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The Book As Artifact: Illustration

diagramAn illustration is a drawing, diagram, map, schematic, or other graphic image printed or inserted into a book. While illustrations can simply be used as embellishments, they may also play an integral role in entertaining, informing, or instructing readers.

Many how-to books, medical references, and science works would be difficult to understand without the use of illustrations. Practical books such as those on gardening, drawing, or crafts require detailed visuals, while art books and children's work rely on interest and beauty.

A New Orchard of Garden... is a great example of the importance book illustration. Originally published in 1626 by Francis Williams, it contains diagrams to laying out gardens.

The image on the right shows a diagram from A New Orchard of Garden... .

Overview of Book Illustration History

woodcutIn the time of incunables, only about one edition in ten contained illustrations, woodcuts, or metalcuts. In Italian Book Illustrations, Chiefly of the Fifteenth Century, Pollard (1894) describes the development of printed book illustrations in Italy. He notes that the first books contained decorations but few illustrations. However this quickly changed.

In Early Illustrated Books: A History of the Decoration and Illustration of Books in the 15th and 16th Centuries, book historian Alfred Pollard states that early printed illustrations were of high quality. Pollard (1893) explained that "the early printers were compelled to make the very utmost of their new art in order to justify its right to exist."

One of the first incunable with illustrations was written by Ulrich Boner and titled Der Edelstein. It was printed by Albrecht Pfister of Bamberg in 1461 (shown on the left).

Because wood block illustrations were time consuming to produce, the blocks were often reused many times. In some cases, they would be used in very different types of publications. Sometimes the images didn't even match the book, they were simply used for visual effect. By the late 16th century, engraving was replacing wood block printing.

In the 17th century less book ornamentation was used, however quality engravings being used. By the 18th century, illustrators were experimenting with a variety of engraving techniques.

The 19th century brought an explosion of illustrations both low and high quality. New techniques like photography were being applied.

usgsIn the late 19th and early 20th century, many government agencies began generated detailed, illustrated reports. In The Preparation of Illustrations for Reports for the United States Geological Survey, John Ridgway (1920, 7-8) explained the process of illustrating these reports. He states

"The effectiveness of illustrations does not depend entirely on good drawings nor on good reproduction; it may be due in large part to the inherent character of the rough material submitted.. an illustration in a report of the Geological Survey is no merely a picture having a remote bearing on the subject matter of the report; it must represent or explain something discussed or methioned in order to become an illustration in the true sense of the term."

The image on the right shows the many ways illustrations are inserted into USGS documents in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The use of illustrations in novels declined in the 20th century. However illustrations continued to be used in books for young children through the 21st century.

In the late 20st century, the graphic novel became popular. These fully illustrated books continue to be popular today.

In 1896, Walter Crane's Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New was published. This book provides a comprehensive history of book illustration through the 19th century. His purpose was to examine what he termed "book-ornaments" examining the line between purely graphic aims and ornamental aims. Crane suggested that the history can be divided in four periods including the evolution of book illustration, the transition phase, decline of decoration, and a modern revival.

Read Goldman, Paul (2013). The History of Illustration and its Technologies. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.

try itTry It!
Skim Walter Crane's Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (1896). Examine each of the four phases described Crane. Select a representative illustration from his book for each of these four periods. How did you make your selections? What techniques were used to create these works?

Many books about book illustration were published at the turn of the 19th century. Explore a few examples:


bordersAn ornament is an embellishment used as a decoration in a book. Ornamentation may be added to a book cover, title page, or body pages. In early works, the illustrations including were draw and/or colored after the pages were printed.

Originally most ornamentation was created using woodcuts. However, some type designers created elegant visual designs using types. Flowers, leaves, and other ornaments could be combined to create interesting designs.

The image on the left shows the wide range of type options shown in A Brief Survey of Printing by Stanley Morison and Holbrook Jackson (1923).

The use of ornamentation became less fashionable from the late 18th century through the mid 19th century. The use of ornaments was revived in the mid 19th century.

Borders are a popular type of ornamentation. They generally involve running an image or series of image along the outer edge of a page. Scholars have differing opinions on the purpose of borders. According to Morison and Jackson (1923, 72),

"borders play two main parts: the first to frame a page of plain or decorated type as you would frame a picture, and the second to give an added distinction to a special panel of type or to separate and advertisement from the surrounding typography. Every border should add to the distinction of expression of the typography. It should at one and the same time, stand apart from and belong to the type. Any border which does more or less than this is a mistake. Some borders are so emphatic as to detract from the message of the printed words; others are so weak as to be negligible."

