Understanding Illustration – book review

By Derek Brazell and Jo Davies

Published by A&C Black/Bloomsbury ISBN: 9781408171790

Review by Flora Cox


Understanding Illustration aims to examine the power of illustration as a tool to communicate and how it has evolved to become a valuable element in daily visual culture.

The contents divides the paperback into four main sections and delves further into numerous sub categories. The four sections outline types of artworks (Traditional Uses, Documentary, Message and Off the Page) and examine, using examples, how illustration is progressing as a contemporary art form. The opening texts explain to the reader the variety of uses and ways illustration can be applied, successfully enlightening readers who are less familiar with the subject, and as a result bringing them closer to understanding illustration.


A selection of works focuses on illustrators with a short interview offering insight into the thought processes and talent behind some amazing work. The reader experiences how the illustrator tackled the project through their approaches and development, thus helping the reader understand how an illustrator works and how they differ from others.


The book begins with highlighting some of the more traditional uses of illustration. For example, Jan Pienkowski is featured with comment on his timeless silhouettes, which are still being published after over 30 years. As well as Audrey Niffenegger’s more modern, hand rendered approach illustrating classic novels by Jane Austen.


This is successfully contrasted later on in the book with Lucy McLaughlan’s visually stunning murals which is one of the works representing the more contemporary avenues which illustration is feeding into. Her project encourages freedom and improvisation, with the artist feeling miles away from the constraints of a directed brief. These examples explore today’s application of illustration, how it is progressing, yet still functioning well in more traditional uses.


Content is placed and designed with the reader in mind. There is a degree of ease when studying the text with reference to an image. The layout is easily navigable and breaks down texts into manageable sizes creating a pleasant read without overwhelming the audience with too much copy.


Other illustrators featured include Asaf and Tomer Hanuka, George Hardie, Sara Fanelli, Victor Ambrus, Anne Howeson, Carlo Stanga, Barbara Hulanicki and Serge Bloch.

The book effectively showcases the diversity of illustration, the different formats and endless variation of style whilst revealing the extent of illustration as means of visual communication in the 21st century.


6th March 2014

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