From Chisels to iPads: The Fascinating History of Book Illustration

Art and books have a long interconnected relationship, perhaps far longer than you realize. Read on to discover the history of illustrations.

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person drawing on an art board with two illustrated books one either side

Illustrations in books aren’t just for young bookworms or the purveyors of comics and manga. In fact, book illustrations have a long, illustrious history that has evolved and devolved, depending on how you look at it. From ancient scribes to modern digital artists, let’s dive into the artistic realm of literature and find out how it started and where it’s been since.

First Form of Shared Language and the Beginning of Literature (3400 BC – 3100 BC)

We usually think of books as handheld items with ink and paper ready to entertain the masses with the glorious words penned within. For the most part, you would be right. Books have also been scrolls, codices, and stone/clay tablets. The book has undoubtedly evolved much throughout civilized human history. The same could be said about illustrations. However, it’s important to note that the first language derived from our developed ancestors was that of cave drawings. Not quite the high fantasy tales being shared there; nevertheless, a tale was told to all who passed by.

Ancient clay tablet with Mesopotamian cuneiform

Since writing began, illustrations have been involved. Ancient stone tables often depicted a cuneiform language, a logo-esque script that told a story in depictions rather than a letter-based alphabet. Ancient Sumerians in the Bronze Age of Mesopotamia were the earliest users of this writing system that kick-started the genesis of the literary world.

Evolution and Separation of Text and Illustration

As writing evolved, from inventions of alphabets to tools and materials, so did the way illustration was incorporated. Cuneiform and hieroglyphics, the earliest languages of writing, were exchanged for letter-based typography with graphic drawings meant not just to enhance the story being told but to tell the tale simultaneously. Specialized scholars, monks, and scribes took great work and effort to pen scrolls and bound manuscripts by hand.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into stone.

Alongside the painstakingly slow process of handwriting several volumes came the task of adding the illustrations and embellishments. The texts were both practical for information and meant to be a work of art for the eye and soul to devour. Throughout the centuries, particularly prior to the late 21st century, the evolution of illustration techniques was slow, but so too was technological advancement.

From Crude Etchings to Glorious Colorful Drawings (3500 BC – 1800 AD)

Stone tablets provided little minute details other than the depths and widths a chisel made. Rarely were there colors added or genuine illustrations of people and events. Still, the stirrings of the written word established in Mesopotamia led to one of the most enduring and captivating forms of communication that will far outlive even the advanced technologies we have in the modern era.

Ancient Greece, an epicenter of advancement and civilization, is only one of a dozen historical cultures that share the breadth of what it means to add depictions to words. The Four Ages of Greek culture illustrate marked differences through the visual and technological usage of illustrations alone.

Ancient Greek Manuscript

Eastern languages were an art form in and of itself for ancient Chinese cultures, which still endures today. Writing was not a separate act from artistry nor wholly separate from the lyrical tilts of music. Calligraphy and detailed sketches were intermeshed on Chinese scrolls that worked together to enhance the audience’s experience.

Ancient Chinese calligraphy and illustrations

As time passed, the Western Middle Ages saw a distinct turn toward illuminated manuscripts painstakingly copied and illustrated by scribes. These manuscripts were rendered with quill and ink, the words cushioned by artful borders, and whole pages dedicated to colorful gold leaf-touched illustrations. As the Renaissance overtook the 15th century, it also influenced the written word via artful drawings, not only in the artistry depicted but in those commissioned to lead such an endeavor.

Middle Ages Illuminate Manuscript

Prior to this, the scribes who performed such work were members of religious sects dedicated to their worship. Scholars and universities became a source for adding imagery to books after Gutenberg’s printing press was invented in the 1400s. This opened an avenue for artists outside of religion to become an integral part of publication, leading to the partnerships we see today.

Modern Illustration – Hand Drawing and Technology Integration (1800 AD – Today)

Over the last century, technology has advanced faster than ever before. With it came a better sense of self-fulfillment in leisure activities that have become a favored pastime. What used to be a means of entertaining a mass party, reading is now done often in private and at the pace the individual reader sees fit to use. As such, more and more books are being mass-produced in a far more extensive array of genres than have ever been available.

Sketch from the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Books are no longer something only one of high status or income can enjoy. From tiny infants to those wisened by age, there are books available to enjoy. Each presents its own form of illustration. Many novels did away with any illustration outside the cover or dust jacket that accompanied their book. Recently, this has become less common as even minute details are added to chapter headings or section markers. Books are bringing back full-page illustrations to novels — something lost over time that was seen as useless and obstructing the message of the text. Thankfully, this idealism is slowly falling down a black hole.

Children’s books have seen the most marked changes in illustration as an art form and a technique. From hand-drawn designs to digital applications and the rise of the traditional over again, we’re at a precipice trying to figure out what’s best and not losing the fundamentals simultaneously. Applications like Canva and Adobe have made it easier for the writer to become an artist but have also advanced what lifelong sketchers and painters can do.

Tale of Brave and Brilliant Girls from the Greek Myths

Nevertheless, illustrated novels and children’s books are far more mass-produced and need a faster way of creating the incredible depictions artists fabricate. Digital tools have made this possible, bringing in a new age of book publication where far more subjects and people are represented with the pages they wish to read.

Illustrations have a long entangled history within the reading word, whether academic, religious, or simply for the pleasure of diving into a new world. The artists giving us the glorious renditions of characters and settings deserve praise for their hard work and effort in bringing us a visual dynamic to the written word.

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