Skip to main content

5 timeless illustration styles (and what to use them for)

Save 15% on premium images with code 15ISTOCK

Certain styles of illustration come in and out of fashion, whether in response to global design trends or simply because a high-profile campaign sets a bar that 'me too' clients clamour to match.

Examples in recent years include, industry-wide booms in illustrated 3D type, flat-colour vector art, hand-lettering, paper art, and bright, stylised set design. The world's leading practitioners of those styles are surrounded by plenty of stylistic chameleons who want a piece of the same pie.

You may well choose to pick some on-trend illustration styles for your next project, and we'll not judge you for it. But some styles of illustration have a timeless appeal that exists irrespective of trends, and some of the best illustrators working today have managed to carve their own niche.

Read on for five illustration styles with a more traditional heritage. These examples may persuade you to abandon trends and embrace a more timeless aesthetic...

01. Detailed architectural drawing

Grand Budapest Hotel, by Thibaud Herem

These detailed drawings take hundreds of hours to complete

Spending hundreds of hours crafting huge, painstakingly detailed architectural-style drawings with pencil and Indian inks, French-born, London-based illustrator Thibaud Herem is a strong advocate for a very traditional approach to illustration. And with clients including Wallpaper*, Science Museum and Transport for London, it's clearly a style that's in demand.

Each piece is drawn by hand on a large sheet of quality paper, and then scanned in at very high resolution, with dust and other imperfections cleaned up digitally. It's a laborious, hugely time-consuming process but the results are stunning, and strikingly authentic in a digital world. 

While perfectly suited to any 'hero' illustrations for particularly ornate and distinctive buildings that are worth spending the time to craft in such detail – such as Wes Anderson's iconic Grand Budapest Hotel, above – Herem has also lent his pen to more organic but no less detailed forms, such as trees.

02. Traditional woodcut style

Cover for The Book of Dust, by Chris Wormell

This aesthetic is particular popular for book covers

Wood engraving and linocut printing are well-established techniques that pre-date vector artwork by centuries, but like Thibaud Herem's painstaking pencil-and-ink method, they lend an illustration a distinctive authenticity and craft that digital work struggles to emulate.

Print-maker, illustrator and children’s author Chris Wormell is a master at putting a contemporary twist on these most traditional of approaches, and his style of work is very much in-demand in the world of publishing in particular. Wormell has worked on over 30 books, including Waterstones' 2017 Book of the Year, La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One (pictured above).

Wormell's style is not just popular for book covers, though. The demand for crafted authenticity in branding shows little sign of waning, and in 2016 he worked with SomeOne to help craft a new crest for Aston Villa football club.

03. Expressive watercolour

Natural History Museum poster, illustrated by Sarah Maycock

Watercolour has a free, expressive quality 

Watercolour-style artwork isn't just about landscapes and flower arrangements. Flowing, expressive uses of ink are very much in-demand, if Sarah Maycock's success is anything to judge by. It's a style that works well for fashion, lifestyle and cultural clients who want freer, more organic illustration for their brands.

After graduating from Kingston in 2011, Maycock honed her skills drawing animals from nature documentaries, developing an uncanny knack for capturing their characteristics and movement. She has since worked with clients such as Natural History Museum (above), the Guardian, Waitrose and Liberty London.

04. Simple, witty sketches

Hate Mail by Mr Bingo

Simple, witty sketches have made Mr Bingo incredibly popular

For 15 years, self-dubbed "artist, speaker and twat" Mr Bingo lent his distinctive style of hand-sketched illustration – often with a savage twist of abusive humour weaved through – to clients such as The New Yorker, the Guardian, TIME, Channel 4, the Mighty Boosh and The New York Times.

Bingo's Hate Mail project launched in 2012 as a tongue-in-cheek service in which you pay to receive an abusive postcard, and then developed into a Kickstarter-funded book, complete with hilarious rap video and string of increasingly surreal rewards. Following its phenomenal success, Bingo moved away from client work to become an artist.

Some of his more intricate client work over the years makes it clear that Bingo can draw in beautiful detail when he wants to. But he's proven many times over how in-demand very simple, witty sketches can be, if you have the personality to pull it off. 

A more extreme example would be the success of Jon Link and Mick Bunnage, the duo better known as Modern Toss. Here the coarse, abusive humour is very much the star – the fact that their About page leads with the question: "How come you can't draw?" says it all, really.

05. Retro 1950s advertising

Five Go On A Great Western Adventure campaign for GWR

Trip down memory lane, anyone? 

Arguably a bit of a cop-out inclusion on the list, as this style of illustration was by definition 'on-trend' in the 1940s and 50s, and is part of a revival of more retro styles of illustration. But that nostalgic, comforting, classic approach definitely has timeless appeal, if used in the right way.

Picking up a D&AD Graphite Pencil in 2018, adam&eveDDB's beautifully illustrated ad campaign for Great Western Railway (GWR) follows Enid Blyton's Famous Five on an adventure through the countryside, in an attempt to evoke the long-lost childhood excitement of rail travel. 

Another creative influenced by mid-20th-century commercial illustration, Colorado-based Brian Edward Miller has lent his distinctive 'modern retro' style to various editorial, commercial and advertising briefs. 

No creative wants to be stuck in the past, but the above examples show that at a time when brands crave craft, heritage and authenticity, traditional aesthetics and techniques can still resonate with contemporary audiences.

Related articles: