The Portland Papers, V.3

By    Friday August 8, 2014

Moving Forward by Looking Back: Writing A History of Illustration Textbook
By Susan Doyle, Jaleen Grove, Whitney Sherman

Illustration has both shaped and reflected culture throughout time. It is used to promote worldviews and to disseminate knowledge, to model scientific theories, and to envision everything from fantasy to fact—in print, on the web and in film. In short, illustration is the most pervasive and popular art form in the world—and arguably the most influential. Nonetheless, in 2010 respected design critic Rick Poynor identified what he called “The Missing Critical History of Illustration.”[i] He quite rightly asked, “How seriously should we take illustration?” and further wondered, “How seriously does illustration takes itself?”

As evidence, he characterized most books about illustration as “invariably how-to guides or visual surveys that merely aim to show what is going on.”  You know the sort: typically long on images and short on critical frameworks for analyzing their modes and meanings. When we compare illustration to the field of design, where organizations such as the Design Studies Forum have addressed the history and social role of design for many years, we must ask: Why, when illustration is so culturally pervasive, is the scholarship around it lacking in critical, theoretical, and historical discourses?

Poyner proposed—and we concur—that a fundamental factor in why more serious study of illustration has not occurred is that illustrators have not been engaged enough in critical thinking or writing about their own history. The lack of a survey textbook on par with Meggs’ History of Graphic Design or Janson’s History of Art has been both a symptom and a cause of this disengagement.

Inherently interdisciplinary, illustration is often treated as a mere visual sidekick to the verbal transmission of literature, world history, sociology, science, media, and other disciplines. In reality, illustration is secondary to text only sometimes. Often, illustration exists on equal footing with text, and text and image together create meanings above and beyond what either text or image can do alone. Illustration is often fundamental as a form of research, as in fashion design or scientific visualization. There are also imaginative illustrations that lead the writing, or dispense with words altogether.

Illustration is essential to thought itself, but presumed to be subordinate to verbal texts. With it being misunderstood and undervalued relative to its aligned disciplines of painting, printmaking and graphic design, illustration is lost in the taxonomic cracks of the academic world. Ironically, it is the interdisciplinary relevance of illustration, its interconnectedness, that has made it a vital aspect of culture and the most popular major in most art schools. But that “interdisciplinarity” perpetuates misunderstanding about what illustration has been, is, and can be.
 Images have been key in creating understanding of the world throughout time by modeling ideas of the known, and the unknown.   Fig. 1 (l) shows an interactive print created by Heinrich Vogtherr  in 1536, which encouraged a “hands-on” approach to anatomical study; in opposition to the theoretical training more commonly undertaken by aspiring Renaissance physicians. On the right, Haeckel’s 1904 image of radiolarian skeletal forms of the Stephoidea class inspire awe at beauty and complexity of the natural world in his aptly titled “Kunstformen der Natur”' or  “Artforms of Nature.”  

There are over 80 colleges or universities offering Bachelors of Fine Art degrees in Illustration in North America and the UK. While some of these schools offer classes in the History of Illustration, many have subsumed most, or all, critical consideration of illustration under Visual Culture Studies, Design History or Art History. Some have merely inserted history modules into studio practice courses, which reflects the dearth of PhDs available to teach lecture- and seminar-style liberal art courses on illustration topics. Many art schools don’t offer a History of Illustration course at all—adding to a common misperception that Illustration lacks a unique tradition and philosophy of its own, and that is not an academically rigorous discipline.

Underlying the problem is that most of the introductory Art History surveys, through which young artists come to shape their thinking about the meaning of art, have simply ignored Illustration. Cave paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and work by artists like Durer, Hogarth, Blake or the Pre-Raphaelites that should logically be analyzed as illustration are paradoxically approached as “fine art.” Illustrators like Mucha, Lautrec, and Cassandre are claimed by graphic design historians as “designers” with the thrust of scholarship on their work focused on strategies of page design—downplaying key illustration concerns such as the efficacy of pictorial solutions, and the genesis of iconography and drawing styles in establishing meaning. Obviously, the capricious categorization of all this work by modernist discourses attempted to draw hard lines between Fine Art, Design and Illustration—and in doing so, did a disservice to Illustration, that needs to be addressed.

Lucas Kilian, Catoptri Microcosmici :Visio Secunda 1613. Images have been key in creating understanding of the world throughout time by modeling ideas of the known, and the unknown.   Fig. 1 shows an interactive print by Lucas Kilian designed to encourage a hands on approach to anatomical study in opposition to the theoretical training more commonly undertaken by aspiring  Renaissance physicians.  photo: Susan Doyle 

So, as Poynor asked, why hasn’t the field of illustration been leading the discourse about its own currency, patrons and makers? Where are the theorists clarifying the reciprocal relationship of illustration to the cultural framework: sociological constructs, economic influences, aesthetics, psychology, and the technology in which it is created? Critical writing does exist in Media Studies, Literary Criticism, Word and Image Studies, Art History, Visual Communication Studies, and other academic departments, but researchers in these fields rarely look outside of their own disciplinary boundaries. Meanwhile, their research is rarely taught to illustration students.

