Sunday, 13 December 2009

Fine Art v Illustration

These two terms have been bugging me.  I know in essence the difference but I really want to get my head around the definitions of the two and where photography or fine art photography fits in there, how it is relevant in my own photography and how they are therefore judged.  I have seen these type of discussions on various blogs, websites and indeed the oca web forum and there seems to be as many opinions as there are artists.

A cynical definition I've seen is that an 'illustrator gets paid before he produces his work whereas a fine artist produces his work and struggles to sell it!'

Other less cynical definitions suggest that art for an illustrator always plays second fiddle to the message/product whereas a fine artist can put his own personal identity in to his art uncompromised by the 'client' requirements. Applied art serves a purpose whereas fine art is non-functional and is produced only to be admired and appreciated.

Wikipedia describes fine art as an art form produced primarily for aesthetics and/or concept rather than utility. It is judged for its beauty and meaningfulness. It describes illustration as a visualization that stresses subject more than form. The aim of an illustration is to elucidate or decorate textual information by providing a visual representation. 

These definitions would, at first glance, therefore imply that photography by its very reprographic nature be best suited to illustration rather than fine art.  Another issue is the word 'beauty'.  I think with traditional fine art it was probably judged on beauty however, is it more the case today that fine art and fine art photography is judged on its meaningfulness rather than beauty?

Wikipedia goes on to define 'fine art photography' as photographs that are created to fulfill the creative vision of the artist. Fine art stands in contrast to photojournalism and commercial photography.  Fine art photography is produced primarily with the aim of expressing the artist's vision, but can also raise awareness of certain causes.

I also want to quickly touch on the definition of conceptual art too. This art is where the concept or idea takes precedence over the aesthetic and material concerns. It is more 'idea-based art' which was very popular in the 1960s and with the YBAs.  It is now synonymous with contemporary art (which interestingly is defined as any art taking place since world war two).

Just to finish with the definitions, art is defined as arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions. Art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts or emotions. Another lovely definition is the 'materialisation of the imagination'. I found this article on the subject an interesting read. A question that came up in this article that I currently could not answer is 'what audience am I producing my art for?' Other than friends and family I could not answer that, but hope as the course progresses, I may have some more idea.

Another question comes to mind now and that is for photography to be considered art, does it require the same painstaking hours of preparation and staging to be considered art?

Moving on from the definitions which haven't really got to the bottom of what I am trying to understand. I think maybe the question I am wanting an answer for is when is a photograph an illustration and when is it fine art?  What is it in a photograph that differentiates it other than who pays for it. And leading on from that, how are they both judged, particularly with regards fine art? Is it the clarity or originality of the message, the execution of the image, the aesthetics, the 'shock' factor, the artists ability to visualise and 'see'?  I guess it is all these things but this isn't enough for me. I think I am going to purchase 'Criticising Photographs' by Terry Barrett to help understand the language a little better.

I'll be back!


  1. 'Criticising Photographs' by Terry Barrett looks interesting, I have popped it on my Amazon wish list.

  2. When I get it I'll let you know if it's any good.



  3. I've got it - it's really good for giving you a clear structure on which to base a critique, plus an understanding of the elements involved. It points out that there are many different types of critiques, and that some are more appropriate to some images than others. It's also very easy to read, unlike some of these books.....

    Penny, I'm also intrigued by the illustration v. fine art issue. I feel that illustration is often used in a pejorative way - almost as an insult sometimes - which seems unfair. I think it might be harder to come up with a good illustration, having to stick within the confines of the brief, than it is to just follow one's own inclinations. I also think there's probably an overlap; many book cover illustrations, for example, have used art that was originally created as 'fine art'.


  4. Thanks Gilly for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    I still haven't received the book, looking forward to reading it, although whether it'll clarify the difference between the two I don't know. It seems you have given this a lot of thought. Commercial art can sometimes be as thoughtful and thought-provoking and more communicative in its message than fine art. But as you say, it is viewed as the poor cousin. Mmm, the more I think I know, the less I understand!!