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?

It’s not the brushes, kiddo

Brushes are ordinary; it’s what you can do with them that is extraordinary.

Home Port, by Carol L. Douglas, 18X24, oil on linen.
At Castine Plein Air, Ken DeWaard did a small boat painting that I thought was darn near perfect. (I don’t have an image of it, but you can see it at Camden Falls Gallery.) One of the things that struck me was the fluid brushwork. My brushes are getting frayed, so none of my flats are still flat, and many of my rounds are splayed. And, frankly, I abuse them, tossing them in my hot car and forgetting to clean them. I’ve had trouble with my last batch of Robert Simmons signets—the ferrules are loose—so I’m interested in experimenting with something else.
I asked Ken what brushes he’s using. “Some Rosemarys, and some cheap synthetics,” he answered. That made sense. In oils, the trade off with synthetic or soft animal hair is that you get better control, but they carry less paint. You can’t be rudely aggressive with them. But if you want lyrical linework or detail, or want to glaze, they’re unbeatable. I’ve been messing with a Princeton Snap! brush this month. Synthetics have come a long way.
What I was working on while painting with Ken DeWaard on Monday. Another day and I think I’ll be well on the way to finishing.
Monday, Ken and I painted together in Rockport. I took the opportunity to look at his brushes. They’re a saturated, half-hardened mess—even worse than mine. If he can paint that beautifully with those cudgels, I need to stop grumbling about my brushes.
Albrecht Dürer was arguably the most facile brush-wrangler who ever lived. Whether it was in watercolor, as in the Young Hare, or in oils, as in his many self-portraits, he could seemingly lay down every single hair on man or beast’s head. He was famous for this skill all over Europe.
He was in communication with the major Italian artists of his time, including RaphaelLeonardo da Vinci, and Giovanni Bellini. His relationship with Bellini was more than merely professional. Dürer visited Venice twice and developed a friendship with the older man. Bellini was the most famous member of a prestigious family of artists and very influential. He was no slouch with the fine brush himself.
Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight, 1500, Albrecht Dürer, courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich
By Dürer’s second visit, Bellini was at the end of his long life. He extended many professional courtesies to Dürer, not the least of which was introducing the younger man to his own noble Venetian clients.
One day, after carefully examining the head of one of Dürer’s saints, Bellini asked to use the brush that had creating such lifelike hair. Dürer handed the old man the brush in question. Bellini tried it and failed to produce anything fine. Dürer took the brush back, still loaded with Bellini’s paint, and painted a lock of hair so marvelous that the older man said he wouldn’t have believed it had he not seen it with his own eyes.
Doge Leonardo Loredan, after 1501, Giovanni Bellini, National Gallery, London
This story is apocryphal, but makes a true point. Dürer’s brush was ordinary; his abilities were extraordinary. Brushes influence our mark-making, but they don’t control it. Strength, age, experience, personality and patience all play roles in how we lay down paint.
Dürer, by the way, was inordinately proud of his own hair, painting his ringlets in several wonderful self-portraits. I have the same ringlets as that cocky young man had five hundred years ago, and I’m almost as vain about them as he was. But I’ve never painted a self-portrait. Perhaps this winter I should rectify that.