What is an illustration? Noun Project breaks down what illustrations are used for and what are the illustration techniques, from manual tools to digital illustration methods.

Illustration Techniques: Types of Styles & Designs

Jeremy Elliott
May 12 · 13 min read

Illustration has been a cornerstone of our visual culture for centuries, as a way for artists to visually depict stories and concepts. Like much of art, illustration can be an objective reflection of the world around us or a creative interpretation of abstract ideas. Different illustration styles can be achieved through a variety of manual or digital media, each with the ability to evoke emotion, convey information, and transform our culture.

What is Illustration?

So how does one distinguish illustration from graphic design or fine art?

While there are certainly areas of overlap, graphic design is more commonly understood to be both the medium and the message itself, rather than merely accompanying a message. For example, a graphic design could be an event poster that communicates critical information about the date and details of a concert, while interspersing the text with creative visual elements. A work of art, on the other hand (such as a painting or sketching), can be a standalone piece– and one that doesn’t require the contextualization of an idea, story, or other bit of written communication. But the definitive line between illustration and art is admittedly blurred– and since different types of illustrations can convey powerful emotions through a wide range of media, from oil painting to vector graphics, you may see the terms used interchangeably.

What are the Types of Illustration?

Traditional Illustration

Woodcutting Illustration
Woodcutting was one of the earliest examples of creating an illustration that could be replicated — instead of drawing directly on a sheet of paper, a woodcutter (the earliest of whom date back to China’s Tang dynasty in the 9th century) would carve an illustration into a flat block of wood, resulting in a 3-dimensional rendering. This approach allowed the topmost surface of the woodblock to be covered in ink from a roller, while the carved indentations would remain ink-free and act as negative space. Several subsequent sheets of paper could thus be pressed against the woodblock to absorb the inked surface, making quick replication of the stencil-like form easy.

As with any art form, the materials available informed the aesthetic effect of the final product. Woodcutting illustrations often maintain a rough, at times jagged and hand-etched feel– particularly because the act of etching a density of small, rough lines was the only way to denote shading. This etched style has a distinctly historic look, as many popular illustrations throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s were disseminated in print using this method.

The earliest known example of woodblock printing is the Diamond Sutra from China’s 9th century Tang Dynasty, while arguably the most famous is Hakusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” from the 1830s. (Images: Wikimedia Commons)
The woodcutting technique also applies stamp-making, as illustrators carve their designs in small rubber or linoleum blocks. Noun Project creator Zack McCune hand-carves rubber stamps before tracing their forms in Adobe Illustrator to digitize them.

Pencil Illustration
Pencil Illustration remains the most common and popular types of illustration for its simplicity and ubiquity. Pencils come in a wide variety of weights, hues, and values — lead or graphite, mechanical or traditional, and of course colored pencils — that produce direct and immediate results on the page. Subtle shifts in pressure and experiments with fine line work or broad shading allow even young children to begin expressing ideas easily. With its low barrier to entry, pencil is typically the first “go-to” option for illustrators — and budding artists may be seen carrying sketchbooks around for their no-muss portability.

Pencils can, however, be limited in their blending ability — you can’t easily combine two colored pencils to make a new secondary color as you would with paint. It may also take a special blending tool, such as a roll of paper or kneaded eraser, to smooth over the naturally rough texture of lead or graphite on paper.

This Perspective Pencil sketch by Shivendra Tumram shows the wide range of shadows and highlights available in a monochrome palette.

Charcoal Illustration

Charcoal makes darker lines but isn’t as easily erasable as pencil– it thus encourages illustrators to make gestural yet decisive strokes and not dwell on small mistakes.

Charcoal illustration typically lends itself to quick, rough, and high-contrast impressionist sketches as charcoal can be blended but not erased easily. Artists like Paffard Keatinge-Clay (at left) may use it to make fast studies of light, form, and contrast, while designer Jozef Bañuelos (at right) goes over a pencil sketch using charcoal to add richer black shadow tones.

Watercolor Illustration

Watercolor and ink illustrations by artist and Noun Project creator Kadi Franson demonstrate the light and translucent properties of the pigment that often bleeds across the page while leaving the paper’s texture visible.

Pen and Ink Illustration

An 1883 pen and ink illustration by W. H. Hutchisson demonstrates how shading is achieved with a higher density of fine black lines and crosshatches. The heavily textured style of pen and ink thus tends to give such drawings a naturally historical look.

Acrylic Illustration

Acrylic bird illustrations by Bob Hines show the rich versatility of acrylic paint, with fully saturated hues and the ability to endlessly blend colors to make smooth gradients.

Modern Style Illustration

Freehand Digital Illustration

Vector Graphics Illustration

While people may draw freehand lines and shapes within a vector program to maintain a “human touch” in their aesthetic, the mathematical nature of these programs lets users draw and connect precise anchor points, adjust curvature, and combine various geometric shapes across multiple layers. Most icons on the Noun Project are illustrated with such a geometric precision — snapping basic shapes onto a grid, adjusting line weights to appear more uniform, and auto-aligning different elements are just a few ways that vector illustration programs help create pristine and “pixel-perfect” styles. Programs like Illustrator and Corel Draw also allow you to export your illustrations with or without a transparent background, as a .PNG, .SVG, PDF or other file format.

Noun Project creator Elisabetta Calabritto exhibits both styles of digital illustration — at left, the “freehand” style maintains the more hand-made and imperfect aesthetic of drawing manually, while at right, a more rigid vector illustration design sees involves geometric forms snapped to an even grid and adjusted with pixel-perfect curves and lines for a clean, streamlined, minimalist effect.

Different Illustration Styles: Types of Genres

“Amsterdam: Past, Present, and Future” by David Revoy is a concept sketch that evokes an overarching scene with only the broadest strokes, rather than filling in every detail.

Concept Art

Children’s Books

Walter Crane’s illustrations for the classic “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” use a harmonious color palette and just enough detail to make a visually absorbing scene.

Comic or Graphic Novels

Jessica Abel’s “What is a Graphic Novel?” is, conveniently, a presented as one itself.

Books or Publications

Covers of The New Yorker magazine, from the 1920’s to today, have long been a paragon of unique and unforgettable illustration design. All different stripes of artists and illustrators contribute distinct types of illustration that often allude to current events, news headlines, or lifestyle trends.

Advertising

Sometimes, an illustration (rather than a photograph) is what you need to help your advertising stand out from the competition. Here, Creator Luis Prado adds a distinct visual signature to some of America’s most iconic landmarks in a National Park advertising campaign.

Packaging

Illustration has been a key part of product packaging for over century, largely for the practical fact that photographic printing wasn’t available or largely scalable until the latter half of the 20th century. Today, brands still turn to illustrators to make visually distinct, colorful designs. (Photo: Museum of Brands in London, England)

Branding

Start Your Next Illustration at Noun Project

Follow our Tutorials for more creative inspiration.

Noun Project

Building a global visual language that unites us.