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Illustration Trends: Everything Old Will Eventually Be New Again

Sep 15, 2020 | Rico De Guzman

When I do my visual research for creative ideas, I run into countless articles proclaiming the latest creative trends in fashion, photography, design or illustration styles. I am constantly amazed how Millennials are embracing trends that were actually popular decades and even centuries ago.

2020 Trendy Illustration Styles

Illustration has been a very hot topic for the past several years. With the onset and availability of computer graphics, new illustration styles have emerged. According to a survey of various creativity sites like Creative Bloq, UX Collective, Creative Boom, Creative Market, Envato and Fireart Studio, the top illustration trends for 2020 include Surrealistic, Limited Palette Flat Color, Geometric and Abstract illustration styles. I looked into these styles and the historic art movements that have influenced them.


The French writer, poet and anti-Fascist André Breton is generally considered the founder of Surrealism, which was a cultural movement developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War I and was largely influenced by Dada. Surrealism became known for its visual artworks and writings and the juxtaposition of uncommon imagery. Nature and people are often presented in a realistic style but then placed in a dreamlike/otherworldly scenario or landscape. Surrealism’s impact on illustration, design and visual communication in both marketing and today’s art landscape has been distinct and wide-ranging. This style was the proponent of new illustration techniques and showed how the world of dreams, symbols and fantasy could be explored visually in ways that can provoke a universal response.

Famous surrealist artists include Salvador Dalí, Rene Magritte and Yves Tanguy. Fantastic landscapes were commonplace for these three masters of Surrealism. Salvador Dalí is one of the more eccentric members of this group, having been expelled from art school twice and has been known to have questionable fascination or affiliations with controversial figures like Hitler and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. He has dabbled in the mainstream, creating works for Walt Disney which was later developed into the short film “Destino” and even designing the ads for The Gap and creating the Chupa Chups logo.

Rene Magritte is another household name in the art world. Known for his haunting self-portraits with apples, bowler hats and visual play with words in his art, his paintings have become too recognizable to steal. French surrealist Yves Tanguy specialized in organic shapes set in fantastic landscapes. He used a tightly limited palette of colors, only occasionally showing flashes of contrasting color accents.

In the late 1980s, two illustrators emerged. Guy Billout and Brad Holland specialized in editorial work for Time, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Playboy, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. In 1989, Billout was the recipient of the Hamilton King Award, one of the most highly regarded awards in the world of illustration. His style and technique often portrays a surreal parallel dream world where something is always out of kilter.
Holland’s paintings can be found in exhibitions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in France and The Museum of American Illustration in New York City. Writing for Print Magazine, author Steven Heller wrote, “As Pollock redefined plastic art, Holland has radically changed the perception of illustration.” In 1986, The Washington Post said Holland was “the undisputed star of American Illustration.”

Almost 40 years later, surrealistic illustration is having a renaissance of sorts. Young talent embracing the style is popping up in all parts of the world, especially Japan. Tokyo artist Kazuhisa Uragami incorporates snapshots of life in modern day Japan which captures a mood or emotion. He has worked on a myriad of projects across the advertising, publishing and editorial landscape and had his work showcased at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair. Kazuhisa’s work has recently been the subject of solo exhibitions in art galleries in South West Japan.

Another contemporary illustrator whose works frequently show surrealistic wit is Craig Frazier. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and publications like Time, Fortune, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal, just to name a few. Amongst his corporate clients are Adobe, American Express, Boeing, Chevrolet, Deloitte, MasterCard, Mohawk Paper, Navigant, The Royal Mail, U.S. Postal Service, and United Airlines. Craig has garnered countless awards from Communication Arts, The New York Art Directors Club, Print Magazine, Society of illustrators, American Illustration and Graphis. He has received two Silver medals from the Society of Illustrators and was featured on the cover of their Illustrators 42 Annual (2000). Craig was published as one of the top 100 illustrators in 100 Illustrators, (Taschen 2013). He was featured in Communication Arts in 1999 and twice in Graphis magazine in 2003 and 2004.

Another example of modern Surrealism? The Able&Co. illustrations! We worked with Anton Firsik, an artist and illustrator in Kyiv, to create a series of surrealist illustrations reminiscent of Magritte’s work. Each layout featured small people and a larger-than-life ampersand in a very atmospheric setting.

Salvatore Dalí


Rene Magritte 

Yves Tanguy

Guy Billout

Brad Holland

Kazuhisa Uragami

Guy Frazier

The Pop Art Movement and Flat Color Portrait Illustration

Although the most famous and recognizable Pop Art portrait artists were Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, there were two other figurative artists that gained popularity in the 60s and 80s – Tom Wesselman and Alex Katz – who have influenced the current flat color portrait illustration style. Both experimented with using fields of flat color in their portrait art, particularly Tom Wesselman’s Bedroom Series. Katz was influenced by the films, television shows and billboard advertising of the early 60s. He began painting large-scale paintings, often with dramatically cropped faces, which quickly made their own cultural impact. Ada Katz, whom he married in 1958, has been the subject of over 250 portraits throughout his career.