Some authors use borders as an integral story element. Jan Brett (1949-) uses borders in the illustrations of her children's book to preview and review elements of a story.

try itTry It!
Go to 3 Little Dassies by Jan Brett.
Although this preview only shows a few pages from the book, you can see how she uses borders on the left and side sides of the page to explore elements of the story.

Russian illustrator Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (1876-1942) was known for his use of borders in illustration particularly of Russian fairy tales.

Browse the illustrations in Mar'ia Morevna (1901) and Skazka ob Ivanie-tsarevichle... by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin. Zoom in to explore the use of borders.
For more examples, explore in the English translation of Russian Wonder Tales by Post Wheeler (1917). Notice that the title page states "Containing twelve of the famous Bilibin Illustrations in Colour."

The image below by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin shows Koschei the Deathless from Marya Morevna (1900).



Relief Prints

Most illustrations in early printed books were created using relief techniques. To produce relief prints, areas of a material such as blocks of wood or metal are cut away to leave an image on the surface. The protruding areas of the block known as a matrix are inked and printed.

Wood block printing. Generally, an illustrator uses a knife or other device to cut into a medium to soft wood. The gouges are made with the grain. The printed product seen as dark lines on a light background.

Beginning in the 8th century, wood blocks became popular for printing. Although the first presses began churning out books in the mid-15th century, wood cut printing were still being used for both illustrations and text. While wood block illustrations continued to be used for centuries, typesetting replaced wood block text.

During the 16th century, woodcut illustrations techniques continued to be refined. For instance, the chiaroscuro woodcut was created using two or more wood blocks. Different tonal values were achieved by using the line block for contours and crosshatching. The, using additional blocks for neutral or background colors.

Browse the video Woodcut Printing 1450-1520 to learn more about how wood blocks were used.

According to Lommen (2012, 50),

"the woodcut illustrations (in the book Fasciculus Medicinae, 1495, shown below left) consist of contours only; that is to say, thin lines, without any of the usual hatching. The 'white' style probably came into fashion in around 1480. Printing these woodcuts presented difficulties. The paper was pushed onto the woodblocks with enormous amounts of pressure, and the thin ridges could easily break off if the press had not been adjusted carefully."


Theuerdank published in 1517 contains extra-ordinary woodcuts. The image above right shows an example.

Wood engraving involves using a tool called a burin or graver to cut into hardwood. The wood is cut across the grain of the block. The finished print is seen as light lines with a dark background.

The first known book with engraved illustrations was Geographia originally written by Ptolemy. Printed around 1478 in Rome, the book contained many maps.

theodore de bryEngravings began to regularly appear in books in the 16th century gradually replacing woodcuts.

Christopher Plantin, a famous Antwerp printer began using engraved title pages in the 1560s. For instance, the English Bishop's Bible appeared with an engraved frontispiece.

In the late 16th century, Theodor de Bry also used engravings. Many of his books contained hand-colored illustrations (see the image on the left from A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia).

During the 17th century, engravings were the predominant form of book illustration.

William Faithorne (1616-1691) was was a well-known portrait engraver creating many frontispieces in the 17th century. Wenceslaus Hollar is another well-known etcher who illustrated books during this time period. Jan Luyken is known for his copper etchings for Martyrs Mirrors. A number of French engravers were also well-respected including François Chauveau who was known for illustrating fables in books by La Fontaine (image show below).


Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) was known as the "father of modern wood engraving." He used a burin instead of a knife and tried new technique with wood. Bewick pioneered the white line tonal effect. He became known for his small works. Englishman Bewick was also an ornithologist.

Bewick is particularly known for his illustrated Aesop's Fables (1776) (see image below right) and the History of British Birds (1797, 1804) (see image below left).

birdfables by Bewick

Wood engraving experienced a renaissance during the mid 1800s. William Pickering revived early woodcut decorations. In the 1840s, Whittingham brought back strips and ornaments to works.

horseAlexander Anderson (1775-1870) was an American illustrator sometimes called the father of American engraving. He began working with copperplate engraving and switched to wood engraving after seeing the work of contemporary Thomas Bewick.

His first work was published in 1794 in Arnaud Bernaud's The Looking Glass of the Mind.

The introduction of faster, cheaper printing led to the need for more content. Many classics were being republished and their was a need to illustrate those works.

To learn more about the wood engraving, explore History of Wood Engraving.

