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The Illustrator’s Handbook: A Guide to Styles and Genres

Knowing how to draw is not enough to become a successful illustrator. Besides having drawing skills and talent, you need to be familiar with styles of illustration and significant works of famous artists. Only then you can find your own style, create illustrations and don’t be afraid of being blamed for plagiarism.


Illustration originated in Ancient Egypt where spells and hymns were written on papyrus decorated with pictures. The brightest examples of the extant manuscripts are antique Iliad and Aeneid.

Illustration (from Latin illustratio, literally an enlightening) is a visualization that is not identical to a depicted subject.

Until the 19th century illustrations were primarily used as artistic images to decorate books. There were various forms of them: engravings, vignettes, miniatures, graphic drawings and decorative ornaments.

The Golden Age of Illustration began in the second part of the 19th century. It was connected with the spread of mass market magazines and newspapers. Famous artists worked that time in Europe and America. They affected all future generations of illustrators. Howard Pyle and his students, Norman Rockwell, James Flagg (the creator of Uncle Sam) and Charles Dana Gibson (famous for ideal Gibson Girl series).

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 2  Howard Pyle 

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 3  Norman Rockwell

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 4  James Flagg and his Uncle Sam

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 5 The Gibson Girl — one of the first American female beauty standards.


The turning point in the development of illustration as a genre happened in 1950s. Photography became the main method of depicting events so graphic artists had nothing to do but draw intangible, abstract illustrations.

Thus, a conceptual illustration appeared. It was developing under the influence of modern art, namely, cubism, expressionism, dada, surrealism. Robert Andrew Parker, Saul Steinberg, Boris Artzybasheff are the most outstanding illustrators of «another» movement.

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 6  Robert Andrew Parker 

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 7  Saul Steinberg 

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 8  Boris Artzybasheff 


At the same time illustrations started to be used in advertisement and propaganda as well as in books, journals and newspapers. Poster illustrations became popular. Caricature and satirical illustration took another twist in their development.

Now illustration implies website design, infographic, packaging, decoration and everything where visual content is needed. With the computer development, vector, a new genre of illustration, appeared. Today this type is in great demand on stocks.


Styles of Illustration

There are a lot of styles and genres of illustration: both traditional and innovative. To exemplify the main styles, we’ve chosen some artworks of bright and famous illustrators.

1. Fashion Illustration

This style has more than 500-year history, but it became very popular at the beginning of the 19th century — the time when lots of fashion magazines emerged. One of the founders of fashion illustration was Carl Erickson who is famous for his work with Vogue and Coty, an American cosmetic company.

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 10

2. Poster Illustration

Poster theme has been attracting illustrators since the middle of the 20th century. Poster illustrations are widely used in advertisement and socio-political sphere. Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec are considered pioneers of this style.

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 13the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 1415

3. Retro illustration

Now we can call it retro, but for Earle K. Bergey, for instance, it was present reality. The American artist illustrated a lot of books, magazines and newspapers in a well-known «vintage» style that is extremely popular now.

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4. Decorative illustration

It is probably one of the oldest styles of artwork. The most prominent decorator of the 20th century is William Morris, the informal leader of Arts and Crafts Movement.

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5. Children’s Books Illustration

Another classic genre of illustration. Techniques, styles, eras are changing, but one thing is unaltered — illustrations for children’s books should be colorful, funny and interesting.

One of the most famous illustrators is Edmund Dulac. Sure, you’ve got a déjà-vu now. Maybe one of your children’s books was illustrated by Dulac.

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 19

6. Comics Illustration

Comics is a distinct genre, but you can’t deny that comics is an illustrated story. Moreover, Charles M. Schulz, a famous illustrator, is deemed to be the godfather of modern comics.

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 21

7. Satirical Illustration

Satirical illustration originated from all time favorite caricatures. They never lose their popularity. For example, think about notorious Charlie Hebdo and its provocative caricatures.

One of the first caricaturists is George Cruikshank. Common themes are social and political problems.

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8. Conceptual Illustration

Conceptual illustration appeared as a reaction to the advent and spread of photography. It was influenced by different modern art movements. Besides the illustrators listed above, there is also Robert Osborn.

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 23

9. Fantasy Illustration

There is some fiction behind any illustration. But fantasy illustration is based on it. Masters of this style are Edd Cartier, whose illustrations can be found in lots of magazines and books, and Boris Vallejo.

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 24  Edd Cartier

the-illustration-handbook-styles-and-genres - 25  Boris Vallejo

10. Sports Illustration

The popularity of sports illustrations peaked in 1930s — 1950s, when they were almost everywhere. One of the best-known artists is Willard Mullin, who cartooned mostly for The New York World-Telegram.

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We are sure that after reading our article, you would like to try a new style. We picked up the most popular genres. But if you want to tell us about some other styles or other famous graphic artists, please, share in the comments below.