History of Illustration

When I heard we were getting a lecture on the history of illustration i thought it would start from the 18th century or so but it turns out technically the first examples of illustration can be traced back to the ancient egyptian’s hieroglyphics, used to do then what illustration is used for today, to communicate a message using visuals and text. Hieroglyphics like those found in the book of the dead are very interesting as they shows a clear narrative, demonstrating different stages of the process of death for ancient egyptians with the intention of teaching people this process, an intention at the heart of the majority of illustrations from around the world.

This idea of teaching people through illustration has existed for centuries as the majority of common people throughout history have not been able to read. Theses illustrations were quite often used to teach people about things like history and religion in a much more visual and accessible language. Illustrations were also used to translate old ideas and writings such as those of Ancient Roman and Greeks in a format that the people of the time could understand. Monks also often used illustrations within their  texts to aid getting their message across with possibly the most famous example of this being the book of Kells in which the four gospels are illustrated using intricate drawings and calligraphy to enhance the reader’s experience. Another subject that illustration played a huge role in developing was the education of anatomy. Many famous renaissance artist like Leonardo Da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius were at the forefront of creating anatomically correct drawings of the human body. Their work and findings helped improve the understanding of the human body dramatically, pushing contemporary knowledge of anatomy to a completely new level. Breakthroughs in technology also helped further educate the masses as these creations were making more images available to help educate people in various subjects and hence spread knowledge.   

One of the earliest and most successful forms of reproduction of drawings is the technique of the woodcuts, most famously medieval woodcuts. Woodcuts had been around for hundreds of years but it was not until the 14th century when paper was being produced in large quantities that woodcuts could show their true worth. With paper now being more readily available woodcut were being used to quickly and easily reproduce drawings and were being distributed throughout the world in the form of books, posters, leaflets and various other formats. It is completely arguable that the original wood cuts were far more impressive than the copies could ever be as their finite details were sometimes lost in the printing process. The creation of the codex was another huge step in mass producing illustrations with, the worlds largest medieval manuscript being a prime example. The fittingly named Codex Gigas is a huge codex created in the 13th century containing the Vulgate bible, historical documents and numerous illustrations  including one infamous representation of the devil from which it’s secondary name “the devils bible” originates from. Copper plates were the development of the medieval woodcuts and gave greater detail to the prints the produced. The most famous and talented artist to work with this medium was the great Albercht Durer whose iconic attention to detail and skill with fine lines helped him produce some of the most amazing prints. Printing methods were then developed with the creation of Lithography to give even greater detail to the prints and Chromolithography which introduced for the first time colour into the printing process.     

Illustration and history go hand in hand as it can be used to see how people of a certain time period were thinking. As we follow the changes in the styles and techniques used for illustrations we can also follow the way peoples minds and the way they were thinking were changing as the way they illustrated the world around them showed how the viewed it. For example during the 15th century colour was not used in the same way it is today. At this point colours were only used to evoke emotions and did not necessarily have to represent the real thing as in a lot of paintings the skies were red, purple or even green. The application of colour was also important to medievel monks as they would combine strong use of colour and intricate designs so that when they were reading their books it would feel as if they had entered an almost trance like state, believing it helped them connect to god.In the 15th and 16th centuries it was line that was the dominant force behind many pieces of art. Complex and intricate designs were extremely popular, especially in Germany where Albrecht Durer was creating works with such detail the world had never seen. Durer is regarded as one of the most talented draftsmen to have come from the German Renaissance and it is easy to see why with pieces like his apocalypse series and melancholia showing the amount of detail he put into them. Another thing Durer is famous for is that he was one of the first artists to sign their work which as we know today can sometimes make or break a piece depending on the value of that artist’s signature.


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