Illustrator or Artist? 1


What is the difference between an Illustrator and an Artist?

Illustrator or Artist?

What am I?

This is a sensitive subject for a lot of illustrator because implicit in the differentiation is the assumption that an illustrator is not an artist (which, in itself, is a pretty broad definition). What most people think of when they think of an artist is someone who has found an outlet for their creativity. Being an artist implies a certain personality type: care-free, quirky, spontaneous, and impulsive. One generally thinks of an artist as having a unique vision that he or she has found an outlet for expression. An artist is considered to have innate talent whereas an illustrator is considered more of a specialist who has honed a craft.

Illustration, by definition, is a creative process that is a service for a client. Fine Art is defined as a service to the artist’s own vision. Illustration is thought of as a profession whereas Art is considered a way of life.

The reality of the matter is that the two professions are very similar. Another definition for Illustration is Commercial Art and every practicing artist in history has created Art for the sake of making a sale. Most Artists depend on commissioned work, gallery guidelines, a patron or a client: a creative process as a service for a client. The work that is not commissioned is practice, fine-tuning skill and technique for both Artist and Illustrator.

The creation of the Sistine Chapel, the quintessential example of Fine Art, was executed within the exact same parameters that an illustrator works, perhaps even stricter. I challenge anyone to point out what criteria differentiates that from an illustrator’s job description. A commissioned work illustrating Biblical passages. I asked an art historian this question and the only thing that came to mind was the scale of the work. Seems like a weak argument.

The real issue is the romanticized allure of being an Artist. And defining a creative person as not an Artist becomes almost negative.

“Art that meets the minds and needs of other people is commercial art. Art that meets the minds and needs of oneself is fine art.” -sculptor David Smith

Perhaps the best way to tackle the debate is to take famous individuals who embody the terms and analyze how they have shaped our perception of the two terms. All the Renaissance artists thrived thanks mostly to commission for Biblical work and portraits of very demanding patrons, so they aren’t the best differentiators. Van Gogh sold one work over the course of his ten year career. Perhaps he helped define Artist as someone driven completely by passion, driven to madness in his search for a creative outlet. In reality, he was coached by his art dealer brother Theo and worked himself as a dealer in his uncle’s gallery. Although unsuccessful, one would be remiss to say that he wasn’t trying to become commercially viable.

Picasso Style

Art or Illustration?

Picasso is probably the best example that I can think of for an uncompromising Artist. His success allowed him to explore his genius to a mind-boggling extent. At the height of his fame, whatever he signed became Art. He became like a celebrity, a rock star, and the line between true art appreciation and celebrity frenzy blurs when it comes to his appeal. But his talent and creativity are undeniable. So, if he is the mascot for Artists, the question is how similar are the vast majority of practicing Artists to him?

Maybe the problem is that there simply aren’t as many high-profile Illustrators. Ironically, quite a few Illustrators suddenly became Artists as they gained notoriety. Hmm…I think I figured it out. When the focus is on the person and not the work, he is the Artist.

But wouldn’t that make the perception trivial? Shouldn’t the value of a work of art be intrinsic and not determined by who signed it? Food for thought.


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