Now that my show's up and running at Flashpoint, and people occasionally write about it, I've noticed that I'm usually referred to as an illustrator but never a fine artist. Which isn't something I take offense at, of course, but is not a description that seems entirely accurate.
Yes, I am being pedantic. I have a degree in illustration after all, have taken on the odd illustration job in the past, and most of my favorite artists tend to be illustrators or cartoonists. But for the small subset of people who do care about such distinctions, here is why I am still not an illustrator:
Illustration is a blanket term that implies that the work in question is depicting a specific idea. The best definition of it I ever heard actually came from the cartoonist Dash Shaw, at a reading at Atomic Books: "An illustration tells you what a thing is, and how you should feel about that thing." Fine artists can get away with saying something like, "This piece is about space and light" and no one will ask any follow up questions. An illustration, on the other hand, needs to have some semblance of specificity—the work needs to be about something, not just its form. My drawings may be cartoonish and representational, but it is never 100% obvious as to what they are about in the first place, which to my mind, disqualifies them from being illustrations.
Fine art also means you don’t have to answer to art directors, which is why I chose it, or rather, it chose me. But it was never that I didn’t want to be an illustrator. I would love to be the type of artist who can read an editorial and create a piece that wordlessly captures its point of view, and I am wholeheartedly jealous of anyone who has that ability. It’s just that I realized having to draw something in particular was my equivalent of artistic cyanide. The only way I know how to draw anything good is to be as unspecific about its meaning as possible.
Occasionally you will hear illustration used as a derogatory term, i.e., the whole, "That's not art, it's illustration" sniff, if a piece in question appears too commercial or heavy-handed. There are some heartbreaking pictures that do look as though they were manufactured by a machine in a factory, but I still bristle when I hear that slam, as it's generally a lazy shorthand for, "This is why you don't have to care about it." Illustration and fine art are different beasts, and there are lots of blurry lines between the two, but to say one is superior or more important than the other is just plain wrong.
At any rate, dwelling on definitions gets tedious pretty quickly, and the more interesting conversations tend to be about the art itself, not what taxonomy it falls under. And as a former English professor once said, when students were explaining the differences between Painting and GFA majors: "Whatever. It's all pictures."