Arbitrary distinctions

What is art? What is illustration? Does it matter?
Trick-or-Treat! From my brief period illustrating; prints available (DM me).
“I am trying to understand the difference between a painter and an illustrator,” writes a reader.
Paint is a just a medium. You can use it to illustrate, or you can hurl it in meaningless patterns. Conversely, you can illustrate with any two-dimensional medium, including pencils, ink, photography or cut paper. The difference is in intent.
An illustration is usually a visual accompaniment to a text. However, that’s not always true. There are illustrated books (Albrecht Dürer’s Passions, for example) that do not need words at all. There are many children’s books with no words. In fact, one could argue that all of western religious art is illustration. The text (the Bible) was just not written down. Either the intended audience was illiterate or they all knew the story anyway.
Gas Station, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
Illustrators are usually hired by writers or publishers. The work is limited in scope and concrete in character. Fine artists have no middleman between them and the market. They can be as obscure as they wish. But fine artists certainly work on commission, and illustrators often work on spec, so even that distinction is hazy.
There was a time when this question mattered to me. I was trying to make the jump between graphic design and painting full time. I did it by writing and illustrating two books. We are all born with an innate ability to imagine pictures, but I’d disciplined my artistic sensibilities to be subservient to the client. It took these stories for me to loosen up and find my focus. It’s never been a problem since.
Girl in Closet, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
But there’s an insidious way in which this question is sometimes asked. What’s implied is that fine art is somehow better than other forms of artistic expression.
Yes, illustration is a fine craft rather than a fine art. Like tapestry, jewelry, carving, etc., illustration has a practical purpose aside from beauty. Paintings have none, unless you’re using them to plug holes in the wall. If you want to know if you’re an artist or craftsman, ask yourself if your finished product has any tangible purpose. If it’s useless, you’ll know you’re an artist.
The problem lies in assuming that either one is more important than the other. Our modern viewpoint comes from the 19th century Cult of Genius, which mistakenly put fine artists in the category of intellectuals instead of tradesmen.
Kitchen Table, by Carol L. Douglas. From my brief period illustrating; prints available, DM me.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, plein air painting has a lowly and practical view of the world. It seeks to make pictures that make people happy.
There’s never been any distinction between fine art and illustration in terms of quality. If there ever was a gap, it was bridged long ago, starting with the unknown monks who illuminated books before the printing press was invented.
With the advent of industrialization, individuality and beauty was stripped from the objects we use every day. Brilliant craftsmen-artists like William MorrisCharles Rennie MackintoshMargaret Macdonald, and the Roycroft Movementclosed the gap between art and function once again. And who in this world would argue that N.C. Wyeth  and his peers of the Golden Age of Illustration are not among the world’s greatest artists?

Art vs. Craft

“The Progress of a Soul: The Entrance,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1895 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

“The Progress of a Soul: The Entrance,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1895 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)
Among the silliest distinctions in the world of art is that between so-called ‘fine art’ and ‘fine craft.’ Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, artists were craftsmen. It was only with the Romantic notion of the Cult of Genius that artists developed the slight stink of intellectualism. Somehow, that separated us from our craftwork brethren.
The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century ought to have ended that. Based on the writing of art critic John Ruskin, this movement held that mass production created “servile labour.” Our subsequent history of importing cheap goods from the Third World seems to have proved his point.
“The Progress of a Soul: The Stress,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1897 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

“The Progress of a Soul: The Stress,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1897 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)
The gap between fine art and fine craft was bridged by brilliant artists likeWilliam MorrisCharles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald, and theRoycroft Movement. Sadly, their influence has largely been aesthetic, not practical. The dichotomy between fine art’s intellectual fussiness and craft’s plain usefulness has grown wider.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, it seeks to transmit a lowly and practical view of the world. It makes people happy.
I pondered these matters as I wandered the British Museum’s monumental show, The Celts, currently in Edinburgh. What material culture is left of ancient Europe is largely what we categorize as ‘fine craft’—beaten gold torques, shield bosses, or pottery. (While we moderns reject purpose in contemporary art, we are always quick to ascribe it to the things we can’t understand among ancient artifacts. Apparently, no ancient person ever carved anything for the joy of carving: all incomprehensible art is now classified as some kind of religious totem.)
“The Progress of a Soul: Despair,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1899 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

“The Progress of a Soul: Despair,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1899 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)
There was also a textile history that went along with the metal and stone history, but almost all of it is lost to the ages. Textiles are so ephemeral that they occupy a smaller niche in art history.
Phoebe Anna Traquair is one of the few women artists who achieved international recognition as a craftswoman, largely because she worked within the international Arts and Crafts movement. Traquair was what we might ironically call a Renaissance man, a virtuoso in many media: murals, painting, jewelry, illustration, illumination and embroidery. She was the first woman elected to the Scottish Royal Academy.
“The Progress of a Soul: Victory,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1902 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)

“The Progress of a Soul: Victory,” Silk and gold thread embroidered on linen, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1902 (Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland)
Traquair’s first commission was to do a series of murals for the Mortuary Chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. This was hardly prestigious; the room itself was a former coalhouse where bodies were kept prior to burial. She went on to do murals in several more prominent locations around Edinburgh: at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Thistle Chapel at St. Giles Cathedral, and the Catholic Apostolic Church.
Four of Traquair’s tapestries are on display at the National Galleries. The Progress of the Soul is exuberant, luxurious, and exquisitely composed, borrowing heavily from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Traquair uses an idealized, beautiful young man dressed in an animal skin to represent the human soul. As young Denys moves from joy to despair, the natural world also changes from joyous to ‘red in tooth and claw.’ In the last panel a seraph breathes life back into him. Death is vanquished.
And all of this was done with a needle, by a mere woman who was also a wife and mother. Imagine.