What is illustration: types, styles and techniques

What is illustration: types, styles and techniques

Let’s finally sort it out: what is illustration, its types, styles, techniques, and how does an illustrator differ from a designer.
We will analyze concepts with vivid examples of illustrations in different styles. In attempts to deal with the illustration and its types, most likely, you have come across many thematic sources that give too narrow a concept. Similarly, training courses for illustrators offer a program to study one or a couple of styles.

Therefore, we decided to study in detail the concept of illustration, namely:

  • What is an illustration?
  • What is the difference between illustrator and designer
  • Types of Illustrations
    • Modern views
    • Traditional views
  • Illustration Styles

An illustration (visual image) is a drawing, photograph, engraving or other image explaining the text.  A modern illustration can be independent, and even become an idea for writing text. But designers also create graphic projects that explain anything.

Then what is the difference between
“illustrator” and “designer”?

Everything is simple.


creates drawings, images. They will be used as one of the design elements of the product. Individual illustrations are often found in books, magazines, blogs, etc.


uses ready-made illustrations, combining them with other elements: typography, photos, images. The designer creates compositions, conveys the idea, the concept of the product.

In today’s competitive world, concepts are starting to unite. Designers learn to draw, illustrators learn how to style.

Types of Illustrations

Depending on the technique, all illustrations can be divided into 2 types:

  • Traditional
  • Modern.

Over time, the art world has developed rapidly, offering artists new materials and techniques. Traditional species are gradually losing their popularity. Digital painting techniques make artist projects more mobile and offer a huge selection of tools. The modern type not only displays new formats (3D, color correction, layers, etc.), but also seeks to thoroughly imitate natural materials.

Modern types of illustrations

In 1888, the first opportunity appeared to create a digital copy of hand-painted. Since then, technology has greatly improved, making the digital drawing process semi-automatic. Graphic editors offer ready-made brushes, different textures, a wide palette and unlimited possibilities to the illustrator.

All digital illustrations can be divided into 2 types.


Freehand digital illustration

Drawing on a graphic tablet allows you to make smooth transitions and contours, in contrast to the second type – vector graphics. So illustrators can create a complex background and add small details to the picture.

Typically, digital freehand illustrations are in raster format . Therefore, they can be increased without loss of quality only to a certain size. But illustrators love this method for its resemblance to traditional drawing and its wide possibilities.

Watch the short tutorial “How to start drawing on a graphics tablet?”. Graphical editor Paint Tool Sai 2.


Vector graphics

Vector illustrations have one big advantage – they can be scaled to any size without losing any quality. Images are created in graphic editors with a wide range of tools. This is the most popular illustration format for the web.

Vector illustrations usually have clear contours and vibrant colors. Therefore, among illustrators, brushes that imitate natural materials are in special demand.

Watch the newbie tutorial on how to draw a game’s vector character using Adobe Illustrator. Quick drawing lesson.

Traditional types of illustrations

The age of traditional techniques is measured in thousands of years. Although illustrations, as a concept, began to be used much later.

There are 10 main traditional types.



An ancient painting technique to get a texture pattern on a tree. With the help of such illustrations, books with a durable cover were designed in the Middle Ages. Moreover, wood engraving was used to print a picture on paper. Then the books received illustrations also on the pages.

Typically, such images have a strong contrast between the elements. Although in this form, more than 2-3 colors are rarely used. Despite their age, rough touches of woodcuts find their connoisseurs today.


Metal engraving

Today, metal engraving has found its printed application – etching technique. Instead of presenting designs on metal products, artists use a print technique. So one drawing from a metal plate can be transferred to a large number of paper media. But this requires a special technology.

A copper, steel, or zinc plate is coated with an acid resistant wax composition. Then the artist cuts the lines from the frozen mixture, forming a drawing. A plate with a pattern is immersed in acid, where exposed areas of the metal undergo a chemical reaction. After removing the waxy composition, the plate will have a relief pattern. The artist applies the paint in a continuous layer, and then erases it from the surface, leaving the colors in the recesses of the metal.

Depending on the technique, metal engravings can have a radically different style. Watch a short tutorial on creating etchings from the print studio of New Print Studio in St. Petersburg.


Pencil drawing (sketch)

As you can see in the examples above, pencil drawing can have different meanings. A simple sketch can act as a sketch, a sketch for further design illustrations. A monochrome or color sketch can also serve as a finished illustration.

A pencil is a rich tool. An artist can change the thickness of lines, color intensity and other sketch elements. Shadows and transitions will add dynamics to the picture and create a three-dimensional object.

To start drawing with a pencil, it is important to master the basic techniques or styles. Watch the basic pencil lesson from DrawFox Online School. Learn the types of hatching, what is a stretch and how to draw a three-dimensional object.


Charcoal drawing

Charcoal drawing also has ancient origins. Today, artists prefer to use fusen – comfortable charcoal sticks. The technique allows you to create simple sketches and complex illustrations with texture, shadows.

Unlike a pencil, charcoal leaves a rougher mark, with a softer and darker color. The properties of coal depend on the method of its production. Charcoal can draw thin lines for sketches or carry out three-dimensional toning, as in the examples above.

On the Adill’s Life channel, we found a fascinating video on charcoal sketching. The author of the video uses a different texture, thickness, tonality and color of charcoal sticks.



Lithography is a printing method using a stone with a smooth surface. Once upon a time, oil, wax or other coloring material was applied to a limestone slab. Today, offset lithography is used, which helps to quickly print large volumes of illustrations for magazines, books.

In the examples above, you could notice one tendency: all illustrations have a soft color. The contours may be slightly blurry, and the picture itself is pale. Offset lithography allows you to print clear and detailed images.

See the process of creating tri-color lithography by the traditional method from the Center for Graphic Art.


Watercolor illustration

One of the most popular types of painting is watercolor. These are soft illustrations with great depth. Favorite kind of illustrations for children’s and women’s books. Watercolor gives the artist the opportunity to use colors merging with each other on canvas.

The main advantage of watercolor is the fine adjustment of transparency. The first example shows how paint can change its intensity. This opens up great opportunities for the illustrator to apply shadows and volume, as in the last example.

Watch the express lesson in watercolor painting “Wave” from the Artist Online school. Learn how to draw a sea sketch using a minimal color palette.


Gouache illustrations

Gouache is similar to watercolor, but more dense. It provides the artist with dark shades and rough strokes. Transparency is hard to achieve. Most often, such illustrations were used in posters, comics, and magazines.

Animations were also created using gouache. The background could be watercolor. Such animated painting is found today. The advantage of gouache is also that its layers dry quickly.

Fast drying of the paint allows you to create masterpieces in a matter of minutes. Watch the video and learn how to paint a landscape with gouache in 20 minutes.


Acrylic paints

Acrylic paints are the best tool for an aspiring artist. These are even more dense and coarse strokes. Gouache or watercolor is much more difficult to draw, although acrylic is difficult to create transparency. You can use acrylic paint on any surface.

Acrylic allows you to create texture illustrations with a small relief. Thick drops quickly freeze on the canvas, becoming waterproof. Modern acrylic paints can include fluorescent, metallic and other unusual components.

We offer you to watch a master class in acrylic painting from the artist Lilia Stepanova. 89 minutes of video will talk about all aspects of acrylic painting.



Collage is a technique of “gluing” different graphic elements to create a single illustration. They can be flat or with overlapping elements, which creates a 3D effect. Graphic elements can be of various shapes, textures and materials.

The technique is mainly used in creating postcards, advertising and art projects. Recently, natural materials are becoming more popular in creating collages. Also, the technique gives the illustrator the opportunity to surprise the viewer with the materials used, as in the last example.

Get to know the techniques for creating collages in the video above. Bratec Lis School with the participation of Julie Van Wazemael.


Ink illustration

The use of pen and ink is a well-known technique. Using only one color, illustrators create complex paintings with volume, shadow and different textures. Ink illustrations also have strong contrasts, like woodcuts.

You can draw clear, thin lines with ink, and you can paint over elements with a light translucent tone. A novice ink illustrator will find it difficult to work with transitions and gradients. Today, the most popular technique is the use of thin strokes with different indentation and intensity.

See 5 helpful pen and ink drawing tips. The author of the video is Violetta, an illustrator, collaborating with Nickelodeon.

Illustration Styles

Depending on where the illustration will be used, it can be attributed to a particular genre. There are a large number of such genres (or styles).

Consider the 7 most popular styles for today.


Concept art

These are illustrations for games, animation, fantasy and other similar projects. This style of illustration first appeared in the 1930s by Disney. Used to illustrate specific objects: character, car, product. The essence of concept art is that the artist provides the client with several interpretations (concepts) of the object. So the client can influence the process of creating the finish illustration.


Children’s books

Illustrations for children’s books have never lost their popularity. For children’s perception, colorful, simplified stories are best suited. In such books, both traditional and modern methods of drawing are found. Illustrations can have a realistic look, or be caricatured, depending on the plot of the book, the age of the reader, etc.



Illustrators can work in the genre of comics and graphic stories. A collage of pictures with text accompaniment conveys a long, dynamic plot. Sometimes a client needs one illustration capable of conveying an action, as in the first example. Most often, illustrations are created in a caricature, cartoon style.


Book cover

To highlight the book among thousands of others, the authors use a catchy cover. For this, any illustration technique may be used, with further print format. Working with such a style is quite difficult, because cover illustrations should convey the mood and overall concept of the book.



The most competitive style for illustrator is advertising. Images should already perform more functions: to draw the attention of the viewer, convey the idea of ​​a product and force them to buy a product. More and more companies are choosing to use illustrations instead of photos to create posters. As for the techniques, the illustrator’s imagination is limited only by the client.



How to make the buyer see only one product on a long shelf in the store? Design for him a spectacular, colorful package! Increasingly, illustrations are used in packaging design, especially animals, plants, and caricatures. The most popular illustrations in the design of packaging: food, cosmetics, baby products, stationery, etc.


Branding / Logo

One of the most difficult styles is branding and logo. Illustration of the logo should be remembered, stand out among others and read well in miniature. This is usually a simple drawing. Illustrations are also used in branding: business cards, brand book, booklets, advertising, etc. In this case, they must exactly correspond to the brand concept and maintain a single style.


As you already understood, an illustration is a drawing for any purpose. To create it, you can use different techniques and techniques. Some illustrators specialize in a particular drawing style, while others may work with different projects.

Today, to become a digital artist, it is not necessary to be able to draw beautifully by hand. The main thing is the possession of tools of graphic editors and a sense of beauty