The History of Technical Illustration

The Development of Commercial Infographics and Technical Art


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The Birth of Infographics

"Let no one doubt, that the man who does not perfectly understand what he is attempting to do when painting, will never be a good painter. It is useless to draw the bow, unless you have a target to aim the arrow at." Leon Battista Alberti - Della Pictura

Since the dawn of man humans have sought out ways of communicating, sharing their ideas, practices, customs and beliefs with contemporaries and future generations alike. The earliest forms of illustration predate written records and even the spoken word. Pictorial iconography in the form of petroglyphs ("rock inscriptions" carved or chiseled into a stone surface) exploded during the late paleolithic period, which lasted from 30,000 BC to 10,000 BC.

The scribes, painters and stone cutters of ancient Egypt (3200 BC—30 BC) were among the first "commercial" artists, working as paid or conscripted artisans for the Egyptian nation-state. Their visual and written language was known as "hieroglyphics" (meaning "sacred inscriptions"), which were used to depict construction techniques, scientific methods and data, religious practices, political propaganda, and the rhythm of daily life. As adept and prolific as these Egyptian artisans were, their early profile drawings and pictographs failed to combine height, width, and depth into a single view of either a person or inanimate object. This lack of the "illusion" of three-dimensional depth limited their pictographs and glyphs to a form of visual shorthand, used primarily as a precursor to the invention of written language.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Cave Drawings

Fremont pre-columbian petroglyphs (c.14,000 BP—1492 CE), Utah by Phil Kerk (left), Pylon, hieroglyphics at Philae Temple (380—362 BCE), Aswan (right)

The invention of the written language brought about a separation between literal communication and pictorial communication, with the latter being freed up to express the more aesthetic, creative aspects of humanity, and the concept of "art" was born. Art was also used to communicate concepts such as the methods of construction in building design.

Like the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians, the architectural drawings of the early Greeks (1100 BC—100 BC) also lacked depth and dimension. In fact, in an effort to have nature imitate art, the ancient Greek architects designed their buildings to visually fight against the viewer's intuitive understanding of perspective. The best example of this is the Parthenon (438 BC) in Athens, Greece. The structure was situated atop the Acropolis compound in such a way that it could only be approached from one vantage point. The rear of the structure is taller and wider than the front, and the side columns progressively increase in mass from front to rear. This construction technique gave the Parthenon an appearance which approximated the flat, or "orthographic" views they were accustomed to seeing in their architectural renderings and paintings.

During the Renaissance period (1400—1600), major advancements in painting, architectural rendering and descriptive, or "technical" illustration took place through the work of artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452—1519), Leon Battista Alberti (1404—1472), and Raphael Sanzio (1483—1520). Leonardo da Vinci's artistic ability, combined with his scientific curiosity, provided the means and impetus for a merging of visual art with science and invention. Artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti's treatise of 1436, "Della pictura" ("On Painting"), was the first modern manual for painters. Inspired by the groundbreaking encyclopedic treatise "De architectura" from Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (1st century BC), Alberti wrote "De re aedificatoria" (1485), a treatise on the techniques and methodologies of architecture and architectural rendering.

Creating the Illusion of Depth

The creation of spatial illusion in artworks was another major achievement of the Renaissance period. At this time, pictorial drawing took on a three dimensional, "realistic" quality. The evolution of what we now call "classical perspective" or "illusionistic perspective" was taking place, and drawing in 3-dimensional perspective became something of an obsession for architects, inventors, and painters of the period. Gone were the days when the relative scale of various figures was determined primarily by their religious significance, as was the case in medieval "Last Judgment" paintings and frescos. There was a totally new realization that objects appear to get smaller as their distance from the observer increases. One of da Vinci's younger contemporaries, Raphael Sanzio worked on perfecting the technique of three dimensional perspective which he used in his pen and paper architectural studies. For the fist time, the process that takes place between the two-dimensional image that the eye creates on the retina, and the three-dimensional image that the brain interprets from that flat image, was being simulated on the two-dimensional surface of paper and canvas.

