Commercial and artistic markets are constantly employing the skills of illustrators throughout the design process. If you are a keen visual artist, the role of an illustrator can be a very creative and fulfilling career path. But taking the leap from turning your passions into a profession can be overwhelming at first. We take a look at the role of an illustrator and 15 different types of digital illustration to help you refine your area of interest.
As an illustrator, you will develop your own style and aim to specialize in the genres that interest you most, however, you will likely need to work on other types of illustration (especially when starting out), so it's best to be familiar with them all.
15 different types of illustration
Let’s look at the varying styles of illustration an illustrator may produce throughout their career:
Anime-style illustration by CG Spectrum student Georgia Pederson
Originating in Japan in the early 1900s, anime is a highly stylized type of illustration usually published in comic book and graphic novel form. Expressed in either 2D or 3D art, it is stylistically more romantic than western cartoons, employing elegant long lines and intricate details. Anime is primarily aimed at adults, more sophisticated in its storylines and expression of emotions.
Anime is instantly recognizable through a series of visual tropes, particularly in their character design, including large expressive eyes; articulated, gravity-defying hairstyles; emotive mouths that are either small and demure or large and evocative; and exaggerated physical proportions of body shape, with males impossibly muscly and females hyper-feminine, lithe and doe-eyed.
Caricature is an illustration style that employs the exaggeration of physical features in its subjects for comical or satirical effect. Typically drawn as figures with large heads and small bodies, the targets of caricature are usually public figures, politicians, and those in authority. The spirit of the depiction is to mock, mimic or lampoon the personality.
The art of the caricature is to capture key physical features and distort them while still making the subject matter instantly recognizable. These days the device is mainly used for political satire because of its effectiveness as a form of biting commentary.
Cartoons and comics express storylines via a series or strip of images, usually accompanied by simple dialogue or captions. Therefore the authors can be a combination of a writer and a comic illustrator. The difference between the two is that a cartoon can exist as a single illustration, whereas comics can come in short panel form or extend to graphic novels.
Many editorial cartoons that appear in daily publications can be topical or political in nature. The style of cartoons or comics can vary in the spectrum from non-realistic to semi-realistic. They can be used in communications or education to express an idea in a simple visual way that is easy to understand. Traditionally, they are used for entertainment and comic effect, as well as for editorial commentary.
The imagery used by advertisers to sell products and services is called commercial art. Creatives at advertising agencies and graphic design studios produce the concepts for an ad which is then pitched to the client.
Once the artwork is signed off, it is up to the illustrator to create the final graphics that will be used in various media whether it be print, television, web, phone, etc., and will often also determine the format of the illustration (vector, jpg, etc.).
When it comes to creating commercial art, this form of illustration can leave little room for creativity as it responds to a brief from the client, however, some of the most innovative illustrations can be developed.
5. Concept Art
Concept art captures the defining characteristics of design and sets the visual style of a project (whether it be film, video games, animation, advertisements, comics, or graphic novels). During the course of production, concept art will be developed and refined with input from producers, developers, and clients until the final design is signed off.
Concept art is the idea of what the character, environment, or prop might look like. Illustration is when you put all of those elements into one image to tell a story. There is a lot of overlap, but the two are quite different.
For example, concept art could what a Marvel hero’s costume or weapon looks like from a few key angles. An illustration is the next stage: combining a hero and a villain in a scene, a single image, to tell a story.
Fantasy art imagines original creatures and unique worlds with unlimited possibilities. The genre is popular in gaming, graphic novels, and comics but is also effective in animation, illustration, and film. These illustrations are highly imaginative as they require world-building techniques and unique artwork.
The history of fantasy art is based on mythology, employing mythological tropes such as creatures, warriors, maidens, and heroes. It can, however, explore the surreal, supernatural, abstract, and sci-fi in equal measure, using a pastiche of styles limited only by the imagination of its creators.
Illustration by CG Spectrum student Amy Burt
7. Fashion art
Illustrations of fashion art articulate the design of and aesthetics of clothing, shoes, and accessories of a fashion designer. These are illustrations that communicate the ideas of a designer’s collection. Usually starting as sketches that act as conceptual representations of garments and looks within a collection, they are refined to articulate intricate details of an outfit.
Fashion illustrators need to have a keen knowledge of the human form and how clothing and outfits fit the body. Renderings of fabric may be used in fashion artwork to demonstrate how it drapes and falls, so an understanding of how cloth behaves is also required.
8. Fine art
Fine art is categorized as the highest form of decorative or applied art that is created for the purpose of pure enjoyment and meaningfulness (as opposed to creating art for a client brief). It is expressed in painting, sculpture, architecture, furniture, pottery, metalwork, etc. A part of the Western tradition, it represents a purity of discipline in aesthetic pleasure through the visual arts and crafts.
In its modern iterations, fine art has come to include film, photography, design, and conceptual art.
Illustration by CG Spectrum student Ismar Suchov
9. Line art
As the name suggests line art is a type of illustration using rudimentary lines, shapes, and colors that are generally free of complex backgrounds. This style of illustration concentrates on form rather than intricate details such as gradients, shadows, and hues. Although it can be two or three-dimensional, line art articulates the fundamental element of the outline without fleshing out the drawing.
