Illustration: The Marriage of Craft & Concept

In 1882, Vincent van Gogh spoke of acclaimed illustrator Howard Pyle in a letter to his brother Theo: “Do you know an American magazine called Harper’s Monthly? There are wonderful sketches in it… But there are things in it which strike me dumb with admiration, including… sketches of a Quaker town in the olden days by Howard Pyle.”[1] Only 75 years later, in 1957, photographer Wright Morris captured a very different attitude of the fine art world towards illustration, bemoaning the work of illustrator Norman Rockwell. Morris stated Rockwell’s calendar illustrations were “hopelessly nostalgic,” and concluded the new “backlash of abstract art” was in direct response to Rockwell’s “picture-perfect America.”[2]

Rockwell’s “Picture-Perfect America”… I dunno, seemed a lot better after the potato peeler was invented. “A Thankful Mother” Norman Rockwell, 1945
“Two With Any To #11” Richard Tuttle, 1997, quoted by PACE to be “one of the most significant artists working today,” partially because of his wizard-like ability to “draw beauty out of humble materials.”
“Pistil and Stamen” by illustration badass James Jean, 2017
Illustration by the punny Magoz
“Post-Traumatic Stress” Giovanni Da Re, 2014

The Split Between Fine Art and Illustration

Historically, all artists, with the exception of those who are self-funded, rely on selling their work for profit. Illustrators, designers, AND fine artists are commercial artists. However, in the Western world, Albrecht Dürer is commonly thought to be the first “truly commercial artist.”[5] Dürer hired agents to sell his work, employed his wife as his manager, and even took part in history’s first known case of plagiarism. Dürer was also in one of the first generations of artists to be able to use the most groundbreaking technology of the 15th century: the printing press. Many of Dürer’s engravings were reproduced in books, and his engravings were the most widely distributed type of his art, giving many people the ability to view his images.[6] (I imagine if he had been able to have an Instagram account, he would have many followers.)

“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by some illustrator named Albrecht Dürer, 1498
“The Suspension Bridge on the Border of Hida and Etchū Provinces” by some illustrator named Katsushika Hokusai, 1834. Too bad nothing ever came of his career, guess he should have decided to be an “artist” instead… oh wait HE’S TOTALLY FAMOUS.
“The Fountain” Marcel Duchamp, 1917
“Bottle Rack” Marcel Duchamp, 1914… no wonder he found playing chess to be more interesting.
“From the Canyons to the Stars” Joanna Malinowska, 2012
It’s a… well, it’s… well, it simply IS. “Component Object” Matt Hoyt, 2010

The Marriage of Craft and Concept

Canadian illustrator and artist Anita Kunz has helped resolder the split between fine art and illustration with her skill-driven narrative illustrations. Kunz’ illustrations are “sometimes more socially oriented and sometimes more politically oriented,” but always use narrative imagery to help communicate an idea or concept. Anita Kunz began the first 30 years of her career as a primarily editorial illustrator, although she “would never recommend for any artist to specialize like that these days!”[17] Kunz calls today “a golden age of narrative art” and now displays fine art in galleries that is often difficult to distinguish from her illustrative work.[18]

Pieta 1 & 2, Anita Kunz
“Clone” Anita Kunz
“Panther” Anita Kunz
“The Court of Donald I” Steve Brodner, 2017
“Gun Show” Steve Brodner, 2013
From “Blue Collar, White Collar” by Sterling Hundley
From “Blue Collar, White Collar” by Sterling Hundley
From “Blue Collar, White Collar” by Sterling Hundley
From “Blue Collar, White Collar” by Sterling Hundley
Luba Lukova, 2008
Luba Lukova, 2008
Luba Lukova, 2008
Luba Lukova 2008

Implications for Education

The popularity of deskilled art has serious implications for art education. Artist F. Scott Hess agrees that there is no other field where deskilling has been embraced as it has in the art world, in which he believes “traditional skills of the profession <are> systematically and often institutionally denigrated.”[25] Hess quotes the powerful recollections of many talented and renowned artists who had experiences in school in which they felt their wish to create representational painting was discouraged and even insulted. While in art school, after multiple failing grades creating realistic work, Graydon Parrish finally faked his way to an “A” by swirling white, red, and blue acrylic gesso into “oblivion” on a canvas, then incensed his teachers by revealing he had “faked it.”[26]

“Coi Burrus as Sappho” Graydon Parrish, 2010… Clearly an F!
God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of” Judy Bonzi, 2007… that title would never fit on craft fair signage.
“James Earl” Peter Zokosky, 2014


“Freedom from Fear” Norman Rockwell, 1943
“Southern Justice” Norman Rockwell, 1965
“Saying Grace” Norman Rockwell, 1951
“Golden Rule” Norman Rockwell, 1961
John Lewis Mural, Sean Schwab

Author’s Note:

After presenting this paper at the 2017 SECAC Convention in Columbus, Ohio, an attendee aptly noted that I had left out illustration made from craft and sculpture. My mistake! Illustration has so much variety of style and draws from so many art traditions that it can even be photographed sculpture. Here are just a couple of links to two phenomenal sculptural illustrators that I know personally: Megan Burkheiser & Jeff Hinchee.


Brazell, Derek and Jo Davies. Understanding Illustration. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.


[1] Moseley, Ann, John J. Murphy, and Robert Thacker, Willa Cather at the Modernist Crux (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

Illustrator : Assistant Professor of Art : ATLien @catamooreart

Illustrator : Assistant Professor of Art : ATLien @catamooreart