What is FINE art?

Keith Bond, fine landscape painter at www.keithbond.com, has raised several interesting questions for artists in his recent post regarding “Fine Art v. Illustration.”


"Horseshoe Falls" by Rick J. Delanty, 36x48

“Horseshoe Falls” by Rick J. Delanty, 36×48

As a landscape painter myself, I admire Keith’s work, as he is obviously sensitive to his surroundings, a keen observer, and a skilled artist. Raising the topic of whether any artist is a fine artist or illustrator, especially in light of the fact that stunning volumes of incredible art have been produced by those who consider and call themselves “illustrators” as well as those who don’t, just increases the difficulty of categorizing artists as either one or the other. It’s like hoisting a dime on a pole and trying to shoot it from fifty yards–no one is ever going to hit it. The personal goals of all kinds of artists are certain to be similar, in that they wish to create the best work of which they are capable.


The question that Keith raises, though, “What is Fine Art, Anyway?”  is an important question for all artists to answer, I believe, because all artists who are working seriously—and seriously working—very much want to produce art that is truly “fine.” The dictionary defines “Fine Art” as that which is “produced for beauty rather than utility.” Wow, if we take that definition as gospel, that definitely undersells some of the most magnificent illustrations from the course of human history that have been created for books, churches, posters, hymnals, and advertisements. Just to mention a few, consider those “fine” illustrations from the body of work of such greats as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Gustave Doré, and Rick Griffin (The Bible )  N.C. Wyeth ( Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island), Howard Pyle (Robin Hood, King Arthur), Rockwell Kent (Moby Dick), Norman Rockwell (“The Four Freedoms,” “The Problem We All Live With”). Even my favorite artists, who probably created the first profession known to man, the cave artists (Lascaux, Altamira, the Magdalenians) might have been creating their art for utility—hunting and animal worship—or not. Perhaps it was the beauty of the forms themselves that captured their imagination, which in turn inspired them to capture that beauty in charcoal.


From the enduring quality of these artworks, it would appear that all those artists mentioned above—whose works were “illustrations” for definite purposes of dissemination—were intent on creating beauty within and emanating from those artworks, which then became “useful” (having a broad impact and appeal) as much as they were truly “beautiful.” How could those artists have captured the beauty of human form, its costume, the elegant turn of a whale’s fin, the power of a bison’s charge, unless they, too, had—as is very evident in Keith Bond’s work—“a reverence for the world in which we live”—and a spirit of both “exploration and veneration.” In my own work, I am also hoping that that same spirit of reverence for creation and its Creator is both alive and evident.


"Overflow" by Rick J. Delanty, 36x36

“Overflow” by Rick J. Delanty, 36×36

Keith suggests that perhaps illustrators and fine artists are not that much different. I quite agree. I would suggest that– more important than the categorization of artists into this camp or that—the most significant question for artists to answer is “Why” they do what they do, and whether they are creating successful works of art. Herein, for me, lies the definition of “Fine Art”—those artworks which creatively inspire, stimulate you to feel something, communicate a message in a unique and unified way, are created in a medium and are of a scale that best conveys that message, and are presented in such a way that nothing distracts the viewer from what the artist is saying. In my opinion, “Fine” art is that which successfully communicates the artist’s message, a truth about existence, whether that truth be personal, historical, social, or even product-oriented. Those artists that we admire the most, I daresay, are those that communicate the truth of what it is to be human, whether they be painters, sculptors, jewelers, photographers, musicians, actors, dancers, mimes or ad-men. Creativity and truth are at the heart of fine artworks, whether they are intended to have a broad appeal (as in advertising), or an intimate one (as between the artist and an audience of one).


Fine artists learn the foundational skills of effective design, composition, color choice and more because they know that those artistic choices, when effectively employed, will create symbolism, evoke emotion, and convey meaning. It is the constant honing of their craft that will produce “fine” works of art that will inspire and impact an audience, whether the channel for that art is a painting, a book, a sculpture, or an advertisement. “Fine” art is simply that which is finely expressed and executed.


Thanks, Keith, for your post. It helped me to answer some of my own questions about what I am doing , and further clarify in my own mind why the arts and dedicated artists—“fine,” illustrators, or otherwise—are all invaluable to our culture, and to our civilization.


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  • T Tilton

    As a painting and illustration professor. This is the difference between the two that I teach.

    It is a matter of intent.

    Illustration is not self-expression. It has a very specific purpose, to communicate visually to a target audience. Illustration is mass-produced. It is designed and painted with the idea that the original is not what the majority of people will look at. Illustration is used usually with text. It is used to elucidate text, to visualize text or in place of text.

    There are many “fine artists” who illustrated. Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, etc.

    I think that it’s important to point out that illustration existed before the idea of fine art ever did—that the earliest cave paintings were indeed illustrations. They were painted to communicate a specific idea, not for self-expression or personal commentary. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Da Vinci all illustrated the Bible. They all had clients who paid for their specific style and talent. They all used models and props for their work. Their work was very much done like the way Rockwell put his illustrations together. Rembrandt actually used his Jewish neighbors for his paintings of the Apostles just like Rockwell used his neighbors in Vermont.

    Differences of high and low art are not valid in my opinion. Illustration can cross over into high art and fine art can be narrative. Great painting though goes beyond the time and place of which they were created. It goes beyond the intent. There is an immeasurable quality to the painting—they go into your soul.

    • Tom Watson

      T Tilton, I also taught illustration and “fine art” painting, and I agree with most of your comments. However, generally speaking, when Rockwell or N.C. Wyeth did their illustrations, they were usually targeting the average American at that time, not just a selected market. And, when Andrew Wyatt or George Bellows did a painting, it was usually appreciated by a segment of the population that could relate to it and not necessarily the general public. Both fine art and illustration can vividly tell a story or event, or they can both only suggest or symbolically imply it. Some book covers and magazine story illustrations have been illustrated with museum fine art paintings of the past, such as Degas and Sargent. During their time time, Chase’s paintings were geared for the upper class and Henri’s paintings were geared for the middle and lower class. They adamantly disagreed on subject matter and philosophy of art. During the early part of the 20th Century, illustrations by Pyle and N.C. Wyeth would look very appropriate hanging in a traditional fine art museum. In the 1960’s, when I entered the field of illustration, there was a wide range of styles and approaches, primarily with experimental and innovative results. The appearance between fine art Expressionism and loose creative illustration was often very similar.

    • Reynard

      As a “fine art” painter whose formal training was as an illustrator, I appreciate your comments. To me, there is “good” art and “bad” art and, in that sense, it doesn’t matter what the ultimate purpose is. I wouldn’t be able to paint what I do without the training an illustrator gets. (Academy of Art, BFA Illustration, ’89)- Susan Fox (Reynard is my Disqus nom de guerre)