Illustrations vs. Drawings – What is The Difference, Anyway?

No idea whether an image is a drawing or illustration? They're quite similar, but in this article we've outlined the main differences.
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Look, there’s no easy way to say this, but…

There IS a difference between a drawing and illustration.

During the High Renaissance, it was Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, and the 18th century saw Beethoven’s music. However, the 21st century is digital, where drawings and illustrations define the height of our culture.

So what’s the difference? In this article, you’ll learn:

  • the difference between illustrations and drawings
  • the history of drawings and illusstrations

So whether you’re a graphic designer looking to further your career or an avid artist (or just curious), you’ll love this post.

Let’s dive in.

Illustrations vs. Drawings — What the Heck is the Difference?

That's not a drawing vs. that's a drawing meme.

Drawings are usually created as a means of art and expresses how the artist feels. Drawings can include school projects, drawings of friends, and random doodles in notebooks. They are usually created on paper or digitally, and can stand alone and represent a range of different ideas at once. On the other hand, illustrations are usually created or assigned by other people and used in business. They usually have text to support the illustration, such as a featured image for blog posts or a logo for a corporation.

Let’s take a look at the image on the right (the one on top).

Yep, I’m not trolling you (pun intended), but that’s a troll face.

Created in 2008 as a means to represent the devious smile of an internet troll, this illustration can be traced back to the very earliest of meme days.

On the other hand, the second image on the bottom is a free-hand attempt at drawing the troll face.

See the clear difference, right?

Drawings can stand alone, express themselves, showcasing feelings, thought processes, and skills, while illustrations support text.

Drawings are available offline and online, i.e., on paper and websites, but illustrations are more optimized towards the internet. From websites and browsers to different software (including social media, online shopping, games, and more), illustrations are used to add ‘flair’ to text.

Another key difference between the two is that drawings represent art, which usually has a restricted commercial application (think: a child’s drawing at school), while illustrations are much more commercially valuable (aka companies pay artists to create illustrations for their blogs).

A drawing may add aesthetic appeal to a wall that it’s hung to, at most. Illustrations tend to add more value to the whole site, as a blog without illustrations would look rather bland.

What is it?An art form that relies on different shades and line width to represent an object.A visual representation of a block of text or an idea, supported by an explanation.
Commercial ValueLow to average (with exceptions)High
DependencyCan stand aloneNeeds an explanation
ImaginationUnlimitedLimited by text
StyleLine-based, may be coloredLine-based, vectors, cartoon, etc.
MediumPhysical, DigitalUsually Digital

Test Your Skills! Is it a Drawing or Illustration?

Think you know your stuff? Take a look at the images below and match them up with the answers!

Is the following image a drawing or illustration?

An illustration of the Earth wearing a mask
Image #1
Image #2
Image #3
Childish doodle of a rainbow over a little house and a tree
Image #4
A picture of an astronaut holding a flag
Image #5
A picture of an astronaut on the moon with an American flag
Image #6
An illustration of a city
Image #7

Here are the answers:

  • Image #1: Illustration
  • Image #2: Illustration
  • Image #3: Drawing
  • Image #4: Drawing
  • Image #5: Illustration
  • Image #6: Drawing
  • Image #7: Illustration

How did you do? Were you able to get all 7 answers correct?

Remember, drawings usually have more detail, while illustrations can be seen more in commercial use all over the internet!

What Is a Drawing?

A drawing is an image that can be created with various materials, such as paper, wood, canvas, plastic, leather, and more. With a drawing, artists have a very specific goal in mind and can create the image using a reference or from their imagination. Drawings are used in a wide range of industries, including animation, architecture, engineering, and even forms the foundation for illustrations!

Types of Drawing

There are six types of drawings that can further be divided into 6 categories:

A chart showing the 6 categories of drawings
  1. Life Drawing. This drawing type is based on real-life observations. A common example is this portrait drawing of Marilyn Monroe.
A portrait of Marilyn Monroe.
  1. Emotive Drawing. Here, the main focus is exploring feelings, emotions, and moods. When drawing emotive drawings, you can “feel” the emotions expressed in these images.
A girl grasping his head tightly, seemingly having a headache. A notebook and a pen can be seen on a tabletop.
  1. Analytic Drawing. Based purely on observations, analytic drawings aim at providing perspective and can be used to brainstorm ideas or collaborate for architectural planning.
A map with the complete labels of the road found in the area.
  1. Perspective Drawing. This includes 3D drawings on 2D planes, and helps the viewer see a different viewpoint than they normally would see.
A drawing of a reading glasses placed on a flat surface. The drawing can be attributed to SD Sketches.
  1. Diagrammatic Drawing. As the name suggests, this includes diagrams documented on paper and can be used to showcase automobiles or other complex objects.
A drawing of the top part, side, front, and back part of a cool car.
  1. Geometric Drawing. This drawing type is used in architecture and construction and helps measure scales.
A floor plan of a building with complete measurements.

What About The History of Drawings?

The world’s first drawing has been discovered recently, dating back to the Stone Age (about 73,000 years ago). It is a red doodle representing something like a hog.

World's oldest painting of wild pig in an Indonesian cave.
Source: NewScientist

From cave walls, to leaves, and even animal skins, almost everything has been used to scratch, carve, paint, or trace drawings and send “messages” across time.

Ancient Egyptians took drawing to a whole other level, decorating tomb walls with complete life stories of the pharaohs.

