustration. I think about what the client wants, what the end use of the piece will be, etc. I also know I’ll be paid for creating the work. For my fine art I only think about the piece and what I want from it. I have no idea if it will earn me any money.

So yes, I think there are differences between the illustration and fine art worlds. Are those differences important? To some, yes, the distinction seems to be important. Do I believe the differences are important? I’m still not sure. In the end what I do think is important is that we should all be considered artists.

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