Intaglio Prints

With intaglio printing involves incising an image on a surface. The opposite of relief printing, the image is sunken into a copper or zinc plate using acid. Techniques such as etching, engraving, and aquatint use this technique. Ink is wiped or dabbed into the plate's grooves. Excess ink is removed. Paper is placed on the plate and a heavy roller moves across the paper to transfer the ink to the paper.

This technique was developed in the 15th century.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was a painter, printer, mathematician and well-known intaglio artist.

The poupée printing technique was a technique used to make intaglio prints. The ink was carefully applied using the fingertip wrapped in cloth. This allowed several colors on the same plate.

Hand coloring was often use for books on natural history or botany. The book would be printed in black, then hand colored.

William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Known for his unique approaches to book illustration, he wanted to retain the beauty of earlier "illuminated manuscript" working in both color and black and white printing.

Books like Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789-94) (image shown below left) were produced through a process of relief etching and printed on a hand-press. Much of the color was added after printing. In 1795 Blake published The Book of Los using intaglio etchings (image shown below right).


rosaDuring this time, scientific illustrators were experimenting with other approaches to color illustration.

Pierre-Joseph Redoute (1759-1840) used stipple engravings. Redoute was known for his outstanding botanical illustrations (see image on right). According to Lommen (2012, 228),

"stipple engravings, which are built up from small cavities in the copperplate, allow for inking with different colours without adjacent colours blending during a print run. The stipple also gives the image a lightness and faithfulness that line engravings cannot match."

In the mid 17th century, Jan van de Velde invented the aquatint technique. Aquatint is a type of intaglio printing. Rather than being etched, the artist makes marks on a copper or zinc plate that can hold ink. Acid is used to make the marks. Because rosin is acid resistant, powered rosin is used to create a tonal effect.

Edward Lear (1812-1888) was an English author and illustrator. He used the aquatint technique to produce color lithographs for the London Zoo in a book titled Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae or Parrot (shown below left). Lear's best known illustrations were published in his books of nonsense including A Book of Nonsense published in 1846.


Engraver Robert Havell used aquatint for John James Audubon's Birds of America (1826-38) (shown above right).

Mezzotint is a similar tonal technique to aquatint using smoothed or roughened areas of a plate.

It was invented by Ludwig von Siegen (1609-1680) in 1642. Until the invention of photography, it was the best approach for reproducing paintings.


Planographic Prints

Unlike relief and intaglio prints, planographic printing creates a print from a flat surface.

lithographyThe printing process of lithography was invented by German Johann Alois Senefeder (1771-1834) in 1796. Unable to afford printing of his new play, Senefelder experimented with novel etching techniques.

Unlike earlier relief and intaglio processes, he used a chemical process to create an image on a smooth surface. This planographic process was based on the use of grease and water. Grease was applied to stone. When the stone is wet, printer's ink was applied to the surface of the stone with a roller. The paper was then placed on the stone under pressure to create the impression. The print is called a lithograph. This ultimately became this first planographic process in printing. First termed stone printing or chemical printing, the French term lithography became widely used.

The main disadvantage of lithography for book production was that two runs were needed in the press. One press was used for the illustrations and another for the letterpress text set in metal type. In most cases, the lithographs were cut and inserted as plates into the printed book.

Senefelder gained patent rights and published A Complete Course of Lithography as a practical guide to his techniques.

The problem with both relief and lithography is that the resulting print is a mirror image of the matrix. This must be taken into consideration when the subject involves text.

The image on the right is a lithograph showing Alois Senefeder from Specimens of Polyautography.

In 1801, lithography was introduced in England. In 1833, Charles Joseph Hullmandel (1789-1850) published The Art of Drawing on Stone. This book explained techniques useful to artists particularly in the area of topography.


In the first half of the 19th century, Romanticism took hold in book illustration. In France, this began with Johann Goethe's Faust with lithographs by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) published in 1828 (image shown below left). The French artist was an expert lithographer who also illustrated works by Shakespeare. Delacroix printed his own illustrations that were then bound with the text.


In the 1820s some illustrators began using steel engraving. Invented independently by Charles Heath (1785-1848) in England and Jacob Perkins (1766-1849) in America, the men collaborated in 1818 and was used on books for the first time in Thomas Campbell's The Pleasures of Hope.

shotterChromolithography became a popular color printing method in the 19th century. Introduced in the 1830s but gaining widespread use in the 1860s, the technique was the same as lithography. The color was achieved by creating a separate stone for each color. To achieve the desirable effect, the printer had to keep the image register each time the paper went through the press.

Thomas Shotter Boys (1803-1874) was an English lithographer. In 1839, his important work Picturesque Architecture in Paris, Ghent, Antwerp, Rouen (image shown on right) included color lithographs and was described as the first successful effort to use chromolithography.

