Blog / 2024 / The Difference between Fine Art and Illustration

July 1, 2024

[video transcript]

I talk more about this false dichotomy in a video about self-expression versus communication where I get more into how you can leverage this unnecessarily binary view of art-making to make your work better. For more about understanding critiques of your art, I recommend this video.

You can see the making of each of the paintings featured in this video: the portrait, the little bird, the roses, the traffic signal person, the measuring tape skeleton, and the flamingo.

And you can buy the coloring book version of Everything’s Fine here!

Carmen Machado portrait painting by Lambertville artist Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Carmen Maria Machado
acrylic on canvas
36 x 24 inches

Fine art and illustration. Both terms refer to visual experiences created by humans. But, for some, that is where the similarities end and all they can focus on is the difference—the big difference—that we can sum up with the word: intent.

Fine art exists for itself. It is an expression of the artist. Illustration serves to explain. Sometimes it’s explaining for the artist—they want to explain something so they make an illustration to visually communicate something. Sometimes someone hires an artist to visually explain something.

For others of us, this difference that I’ve just described is not really that interesting. And in fact some of us think that it only exists in order for judge-y people to judge.

Case in point: recently I got feedback from two different arts administrators at the same arts organization.

The first bit of feedback came from an arts administrator who was the juror for a juried art show that I was applying to. And I applied with paintings from my Everything’s Fine series about mental health. Specifically, I applied with these three paintings. And the juror accepted all three into the show, and they gave this piece an award.

Fast forward a few months and I’m getting a portfolio review from a different arts administrator at the same arts organization, which I totally love and I think does great stuff for the community, including providing free portfolio reviews. So I’m getting feedback from this second arts administrator, and they single out this piece from my portfolio as sort of the pinnacle of fine art. They think that I should feature this piece prominently on my site. And I completely agree, because this portrait is bangin.

That said, they then single out Everything’s Fine, that series about mental health, and talk about how it’s really illustration and not fine art. In particular, they refer to this piece and say that ya this image is interesting but it’s illustration. They say it sort of like that. Dismissively.

When I push back against this feedback and say: ya, but what if you think about these images in terms of mental health because that’s what the series is about? Their response is like: okay, well so maybe this piece could be considered fine art—and possibly this piece—but it’s really illustration.

So, which of these two arts administrators from the same amazing arts organization is right? In my complicated opinion, I would have to say: both.

The first one, the juror for the juried art show, is a genius who totally gets my work.

The second, though, is giving me really important feedback about how the art world works. Something that I know already, but that’s important to remember and be reminded of. And that’s that arts administrators and fellow artists who are asked to serve on juries for opportunities, like grants and that sort of thing, they are not just judge-y people who want to judge. Sometimes they are people who are looking for a way to judge that feels more fair. And so this is a way that they can do it. They can be like: well, that’s fine art and that’s illustration, and that’s just how it is.

And it’s important, really, as an artist, to keep that in mind. That’s something that goes on in the art world. But it’s also important to forget it when you’re in the studio.

I have been a full-time artist for 21 years now, and in that time I have made a lot of art. And I am proud of all of it. But the thing that I am most proud of that I made in these 21 years is Everything’s Fine. It is, for me, the pinnacle of fine art. It is the most self-expression that I have done in my work.

At the same time, I was acutely aware of my audience as I was making Everything’s Fine. In fact, without that awareness that there were people who were going to be seeing this work, I would never have made it. I needed that accountability. I needed to know that this might mean something for someone else besides me.

So that leaves me with the question: is Everything’s Fine illustration or is it fine art? And, once again, in my opinion, it’s both. And, more important, when I think about the sorts of visual experiences made by other humans that I enjoy most, they’re always both, illustration and fine art.

The paintings from Everything’s Fine have been turned into a coloring book, AKA a bunch of what I would call illustrations. Go here to learn more about the book.

surreal coloring book and mental health workbook for teens by genderqueer artist Gwenn Seemel, published in 2024
Everything’s Fine, the coloring book

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