This scientific understanding of the illusion of spatial depth on a two-dimensional surface was further perfected by a 16th century German painter and printmaker named Albrecht Dürer. By drawing observed objects onto a sheet of glass (below, left), Dürer had discovered the concept of the "picture plane," which "captured" the spatial relationship of similarly-sized objects that are situated at varying distances from the observer. With this discovery, artists no longer needed to rely on their best guess to determine correct perspective (below, right).

Albrecht Dürer and Perspective Drawing History

Cappella Tornabuoni fresco, Florence (c.1490) by Domenico Ghirlandaio (left), Albrecht Dürer drawing on glass (c.1520), etching (right)

While Alberti, da Vinci, Raphael, et al pushed the boundaries of artistic, technical and scientific understanding, Flemish painters such as Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390—1441) perfected the illusion of three-dimensional reality through their mastery of light's reflection on a variety of surfaces. Because of this new technique, Dutch painting was often labelled as "realistic" painting, but it would be several-hundred years before the merging of realism and mechanical drawing.

Modern Technical Illustration

"Industrialists and merchants confront each other brandishing images like an advertising weapon. Debauchery without precedent, a disorder makes the walls explode. No brake, no law comes to temper this overheated atmosphere that shatters the retina..." Fernand Léger

The industrial revolution further refined the field of technical illustration. Mass production and the outsourcing of various stages of manufacturing created the need to adopt conventions and standards in technical communication and illustration that would be universally understood. The technical drawings of this period remained devoid of realism or three-dimensional depth, making them difficult for a non-technical, or lay-person to relate to on a human level. During the early 1900s, modern artists in the Abstract Expressionist and Dadaist movement such as Marcel Duchamp (1887—1968), Fernand Léger (1881—1955), and Joan Miro (1893—1983) used these simple technical and product drawings as abstract elements in their paintings, partly to convey their dismay and dislike of these "symbols of capitalist consciousness."

Early Patent Drawings

Early Patent Drawings (c.1800s)

The birth of "scientific" or "linear 3-point perspective" during the mid 1900s gave both artist and technical illustrator a predictable methodology for illustrating objects and environments more realistically. Unlike "classical perspective," which would combine multiple picture-planes or points-of-view into a single drawing, only one point-of-view (POV) was now used. Thus, a new concept in drawing was realized when it was generally accepted that parallel lines – if extended to infinity – would appear to meet at a single point on the horizon. Through this creation of pictorial, or illusionary space, the drawing appears to recede backward into depth, and away from the picture plane or "viewer's" point-of-view.

By predetermining a fixed viewpoint, the illustrator could now create an "objective" recording of one's visual experience. The impression that this technique makes on the brain is so powerful that once mastered, the optical illusion remains, even though the visual trickery has been exposed. Additionally, a lay person with no technical understanding of the principles of perspective has an intuitive negative reaction to a piece of art if something is amiss.

During this early period in the development of modern technical illustration, technical and product illustrators used variant line weights to emphasize mass, proximity, and scale, which helped to make a complex line-drawing more understandable to the lay person. Cross hatching, stipple, and other basic techniques gave greater depth and dimension to the subject matter, however technical illustration largely remained a black and white, or "halftone" affair. In the early 1960s, Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein took to lampooning these iconic "commercial" illustrations, both for their banal and stark visual simplicity, as well as the statement that they make about our highly industrialized, consumer-driven culture.

Birth of the "Scientific Cut-Away"

The "cut-away" illustration made its first appearance sometime during the late 1800s. The view of choice for these early representations was usually a two-dimensional side elevation view.

Early Cutaway Drawings

Early Cutaway Drawings (c.1890s), from "Inomoto Drawing"

During the 1930s, Russell Porter was one of the pioneers in the field of three-dimensional cutaway illustration. Although technical illustration was only a side-line for Mr. Porter, his work is some of the earliest of this artform. While working on the design of Caltech's Palomar telescope, Mr. Porter perfected his "cutaway" drawing technique. During WW2 he assisted in the war effort by designing and drawing military hardware. He was dubbed the "Cutaway Man" by Pentagon officials for his ability to draw the internal workings of complex machinery by cutting through the outer "skin."