As drawing and printing techniques were enhanced, printers were able to achieve tints and tonal shades. This type of color printing was used until inexpensive photographic processes were introduced in the late 19th century.

Some highly illustrated books such as those showing George Catlin's work use chromolithography.

The image below comes from Catlin's North American Indian portfolio.


During this period professional etchers were in high demand. In England, demand in toy books and gift books for children encouraged printers to experiment with color printing. Illustrators like Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway were popular.

To learn more about illustrators and illustration of this time period, skim Pennell, Joseph (1895). Modern Illustration.


abbey Photography was the most important discovery of the 19th century for book production. For the first time, an artist wasn't necessary to capture an image. Although the process was invented in the 1830s, it wasn't until the 1860 that it became possible to reproduce photographic images on a large scale.

According to Lommen (2012, 235), photographic printing processes evolved quickly including photolithography (1885), collotype (1868), process engraving (1870), photogravure (1879), and half-tone block (1882).

The introduction of photography to book publishing brought dramatic changes in book illustration.

In 1837, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre invented the first commercially successful photographic method. The daguerreotype created a positive image on a silvered copper plate. However this process didn't allow for duplications so it wasn't practical for the production of books.

The Pencil of Nature (1844) by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) is thought to be the first book to incorporate photographs. Talbot's calotype approach used a paper process to produce a negative that could then be used to produce a positive. This approach allowed multiple images to be made from a single negative.

The image on the right shows a photograph from The Pencil of Nature (1844).

Talbot's dramatic introductory remarks reflect the awe felt by many of this new technology.

"It may suffice, then to say, that the plates of this work have been obtained by the mere action of Light upon sensitive paper. They have been formed or depicted by optical and chemical means alone, and without the aid of any one acquainted with the art of drawing." (Talbot, 1844, 1)

In 1950, Mathew Brady published The Gallery of Illustrious Americans. The book was comprised of lithographs made from daguerreotypes.

Frenchman Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard invented the albumen silver print in 1850. The system produced photographic paper from a negative using egg whites. In the United States, E. & H. T. Anthony & Company became the largest distributor albumen supplies. Well-known photographer Mathew Brady had had a business relationship with this company.

In 1887, English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) published Animal Locomotion (image shown below). The book used multiple cameras to capture motion in stop-action photographs.



At first, the cost printing photographs was prohibitive for most publishers. The hand process was labor intensive. However by the late 19th century, photomechanical processes dramatically reduced the cost of production.

Identifying Illustration Techniques

The advantage of examining the original book rather than the digital reproduction is that you can feel the paper and look for indentations and other features that are difficult to see in a digital reproduction. On the other hand, a digital reproduction can be useful because in many cases it can be view close-up by zooming into an illustration to view it closer than is possible with a standard magnifying glass.

Read Woodcut, engraving, or what? by Erin Blake. This short web article discusses some of the things to look for in verifying the printmaking techniques used. Spend one time examining the illustrations in a book, closeup. What technique was used?

tryitTry It!
Work your way through the Guided Tour of the Graphics Atlas project. Explore the wide range of illustration types. Use the online tool to make comparisons. Is this fun or what?


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Goldman, Paul (2013). The History of Illustration and its Technologies. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press.

Lommen, Mathieu (ed.) (2012). The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Thames & Hudson.

Morison, Stanley & Jackson, Holbrook (1923). A Brief Survey of Printing: History and Practice. Alfred A. Knopf. Available:

Pennell, Joseph (1895). Modern Illustration. G. Bell. Available:

Pollard, Alfred (1893). Early Illustrated Books: A History of the Decoration and Illustration of Books in the 15th and 16th Centuries. K. Paul, Trench, Trubener. Available:

Pollard, Alfred (1894). Italian Book Illustrations, Chiefly of the Fifteenth Century. Macmillan. Available:

Pollard Alfred (1902). Old Picture Books. Metheun. Available:

Ridgway, John L. (1920). The Preparation of Illustrations for Reports for the United States Geological Survey. US Government Printing Office. Available:

Sketchley, RED (1903). English Book-Illustration of Today. Paul, Trench, Trubner. Available:

Spadoni, Carl (2007). How to make a souffle; or, what historians of the book need to know about bibliography. History of Intellectual Culture, 7(1). IUPUI students can view the article online.

Tanselle, Thomas G. (1995). Printing history and other history. Studies in Bibliography, 48, 269-289.

White, Gleeson (1903). English Illustration. Constable. Available:

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