There is often some confusion about the distinction between illustration and fine art. This is likely because originally the media used for illustration was quite limited, consisting predominantly of that which could be easily reproduced faithfully and cheaply. However, with the invention of new printing processes, almost any form of art using any media could be reproduced well and affordably, which really opened up the field. Now it is not unusual to see painters serving as illustrators for children’s books, for example. Or, for that matter, to see drawings or woodblock prints hanging in museums.
Thus, the true distinction between illustration and fine art is not in what media are used to produce it but rather how the medium is used. Illustration, from the Latin word illustro, meaning ‘to enlighten,’ serves, then, to reinforce the text of a manuscript or work in the interest of helping the reader visualize what is being described, whereas fine art is created to be independent, self-contained work.
Of all the forms of illustration, I frequently find black-and-white pen work to be the most interesting. I think this is because black-and-white is by definition a high contrast format, and the juxtaposition of these two starkly opposite colors reveals an almost primal level of semiotics that is readily apparent even to those untrained in either art or symbolism. That is to say, it is generally much easier to pick out errors in a black-and-white rendering as opposed to a color one because the nature of the medium plays to a very basic level of aesthetic appreciation in us. This is especially true when the artist is attempting to depict something realistically. Thus, mastering black-and-white drawing is trickier than many people think, and the results are often hit or miss in keeping with the binary aspect of the medium.
There are a number of ways pen-and-ink artists can tackle this problem. One is to perfect drawing patterns to convey the proper shading, textures and so on. The more of these an illustrator can master, the more varied the drawing, so that these take the place of colors to the eye. Another is for the artist to play to the abstract nature of black-and-white and use these two colors in an almost philosophical way. And so on.
Below are some of the most extraordinary examples of this format from the book Drawing with Pen and Ink edited by Arthur L. Guptill.
The first example is from Aubrey Beardsley, an artist whose work I confess I did not much care for when I first encountered it as an adolescent. Although his general style has grown on me over the years, I am still not particularly partial to his rendering of figures. Still, he was a genius in terms of his style and compositions and was hugely influential on both his art nouveau contemporaries and many artists who followed him. Beardsley was really a master at conveying a lot with very little, choosing his marks carefully and emphasizing the beauty and elegance of lines and forms over realistic depictions.
Ernest Peixotto was a Gilded Age American artist and travel writer of Sephardic Jewish descent, and that’s about all I know of him. Note how the breaking up of lines and shapes in this illustration gives the viewer a sense of light filling up this outdoor scene.
Franklin Booth’s painstakingly rendered drawings may look like they were produced with the woodblock print, but in fact this was his illustration style, learned as a child by copying the woodblock prints he saw in books and magazines with his pen. This piece is called The New House. In the background you can see that the house is still being constructed.
J.C. Halden doesn’t seem to have been a very prolific artist as I could find absolutely no information on him on the internet. Nevertheless, he was clearly a talented illustrator, as this next piece demonstrates. The somewhat sketchy style of Old House at Laval, France really helps to express the age and dilapidation of this building.
Ed McGraw is another artist I had never heard of until I was introduced to this book. And again, note how the looseness of the lines projects a sense of decay and age to the room. Even the figures somehow feel ancient beyond their years.
James Montgomery Flagg is primarily known for his iconic army recruitment poster featuring a stern-looking Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer and proclaiming “I want you!” But for my part, I rather prefer his black-and-white pen work in illustrations like this one. In this case the loose, fast lines suggest something different than those in the drawings above; it seems to capture the warm, somewhat hectic nature of a happy home life.
Richard Flanigan seems to take the opposite approach to artists like Flagg in this drawing. Flanigan’s lines are tight here, but his shapes are organic enough to compensate, and the whole piece feels intimate and inviting despite the skulls and devilish carved faces.
John R. Neill is best known as the illustrator of numerous volumes in Frank L. Baum’s Oz series. Although W.W. Denslow did the artwork for the first and most famous Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Neill illustrated every Oz book that followed up until his death, including the entire Baum run (thirteen of the fourteen Oz books penned by Baum), the twenty books written by Ruth Plumly Thompson for the series, and the three authored by Neill himself. Neill’s Oz illustrations were not as cartoonish as Denslow’s but were no less charming in style in my estimation, and were typically superior in composition and detail. In fact, his long run on this series earned him the title of the Royal Illustrator of Oz. Sadly, to my knowledge no one has yet collected a book of Neill’s best Oz art, or any book of his art at all. This is an injustice to Neill and to fans of his work and of the Oz series.
This next drawing by Walter Jardine may be my favorite in the entire book. Jardine’s mastery of texture and composition is simply astounding. I particularly love that nautilus shell cup; I can’t stop staring at it whenever I see this piece, and it really makes me want to reach right into the drawing and pick it up!
And last but not least, the incomparable Willy Pogany. Pogany was a Hungarian-born Golden Age illustrator who received his initial artistic training in Budapest, although he didn’t stay there long, moving to Paris and then to London, where he remained for awhile, his work steadily growing in popularity. Clearly at home in large metropolises, it is little wonder that he eventually found himself in New York City, where he spent much of the remainder of his life. Pogany’s style varies from the sparse–almost Spartan, you might say–approach for fairy tale and classical mythology collections to more heavily detailed pieces like the one that follows. I am quite fond of his work for a book of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one of my favorite poems.
Note: you can see higher quality versions of these drawings, as well as others from the same book that aren’t featured here (not to mention a great deal more excellent artwork from the masters of Golden Age illustration), at this site.