During the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, famed automotive illustrators such as James A. Allington (Road & Track), Theo Page (Autosport Magazine and The Motor Magazine), and Yoshihiro Inomoto (Automotive Quarterly) were the pioneers in highly detailed three-dimensional cutaway drawings and illustrations done in pen-and-ink or watercolor.

Early Cutaway Drawings

Early Cutaway Drawings (c.1950s & 1960s)

Modern technical illustration advanced again during the late 1960s, with the help of the photo-realist art movement. Through the use of paint brush, pencil, and airbrush, artists became adept at mimicking photography, and realism was again in vogue. By merging technical illustration and photo-realism, the technical illustrator could now convey highly complex technical information to someone with little understanding of mechanics or drafting. The merging of these two distinct art forms had finally elevated technical illustration from lowbrow informational imagery into the realm of fine art.

Ironically, just as conventional "hand-done" technical illustration was about to reach its high-point over the next few decades, a new type of mechanized drawing was being developed by scientists at MIT. In 1963, the first "graphical user interface," or computer drawing program, known simply as "Sketchpad" was invented by computer scientist Ivan Edward Sutherland, although it would not be until the late 1990s that computer illustration finally exploded onto the scene.

The Future of Technical Illustration

"Computer graphics digs up the ageless philosophical question, What is art?" Dr. Rodney Chang - Shanghai University College of Fine Arts "A computer has no idea of its own. It can't wake up in the middle of the night and invent Cubism or Impressionism or Pop Art. Before it can make an electronic image, it must be fed the right instructions." Kathie Beals, Gannett News Service

Although modern technology has become so complex that it is beyond the grasp of most consumers, human curiosity and the desire to "know" how things work will provide fertile ground for the technical illustrators of the future.

One might ask what part "human" illustrators will play in an increasingly digital world. While computer programs are very good at collecting, deciphering, and regurgitating objective information, they are still incapable of subjective understanding. Technical illustration, like it's highbrow cousin, fine art, is still highly subjective. Even though computer drawing programs are taking much of the drudgery out of technical illustration, It will still be important for the illustrator to have a fundamental understanding of the basic principles of drawing that have brought us this far. The computer is just a tool, like the chisle, pencil, paintbrush or airbrush that came before it. In the wrong hands, it will produce something of minimal aesthetic value, while in the right hands, it will produce something of great beauty.

An effective technical illustration will always require a human touch. Only a human can decide what another human will find aesthetically pleasing and understandable. Through the use of sophisticated drawing programs, technical illustrators will have powerful new tools at their disposal to further the goal of increasing human visual understanding and push the boundaries of this long-enduring art form.

Suggestions for further study

David Kirsh, Associate Professor, Why Illustrations Aid Understanding. Department of Cognitive Science, University of Calif., San Diego

Jon M. Duff, Ph.D., Greg Maxson, The Complete Technical Illustrator, 1st Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill

Jon M. Duff, Ph.D., Industrial Technical Illustration. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Publishing

John A. Dennison, Charles D. Johnson, Technical Illustration: Techniques and Applications IL: Goodheart-Willcox Company, Inc.

Rex Vicat Cole, Perspective For Artists. New York: Dover Press

French, Svensen, Helsel, Urbanick, Mechanical Drawing. New York: McGraw-Hill

John Adkins Richardson., Art: The Way It Is. N. J.: Prentice-Hall

Rex Vicat Cole., Perspective For Artists. New York: Dover Press

Paolo Graziosi., Paleolithic Art. New York: McGraw-Hill

Michalowski, Kazimierz Art Of Ancient Egypt. New York: Abrams

Lawrence, Arnold W. Greek Architecture Baltimore: Penguin Books

Erwin Panofsky Early Netherlandish Painting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Varnedoe, Gopnik High And Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture. New York: Museum Of Modern Art

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