Traditional Illustration: Pros, Cons & Comprehensive Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


Let's dive into the art of traditional illustration. It's a fantastic world filled with creativity, expression, and imagination. Whether you're an experienced artist or just starting to explore this exciting field, understanding the pros and cons of traditional illustration techniques will give you a solid foundation. So, buckle up as we embark on this artistic journey together.

What is traditional illustration?

Traditional illustration is the old-school, hands-on approach to creating art. It doesn't involve any fancy software or digital tools; instead, it's about grabbing a pencil, paintbrush, or other tool and physically applying it to a surface like paper, canvas, or wood. Think of your favorite children's book illustrations or the classic art hanging in museums - that's traditional illustration.

It's the kind of art that lets you feel the texture of the paper and smell the ink or paint. It's a sensory experience, and each piece of art you create is distinct and unique. What's not to love about that?

Here's a quick rundown of some key points about traditional illustration:

  • Physical Medium: Traditional illustration is all about using your hands to create art on a tangible surface. You can touch, feel, and even smell your work.
  • Uniqueness: Each piece you create is one-of-a-kind. There's no 'ctrl+z' here - every stroke counts, making your work unique and personal.
  • Materials: From pencils, pens, watercolors, to oils and acrylics - there's a wide range of materials you can use. We'll explore this more in our section on materials for traditional illustration.
  • Techniques: The techniques for traditional illustration are vast and varied. You can sketch, paint, print, or even sculpt. We'll get into this in more depth in our section on traditional illustration techniques.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what traditional illustration is, let's dive into the pros and cons of traditional illustration techniques. Remember, understanding these will help you navigate the art world more effectively and find your unique style.

Pros of traditional illustration

Traditional illustration techniques come with a host of benefits that can enhance your artistic journey. Here are some of the pros that make traditional illustration a joy to explore:

  • Tactile Experience: Traditional illustration provides a sensory experience that digital art can't replicate. The feel of a brush on canvas or the scratch of a pencil on paper is pleasing, soothing, and incomparable. This tactile interaction with your work can make the creative process even more rewarding.
  • Originality: Every piece of traditional art is unique. There's no copy-pasting, no cloning tool. Each stroke you make is a testament to your individual style and creativity. This originality can make your work stand out in today's digitally saturated art world.
  • Physical Presence: Traditional illustrations have a physical presence that digital pieces lack. You can hang them on a wall, display them in a gallery, or gift them to someone special. They aren't confined to a screen, which can make them more valuable and cherished.
  • Less Technological Dependence: With traditional illustration, you don't have to worry about software crashes, file corruption, or battery life. As long as you have your tools and a surface to work on, you can create art. It's a liberating feeling!

These pros highlight why many artists, both beginners and professionals, continue to value and utilize traditional illustration techniques. But, like all things, traditional illustration also has its downsides. Let's delve into those next.

Cons of traditional illustration

While traditional illustration techniques offer many advantages, they also come with their own set of challenges. Here are some cons that you might encounter on your journey with traditional illustration:

  • Cost: Traditional art materials can be expensive. Paints, brushes, canvas, paper – the costs can pile up quickly. Unlike digital art, where a one-time investment in software and hardware can last you for years, traditional art requires ongoing expenditure.
  • Mistakes are Permanent: With traditional illustration, there's no 'undo' button. A slip of the hand, a moment of distraction, and you could have a mistake on your canvas that's difficult to fix. This can be frustrating, especially for beginners.
  • Space and Storage: Traditional art requires physical space. You need room to work, to store your materials, and to keep your finished pieces safe from damage. This can be a challenge if you're working from a small home or apartment.
  • Time-consuming: Traditional illustration techniques can be time-consuming. Mixing paints, waiting for layers to dry, or crafting intricate details can require patience. In our fast-paced world, this can sometimes feel like a drawback.

Despite these potential drawbacks, traditional illustration continues to be a beloved form of artistic expression for many. It's all about weighing the pros and cons, and figuring out what works best for you as an artist. Are you ready to give traditional illustration a try? Let's find out how to get started.

How to start with traditional illustration

Starting with traditional illustration techniques may seem daunting, especially if you're new to the world of art. But don't worry, it's simpler than you might think! So, where do you begin?

  1. Understanding the Basics: First, familiarize yourself with the basics of drawing and painting. Learn about composition, perspective, and color theory. These are the building blocks of any art form, and mastering them will make your journey easier.
  2. Choose Your Medium: Next, pick a medium that appeals to you. This could be anything from pencil sketching to watercolor painting or oil pastels. Experiment with different materials to see which ones you enjoy working with the most.
  3. Invest in Quality Materials: While starting out, it's tempting to opt for cheaper materials. But remember, quality matters. High-quality materials will give you better results and make the process more enjoyable.
  4. Practice Regularly: Practice makes perfect. Dedicate some time each day to draw or paint. This will help you improve your skills and gain confidence over time.
  5. Seek Inspiration: Look at the work of other artists for inspiration. Study their techniques and styles, and try to incorporate what you learn into your own work. But remember, it's not about copying others, it's about finding your own voice as an artist.

Starting with traditional illustration is a journey of discovery. It's not just about the end result, but also about the process of creating. It's about expressing yourself, learning new skills, and having fun along the way. So, are you ready to dip your brushes and begin this exciting journey?