Line art can be used for concept drawings or preliminary sketches which can be the final artwork or will be later developed into fully realized designs. The elements of line art are direction, curves, weight, and quality of line, hatching (lines in the same direction), and crosshatching (lines that cross). These simplistic strokes as used skillfully by the illustrator to deliver strong images to communicate visually. Logo art, commonly used in graphic design, is often delivered with line drawings to create impact and have simple memorability.
Simple black and white line drawing, a form of illustration used by Picasso
10. Mixed media
Mixed-media illustrations use a combination of different materials to express an image. In analog images, these could include fabric, paint, paper, wood, metal, flowers, found objects, etc. In digital images, these may include non-visual elements such as sound, moving imagery, music, or interactivity.
Collage is a popular example of mixed media art, using materials such as photography, magazine clippings, ribbons, etc to create visual montages. Decoupage is this process adopted to cover objects such as furniture which is then finished with a lacquer. Assemblage is the three-dimensional version of collage arranging objects to create a whole. Art installations are also a variant of the form, ordering objects in a display to create new meaning from the whole.
Sci-fi book cover illustration by CG Spectrum student Jessica Geis
11. Book illustrator
Book illustrators and book cover illustrators perform important roles in the publishing industry. Most popular in children's literature, book illustration is an accompaniment and enhancement of the text. This also includes the illustration of book cover art for all kinds of literature. Usually highly expressive, book illustration helps to bring a story to life and allows for free creativity and vivid imagination.
Picture book illustrators and those who only illustrate book covers can work closely with authors and will sometimes develop close relationships with them over a number of titles or book series. This form of illustration is especially reliant on artwork as children react strongly to visuals before they learn to read.
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, a 2020 Chesley Award-winning book cover by Eric Wilkerson
12. Pixel art
Pixel art is exclusively a digital form. It is created using software that uses pixels which are small squares assembled to produce images. These pixels are only seen by the naked eye when magnified to expose a mosaic of gradients that make up a bigger picture. Illustrators using pixel art rarely create at this micro-level but use the platforms that employ this technology.
Expressed in a two-dimensional format, pixel art is used for digital graphics, animation, visual effects, and video games. By its very nature, this art form is best displayed at a higher resolution, with lower resolutions revealing the pixel building blocks upon which it is based.
Realism is a style of illustration that is as close to reality as possible. Whether it is the recreation of characters, objects, or landscapes these images focus on representing the real world in acute detail. Photorealism is a further iteration of realism where an illustration reproduces the look of a photograph.
The style of an illustrator is based on how they distort and represent realism. In realist art, style is not expressed in exaggeration but in how the realistic depiction is represented in subject matter, composition, lighting, and focus. It is a style that is used in book cover art, fine art, film plates, landscape painting, advertising, etc. The skills of realism can be employed to enhance other formats such as photography, animation, special effects, etc.
Retro illustration refers to recreating styles from the recent past. Referring to the term ‘retrospective,' it literally means to look back. The style is highly nostalgic, focusing on fashion, advertisements, poster art, and pop art from the 1940s and 1950s. This style was bold in its graphics, using strong colors, it represented fashion, lifestyle, and social settings.
Modern interpretations of retro art can be ironic in subject matter, highlighting how society has changed since the times represented. The uses of Retro art tend to be commercial in nature, employed in advertising, retail, product artwork, etc.
15. Vector artwork
Vector artwork is created using vector graphics which are made with computer software such as Adobe Photoshop. It employs points, lines, shapes, and curves to produce images within a digital platform. Unlike pixel art, vector art maintains its quality in low resolution and can be resized and manipulated with minimal loss of quality. Because of its robust nature vector art is popular in online graphics, typography, large-scale printing, computer graphics, video games (as a game illustrator), graphic design, 3D animation, etc. It is popular because of its adaptability and is used commercially in a variety of formats.
How to become a digital illustrator
In order to become a digital illustrator, you have to put in the pencil (or stylus!) mileage. There are plenty of free digital art programs you can download such as Gimp, Krita, and Sketchpad that will allow you to start practicing the basics and get used to working on a computer, and gaining an understand of the stages of digital illustration.
For more details, watch CG Spectrum's info session on how to become a professional digital illustrator, and what a typical day looks like with award-winning illustrators Eric Wilkerson & Tyler James.
Taking a digital art course taught by professional concept artists and illustrators is also an excellent way to learn the tools and techniques of a digital illustrator. At CG Spectrum, students learn directly from industry professionals with years of digital illustration experience 1-on-1 or in small class sizes (max. 4 students). The 9-month courses also dedicate time to building your portfolio with additional career services available to ensure hit the ground running as a digital illustrator in the film, games, and publishing industry.
Your career as an illustrator starts here!
CG Spectrum's digital illustration courses will take your skills to the next level and start you on your career path. Led by Eric Wilkerson who has worked as an illustrator for Disney Publishing, Scholastic, Random House, and Weta Workshop, you will learn the history of illustration and painting; more about the different types of illustration; how to deliver your artwork to industry standards; and build a unique, professional portfolio that will get you noticed in the competitive job market.