Illustration Research #1: Where did (the word) illustration come from?

Welcome to my first blog post about illustration research! My name is Karen and I have a Doctorate in illustration. Yes, I am Dr. Karen in illustration. Read that again – I’m sure you didn’t misread it.

I’ve been a student of illustration for almost 15 years now. Every day, I learn something new about this vast and deep field within the Arts. The more I know, the more I realise how much I don’t know – so I can’t stop being a student of it. Uh oh, I’m starting to sound like an academic. It’s too early in the writing to sound so pompous!

I do digress. Here, I aim to share what I know about illustration (so far) and where I gathered my information from. I hope it’s an interesting read for both novice illustrators and for those more advanced. Do feel free to drop comments in these posts so we can have constructive discussions about illustration.

A point to make about what I’ll share – as a personal blog, the posts will be filled with jargon, digressions, opinions and sometimes wrong/outdated information. This is a learning journey more than a credible source, so I strongly recommend that you double-check and research things I say if you are going to use it on any professional bodies.

At the same time, I study storytelling. Yes — I somehow have a job studying illustration and storytelling (take that to all your aunties and uncles who don’t believe these things are real jobs). I don’t mean storytelling as fictional stories, but lived experiences from real people. So I will be talking about that too, but in terms of visual storytelling like comics and illumiated stories. After all, I am an illustrator first and foremost.

Right, enough of me. Let’s talk about illustration.

… …

What is it?

This is a question that my first illustration teacher asked on my first day in school. And I still haven’t really found a good answer for it. It seems that no phrase is enough to describe exactly what it is.

It turns out, illustration is not the only field with this conundrum…
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, 1994, pg. 8-9

My first instinct is to know more about the word itself. Where does the word ‘illustration’ come from?

Here, I am interested in where the word comes from. What was illustration supposed to be? What was called an illustration at the beginning? For this, I turn to another type of dictionary called the Dictionary of Etymology, which tells me the history of words. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology says that the word ‘illustrate’ (which is not the same as illustration, but it will do for now) means to ‘throw light on.’ The general Oxford Dictionary agrees that an ‘illustration’ stems from the same root as ‘illumination,’ which means to bring a ‘spiritual enlightenment.’

Ah, don’t you just love it when you look up a word in the dictionary and it gives you more words you don’t know to describe the word you already didn’t know?

The dictionaries share that the word first appeared in the 15th century, around the 1480s. Hey, that’s when the illuminated manuscripts were actively made in the West! Illuminated Manuscripts are religious books(mostly of Christian faith in the West) that were heavily decorated to ‘show’ the stories of the Bible. Britannica Encyclopaedia says that the term ‘illumination’ was used to describe the decorations of these pages with gold, silver, paints of Jesus, Mary and angels as well as the text itself.

Initial letter of the Magnificat, from the Book of Hours of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, illuminated manuscript page by Giovannino de’ Grassi, c. 1385; in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence (Fondo Landau-Finaly MS. 22, fol. 147 v)

I guess, then, the words ‘illustration’ and ‘illumination’ were branches of the same concept: to ‘show’ the stories of the Bible.

A lightbulb moment in picture forms. That was what illustration was.

I wonder when, where, how and why the two words separated: did they begin to mean slightly different things, or were they just different dialects from different regions? It’s hard to know now.

Right, so we now know where the word comes from. The word illustration, as an English term, is a 15th-century word that first described the pictures of religious books. Now, 600 years later, the word is used to describe many more things than just religious picture books. What is an illustration now? What has it become, and what does it include?

I’d love to babble on about this more, but I’ll leave this up for another post. (I think I talked too much about myself at the beginning). I’ll cover what illustration is as a researcher now in the next post.

Meanwhile, have a think about what you think an illustration is for you. What do you envision? What could be an illustration? What should be called an illustration (but isn’t)? What isn’t an illustration?

Until the next post!

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