Traditional illustration techniques

With your basic understanding and materials in place, you're ready to explore the many traditional illustration techniques that artists use to bring their ideas to life. Here are some common methods you might want to try:

  1. Pencil Sketching: This is a versatile technique that allows you to create different effects by varying the pressure you apply. Light strokes can create soft shadows, while heavier strokes can add depth and texture to your illustrations.
  2. Ink Drawing: Ink drawing can add a bold, graphic quality to your illustrations. You can use a fine-tipped pen for detailed work, or a brush to create broader strokes and washes of color.
  3. Watercolor Painting: Watercolor is a popular choice for its soft, fluid effects. It's great for creating light, transparent layers of color. However, it can be a bit tricky to control, so patience and practice are key.
  4. Oil Painting: If you're after rich, vibrant colors and a lot of texture, oil painting might be the technique for you. It allows for great blending of colors, but it does take some time to dry.
  5. Pastels: Pastels offer a unique blend between drawing and painting. You can use them to create vibrant colors and a soft, velvety texture. They're perfect for adding a touch of softness to your illustrations.

Remember, each technique has its own pros and cons, and what works best for you might not work as well for someone else. The most important thing is to experiment with different techniques to find the ones that suit your style and express your creativity the best. Happy illustrating!

Materials for traditional illustration

Ready to put your traditional illustration techniques into practice? Let's get you set up with the right materials. Here's a list of some of the basics you'll need:

  1. Drawing Paper: It’s where your art comes to life. There are a variety of types to choose from—sketch paper, bristol board, watercolor paper—each with its own benefits and drawbacks. For instance, while sketch paper is great for light pencil work, bristol board can handle heavy ink or pastel illustrations.
  2. Pencils: A good old-fashioned graphite pencil is a must-have. But don't stop there. You might also want to consider colored pencils, watercolor pencils, or even charcoal pencils for different effects.
  3. Ink: Whether you choose a traditional dip pen and ink bottle or a modern ink pen, this is a staple for illustrators. It's perfect for creating bold, definitive lines and intricate details.
  4. Paint: Watercolors, acrylics, oils—each type of paint brings something unique to the table. Watercolors are great for soft, light artwork, while oils can create deeply textured and vibrant pieces.
  5. Pastels: If you want to add color to your work without the mess of paint, pastels are a great choice. They come in a range of colors and can be blended easily on your drawing surface.
  6. Brushes: From flat to round, large to small, the variety of brushes available can help you achieve a range of effects in your illustrations.
  7. Erasers: Mistakes happen, and that's okay! A good eraser is your best friend in these situations. From gum erasers to kneaded ones, choose what works best for your preferred media.

While this is a basic list, remember: the world of traditional illustration is vast and varied. Feel free to add, subtract, or swap out materials as you see fit. After all, the best tools are the ones that help you bring your unique vision to life.

Tips for Traditional Illustration

Okay, now that we've learned about the materials, let's move on to some practical tips to help you master the art of traditional illustration.

  1. Practice Makes Perfect: This might sound cliché, but it's true—especially in illustration. The more you draw, the better you'll get. So, grab your pencil and paper and start doodling. Remember, every great artist started from scratch.
  2. Study the Masters: Look at the work of successful illustrators. Analyzing their style, techniques, and compositions can give you insights into your own work. Try recreating some of their pieces to understand their process better. But remember, it's about learning, not copying.
  3. Experiment with Different Media: Don't limit yourself to one type of medium. Experiment with different materials and techniques. You might discover a new favorite!
  4. Understand Light and Shadow: This is a fundamental concept in any visual art. A good understanding of how light and shadow work can take your illustrations to the next level.
  5. Keep a Sketchbook: A sketchbook is an illustrator's best friend. It's a place where you can jot down quick ideas, practice techniques, or just doodle to your heart's content. Plus, it's always fun to look back and see your progress.
  6. Be Patient: Art takes time. Don't rush your illustrations. Take your time to plan, sketch, and refine. Patience is indeed a virtue in the world of traditional illustration.

Remember, these tips are just that—tips. They're not hard and fast rules. Feel free to bend or break them as you see fit. After all, art is about self-expression. So, go ahead, and express yourself!

Case Studies of Traditional Illustration

Let's look at some examples of traditional illustration that have stood the test of time and made a significant impact in their own right. Understanding these case studies can help you appreciate the pros and cons of traditional illustration techniques in a real-world context.

The first case we'll look at is Norman Rockwell, a 20th-century American painter and illustrator. His illustrations were warm, humorous, and finely detailed, capturing the everyday life and aspirations of average Americans. His work, though seemingly simple, required a deep understanding of light, color, and composition. His pieces, such as "The Problem We All Live With" and "Freedom From Want", are iconic representations of American culture.

Our second case study is Beatrix Potter, a British author and illustrator best known for her children's books featuring animals, such as "The Tale of Peter Rabbit". Potter’s delicate watercolor illustrations brought her animal characters to life and helped to create immersive, endearing stories. The subtle interplay of light and color in her work is a testament to the power of traditional illustration techniques.

And finally, we have Maurice Sendak, who shook up the world of children's literature with his book "Where The Wild Things Are". Sendak's illustrations were bold, imaginative, and sometimes even scary. He reminded us that children's books can be more than just cute and cuddly, and his innovative approach to illustration remains influential to this day.

These case studies show the broad range of styles and techniques that can be achieved with traditional illustration. They remind us that while new tools and technologies may come and go, the fundamentals of good art—creativity, observation, and hard work—remain the same.

If you enjoyed this comprehensive guide on traditional illustration and want to explore the possibilities of combining traditional techniques with digital tools, check out the workshop 'Traditional Mark Making in Digital Illustrations' by Charles Bailey. This workshop will provide you with the knowledge and skills to create stunning illustrations that blend the best of both worlds.