But it wasn’t until the Chinese discovered paper and pulp in the 2nd century A.D. that drawings and art truly began to spread. The practice of calligraphy emerged during the 13th century, which eventually led to the evolution of art and drawings.

Some famous drawers over time include:

  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Michelangelo Buonarotti
  • Albrecht Dürer
  • Peter Paul Rubens
  • Rembrandt van Rijn
  • Charles Le Brun
  • Edgar Degas
  • Vincent van Gogh.

Tools of the Trade

Almost anything that can leave a mark can be used for drawing, such as:

  • A wide range of pencils
  • Brushes
  • Erasers
  • Metals
  • Charcoal
  • Chalk
  • A remarkable array of materials that can be used as paint
  • Crayons
  • Pastels
  • Markers
  • Canvas
  • Palette, and more.

Digital art has also introduced a range of other options, such as drawing tablets and drawing software.

What is An Illustration?

Illustrations are geared towards targeted perception, delivering a customized view of the drawing to onlookers. This perception is tailored with the help of at least two elements, such as the illustration and text, illustration and color, or the illustration and medium. More elements can be added to mold the perception process further.

Illustrations are a fairly modern element of the art world. The printing press paved way for illustrations, and the internet boosted it. The goal of an illustration is to give characters of a story or journey a face and body and make it a more visual experience for viewers.

This chart shows the different types of illustrations

Illustrations can be classified broadly into two categories:

  1. Traditional illustrations and
  2. Modern illustrations

Types of Illustrations

Where traditional illustration refers to hand-drawn artwork made specifically for newspapers or magazines, modern illustration uses software, such as Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and more.

Traditional illustrations include:

  1. Woodcutting illustrations. Seeing great popularity during the middle ages, such illustrations involve engraving images on wood for printing purposes. 
Four people wearing old type of clothing, drinking and having a discussion.
  1. Pencil Illustration. Here, artists use pencils, different shades, line weight, and effects to create unique illustrations. 
An unrecognized male wearing a cap, positioning a camera on his eye level to capture a photo or an image on a distance.
  1. Charcoal Illustrations. These aren’t as sharp as pencil illustrations, but are much richer and deeper. Charcoal illustrations are useful for portraits, storylines, and other areas where visibility is important.
A silhouette of a woman.
  1. Lithography Illustration. Back in the day, such illustrations used wax, fat, and oils to create illustrations on limestone. With time, this technique has evolved into offset lithography.
Ils sont les enfants de la France by Ch. Villain in 1825. A man with a worried expression is surrounded by children.
  1. Watercolor Illustration. Suitable for storytelling and children’s books, these illustrations are still used widely to create airy and light illustrations. 
A pig standing colored with different hues of bright colors.
  1. Acrylic Illustration. Ideal for beginners, these illustrations have different finishes and are much more versatile. 
A little bird's shadow was cast on the trunk of a large tree. Make Time for Little Things was carved on the upper left corner of the illustration.
  1. Pen and Ink Illustration. The most common example of these illustrations is calligraphy and diagrams. These monochromatic illustrations are extremely detailed, using a combination of different lines and dots to add more aesthetic appeal. 
A detailed monochromatic illustration of a Siberian husky.

Also known as contemporary illustrations, modern illustrations are similar to traditional illustrations but use modern techniques in their creation to develop them better. Examples include:

  1. Freehand Digital Illustrations. This requires a stylus and tablet to create. Artists draw on the tablet, and the result can be seen on the screen. The result can then be manipulated with the software to create a better illustration. Freehand digital illustrations are like drawings but with fancier tools. 
A digital illustration of a boy with its middle hair was styled upwards. He is drinking something on a cup while winking.
  1. Vector Illustrations. For this illustration type, every point in the image is represented on coordinate axes and is therefore much more detailed. Users can zoom in without having to worry about pixelation. Website and company logos are usually made as vector illustrations.  
A vector illustration of a moon and the starts behind the mountains.

What About The History of Illustrations?

While the idea of illustrations, i.e., images that are better explained with text, has been around since the time of the pharaohs, it wasn’t until the 1840s and 1850s that it became so widely used. A magazine named “Punch” used illustrations to create cartoons, a term used to describe a set of humorous illustrations.

Over time, the concept became more common and eventually started getting confused with drawings as well. 

Some famous illustrators include:

  • Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)
  • Lauren Mortimer
  • Sholto Walker
  • Maurice Sendak
  • Gail Armstrong
  • Mae Besom, and more 

Tools for Illustrators

The modern illustrator doesn’t need a pen and paper, but rather a tablet and stylus. To create a basic illustration, all illustrators need is a software like Abode Illustrator so they can properly manipulate the illustrations as they wish. 

Some other tools they can benefit from include:

  • Tablet stand
  • Graphic pencils
  • Plastic erasers
  • Effects tool(s)
  • Cooling stand

Illustrations vs. Drawings – Seeing the World Through Images

From websites, to newspapers, to social media, you’ll find the world is full of illustrations, while our culture is defined by our drawings and designs.

While some people prefer illustrations because of the direct message it sends, others may prefer drawings more because of their versatility.

So how do you become a great graphic designer?

Why not create both?

When combined with creativity, graphic designers can create unique and beautiful images, whether they’re drawings or illustrations.

Now, over to you!

Which is your preferred type of image? Do you like drawings or illustrations better?

Let us know in the comments below!

And if you’d like to create your own fantastic drawings and illustrations, send us a friendly message. 🙂

Read On!

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