Here is my explanation. Picture three rings that intersect and overlap one another in the middle, with each of those rings representing one of the following categories–illustration, graphic design, and “fine art.” Each one is an entity unto itself, and yet they have common areas. There are plenty of examples of one piece of art being all three at once, with the caveat being that the term, “fine art,” is subjective. I’m a fan of all three.
Illustration is what I do. I create images by drawing and painting them in ink and watercolor. While my work is done entirely by hand in “traditional media,” perfectly valid illustrations may be computer generated. Regardless of the medium, illustrations are images usually created to highlight something that is written first. The image is illustrating the written word, and bringing more attention to that message than if it was simply a written word.
When that illustration is combined with typography, as in a poster or advertisement, we’re in the category of graphic design. Graphic design normally involves words, layout, and combining those with images. Logos are usually considered graphic design, even if there are aspects of illustration in them. Those aspects are stylized and hard edged enough to blend in with the lettering, and this type of work is mostly done on a computer. I have hand drawn some logos, and those fall right in between the two categories.
The purpose of illustration is specific, as is that of graphic design, and, to put it loosely, they are advertising something, be it a product or an idea. A client, either individual or business, hires the person creating the illustration, or design. The artist knows that he/she will be paid, usually receiving a down payment to begin.
Fine art is art that is created by and for the artist. It can be anything the artist feels like doing at that moment. It may be representational. It may be abstract. Its intentions are to be “art for art’s sake,” and, after completion, the artist will try to sell it. Many aspects of illustration and graphic design, such as composition, use of color, texture, shadow, and subject, are also parts of fine art, and that is where the three categories intersect.
Lastly, an anecdote: many years ago, fresh out of college, I was chatting with two artist types who both did abstract work. I was already clearly more of a cartoon/illustrator. One of them said, “of course you know that our art is higher than yours,” to which I expressed strong disagreement. Some twenty years later, I was visiting people back home, and this artist happened to get wind of my presence. He found out where I was staying, came over, and apologized.
While snobbery may help in the world of art sales, I have no need for it. The lines are too blurred, and there is too much subjectivity and personal taste involved. Illustration is not a higher art form than graphic design nor is abstract art higher than illustration. Each form has its place in our culture and media.