A complete picture of the breadth and influence of illustration has never been formed. The fact that no standard history has been developed, no framework for thinking and talking about illustration, puts both student and professional illustrators at an intellectual disadvantage compared with other visual artists. This is a huge disservice to illustration students, especially as they grapple with cultural and personal influences in their own nascent creativity.

With our focus today on 21st century Illustration curricula, we’d like to present an important collaboration that we think will help ameliorate this situation: the writing of a comprehensive textbook about the history of illustration.

We represent a group of more than 60 collaborators comprised of highly qualified art historians, museum curators, researchers, postsecondary educators, illustrators, and collectors from the US, UK, Canada, Korea, Brazil and elsewhere who have banded together in an online consortium called the History of Illustration Project. Of the sixty-plus members, over thirty are actively writing for the textbook.

Susan Doyle (Professor of Illustration at RISD) is the editor; illustration historian Jaleen Grove, PhD (Visual Literacy Foundation of Canada), and Whitney Sherman (Director of the MFA in Illustration Practice at MICA) are assistant editors; all three are also writers.

Many of the participants of the History of Illustration Project—or HIP for short—did not know each other prior to the project. Participants are involved because they share a passion for Illustration. Communication is typically via the Web but we have had one face-to-face meeting, which took place last spring. The origins of the project began a bit earlier; and the story is worth telling, as it sheds light on our aspirations and rationale.

In 2004, Jaleen (who comes to history from a background as a practitioner) began graduate work in communication studies and art history, focusing on the status and history of illustration, hoping her research would lead to writing a credible history of it. She was approached many times by people suggesting she write the book or telling her of ones in progress, but given how interdisciplinary illustration is, she doubted that any one person could ever do it well alone.

So when in 2012, Whitney told Jaleen of meeting with Susan at ICON7 to discuss writing a history book, Jaleen suggested that a survey be done to assess needs and content and to foster collaboration. Since Whitney had been involved with program planning at the Society of Illustrators Educators Symposium in New York City for the prior ten years, she invited the Society to sponsor the survey. Preliminary results were presented at the 2012 Symposium.

Text: Whitney Sherman.  Art and Text: Jaleen Grove

With over 300 respondents comprising students, teachers, professional illustrators, and researchers, the results confirmed an overwhelming majority would welcome the book. Most preferred it to be written by a team of practicing illustrators, art historians, curators and teachers specializing in illustration. There was a relatively solid consensus on what topics and features would be important in the text; but despite the large number of participants, no one had surfaced as a potential author.

Shortly thereafter, James Gurney, who had previously blogged about the need for an Illustration history book,[ii] followed up on the survey by issuing an email to fourteen individuals he knew to be committed to advancing illustration history. He challenged them to get on with writing. Charlie Parker of then setup a Wordpress blog that later became an email listserve.

t this point, Susan volunteered to act as editor—assuming the participants of the email discussion would be future book contributors. The HIP membership grew through word of mouth, some of the early participants becoming less active as others advanced to clarify the format and scope. Of course, we wrangled with several contentious issues:

“Illustration is simply too big; you’ll just oversimplify and do more harm than good!”

“We need to teach students concepts of visual literacy and critical theory.”

“No; it should not be academic; we need to celebrate our history, not criticize it; there’s been enough of that!”

“Students need to know what’s going on everywhere, not just in their own country.”

“We should just stick to just a US history; that’s manageable!”

“It should be a website, so we can change it on the fly and incorporate everything with link to related sites.”

“It should be a book too, because printed images should be presented as printed images; and because the survey shows preference for a book, it’s more portable and readable, and books still signify legitimacy.”

“We need to tell students about all the great illustrators to be proud of.”

“We need to disrupt the canon – where are the women? And the illustrators of colour? Who decided on this canon? What about great but unattributed works?”

In February 2013, Jaleen initiated conversations with major textbook publishers, who indicated they preferred a hardcover book with an eBook offering, but disappointingly, not a large database of archival and research materials as we envisioned. Publishers also wanted a global reach. Online conversation continued through the spring. A particularly constructive moment was the pooling of syllabi, which Robert Lovejoy of Ringling College of Art and Design synthesized into a table that made visible the similarities and incongruities of our respective approaches. From that, he distilled a comprehensive topic list that really became the core of our outline.


In April, the History of Illustration Project group was invited to meet at the Norman Rockwell Museum by Deputy Director and Chief Curator Stephanie Plunkett. Twenty-six attended, with some coming from as far way as the United Kingdom. By day’s end the group had settled on some approaches for organizing the book, feeling it was a good starting point on which to build an ongoing suite of resources.