Regional artists such as Pegge Hopper also embraced the flat color style. Her portraits of Polynesian and Hawaiian women in beautiful traditional local dresses are famous in Hawaii. Her one-person shows have been at venues including The Contemporary Arts Center in Honolulu, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, O’Grady Gallery in Chicago, Kimzey Miller Gallery in Seattle and at Parco in Japan.

In the 1980’s Patrick Nagel’s illustrations gained popularity because they emphasized the female form in a distinctive style, descended from Art Deco and Pop art. His illustrations for Playboy magazine and the pop music group Duran Duran launched him into the spotlight. Nagel found inspiration in Japanese woodblock print, with figures silhouetted against a neutral background, with strong areas of black and white.

Considered one of America’s most adored illustrators, Michael Schwab specializes in working with positive and negative spaces which create iconic images both bold and contemporary. His work results in iconic visuals, which have been appreciated by clients such as Nike, Polo, Wells Fargo, Amtrak, Sundance, Pebble Beach, Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Michael Schwab had a studio in San Francisco from 1976 and gained prominence with his instantly recognizable flat high-contrast illustration style.

The new guard in flat color portraiture includes Malika Favre, a French illustrator and graphic artist based in London and has worked on a variety of projects ranging from advertising to publications. She has become known for blending Pop and Op art, creating a unique style of her own. She has been featured by companies such as Sephora, Le Bon Marché, Penguin Book and newspapers such as Vogue, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and others. The 80s pop influence in Favre’s style is evident in her depiction of female figures and poses.

Andy Warhol

Roy Lichtenstein

Tom Wesselman

Alex Katz

Pegge Hopper

Patrick Nagel

Michael Schwab

Malika Favre

Cubism Movement and Geometrical and Abstract Illustration Styles

Considered one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century, Cubism was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque with followers that included Juan Gris, Fernand Leger and Sonya and Robert Delaunay. Orphism and Abstract Art were offshoots of the movement. In France and other countries Futurism, Suprematism, Dada, Constructivism, Vorticism, De Stijl and Art Deco developed in response to Cubism.

As one of the most famous art movements, Cubism has been a source of inspiration for both traditional and modern digital artists in recent history. The use of abstract geometric forms is especially popular in digital art with software applications often being based on simple shapes.
Tokyo-based illustrator Jun Takahashi is a modern legend in cubism. He utilized sharp angels and shares, creating geometric sport characters that breathe energy and motion. He has worked for Coca-Cola, Logitech and Sapporo City Transport Bureau as well as many others. He combines “pop art” with contemporary palettes, creating a dynamic style that goes toe-to-toe with the masters.

In Copenhagen, Mads Berg is widely known for his modern art deco style and vintage graphics. His main fields of illustration are posters, brand illustrations, key visuals, editorial illustrations, cover art and murals. The illustrations are characterized by a style which translates classic poster art into a modern and timeless look. In 2010, he won the “Best Danish Children’s Comic” prize and in 2009 he won the Danish Design Prize. Mads’ poster art is represented at the Danish National Design Archives at the Design Museum.
Riccardo Guasco is an Italian painter and illustrator based in Wales. He loves old posters of the 30s, Picasso, Depero, Feininger, Russian suprematism, cubism and heroic cycling of old times. His illustrations appear on advertising campaigns, magazines, books, hats and bicycles. He has worked with New Yorker, Eni, Diesel, Greenpeace, Emergency, Campo Viejo, Rapha, Thames & Hudson, Rai, Poste Italiane, L’Espresso.

Pablo Lobato is a graphic designer and illustrator from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Growing up he was more interested in spending long hours drawing superheroes and medieval knights than playing football. In 1982, he drew his first portrait illustration, Cesar Luis Menotti, the coach of the National football team at the moment. His works are regularly featured in Rolling Stone, Texas Monthly, TV Guide, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Time, New York Daily News, People En Espanol and others.

These three contemporary digital artists are keeping the spirit of Cubism alive in their respective illustration styles. As evident from the various examples of trendy 2020 illustration styles, today’s artists are reaching far back into major art movements to get inspiration and will continue to find their own fresh perspective in their reinterpretation.

Pablo Picasso

Georges Braque


Juan Gris

Fernand Leger

Jun Takahashi

Mads Berg

Pablo Lobato

Riccardo Guasco

What Goes Around Comes Around

These three powerful art styles and their movements made permanent impacts on the world of creativity. Their imprints are still felt today and as we progress through the cycles of trends, styles and preferences, we will continue to see their presence. It boils down to this: We know good creative when we see it, and good creative never dies.