It was also decided that the website would be a semi-separate entity. Since then, Stephanie has received an National Endowment for the Arts grant to create an online resource to complement the book, with Rick Schneider (emeritus Art Institute of Boston) and others collaborating.

The History of Illustration Project listserve has grown to 61, with about half actively involved as writers or researchers, and others involved in an advisory capacity or available as future peer reviewers. In June 2013, Susan sent out the first outline of the text. Since then, the HIP group has critiqued it, adding topics and artists. Members volunteered to lead chapters in which they have expertise, assisted by secondary contributors for specialized items. Those chapter leaders have further refined their individual chapter outlines specifying artists, images, and technical processes. Many have proposed “Theme boxes” that will complement the chronology by highlighting important topics such as gender, nationalism, or theories of visual communication. We have also added chapters on non-Western forms, along with chapters on scientific illustration.

In July 2014, with the pro bono help of lawyer David Apatoff, who also blogs at, we signed a contract with Fairchild Books, a subsidiary of Bloomsbury that specializes in textbooks and has an existing roster of fashion and design titles.  The book has a target release date of June 2016.

There is a chronological organization to the text, which was strongly favored in the survey. Content is also grouped by topic and to some degree by geography—especially in the earlier chapters that look at traditions particular to specific regions prior to mass communication. In some cases other factors leading to global trends are tracked as well. 

We are not focusing on the most celebrated images—although many of those may appear—but rather on the most instructive ones. The book’s first section begins by explaining concepts of “visual literacy” and the importance of images in shaping and reflecting culture. Illustrative traditions as influenced by indigenous aesthetics will be organized by region. Cultural, folkloric and religious influences will be explored, as well as regional predilections for one-of a kind illustrative iterations versus the creation of multiples through various methods of copying or printing, up until mass-production.

The chapters in Section Two look at the role of the illustrator in shaping and spreading ideas and knowledge through images published with or without text. The growing importance of illustration in fostering social and economic aspirations, as well as the dissemination of political or ideological rhetoric in culture is covered in this section. Individual chapters trace the branching of illustration into sub-categories reflective of growing and diversified audiences for printed material as modern cultures around the world developed and matured.

he last five chapters, in Section Three, study the cultural impact of electronic media on illustration. The impact of television and then digital content and forms of delivery will be examined in terms of creation, accessibility, and aesthetics. The book concludes with a chapter on the future of illustration in a dematerialized environment.

We are keenly aware of the importance of showing images that help students develop vocabulary to discuss the formal attributes of illustration, as well as to articulate its importance in culture. The aforementioned key “Theme Boxes” will be placed throughout the text to present and explain vital issues and arguments in the field including cultural dynamics, critical theory or philosophy, and other “big ideas” that are important to understanding context and performing analysis.

Lastly, we will include “Tech Boxes” too, to describe technical innovations mentioned in the narrative text; and a page-to-page Timeline to highlight relevant historic events and innovations as they converge with important developments in illustration. The volume, which is projected to be approximately 624 pages, will also include a glossary and be fully indexed.

HIP’s goal is to craft a comprehensive history in which vast amounts information are synthesized into a thorough and accurate reference. The learning outcomes of A History of Illustration include the ability to critically analyze images from technical, cultural, and ideological standpoints, and to arrive at an appreciation of both historical and contemporary illustration—a much-needed counterpoint to myopic art histories.

Including A History of Illustration in all our curricula is an essential step in emphasizing the importance of images, including the relationship of image-and-text to the formation of ideas. Doing so will clarify illustration’s role as both connective and generative throughout time. The upcoming textbook is an important tool in making that history clear and accessible to students and practitioners alike.

By presenting illustrators as critical thinkers as well as makers, A History of Illustration empowers students to create and interpret images with consciousness and responsibility; it gives professionals the language with which to advocate for their status; and it enables the worlds of art and design to recognize illustration’s rich and important history.

“This is a work that cannot be completed except by a society of men of letters and skilled workmen, each working separately on his own part, but all bound together solely by their zeal for the best interests of the human race and a feeling of mutual good will.” —Diderot[iii]

Susan Doyle
Associate Professor
Illustration Department
Rhode Island School of Design
Providence RI  02903       

Jaleen Grove PhD
Independent Researcher
Visual Literacy Foundation of Canada

Whitney Sherman
Director of the MFA in Illustration Practice
Maryland Institute College of Art
1300 W Mount Royal Avenue
Baltimore, MD   21217

[i] Poynor, Rick, “The Missing Critical History of Illustration,” Print (May 26, 2010).

Accessed March 16, 2014 <>.

[ii] James Gurney “Why is There No Illustration History Textbook?” <>


Encyclopedia of Diderot & Alembert Collaboration Translation Project.  University of Michigan’s< > This homepage quotation originally appeared in Rameau’sNephew and Other Works by Denis Diderot In a New Translation by Jacques Barzun and Ralph H. Bowen, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, NY, 1956   p. 298