Ligne Claire: Reading and Pictorial Promise

By Ayesha Gleed


Back in June I shared an article on Facebook about Ilya Milstein’s illustrations. I hadn’t known Milstein’s work before, but many would find it as familiar as I did then. The illustrator based in NY has drawn repeatedly for magazines like the New Yorker and brands such as Spotify and Red Bull, all in a memorably colourful, flat and cartoony style. Figures are rendered simplistically characterful, whilst backgrounds are rich in detail and everything is coloured harmoniously within palettes of pastel pinks and autumnal ochres.


Tintin fans amongst you will already be familiar with these stylistic thumbprints- a style birthed by Hergé in the first half of the 20th century and christened by cartoonist Joost Swarte in 1977 as ligne claire. Translated from French as ‘clear lines’, the style delivers what its name succinctly promises: clean, usually black lines, usually drawn in pens of one chosen thickness to create ostensibly simple characters and structurally realistic backgrounds. Colour is not shaded but done in block and there is no cross-hatching or other techniques to create dark shadows.


Milstein calls his work in this style “inobtuse and highly legible”. Indeed, the graphic sensibility of the style lends itself to reading very well. The ease with which a ligne claire picture can be consumed makes it particularly well suited to genres which require speed of comprehension or an absence of text: advertising, children’s books and of course, the genre in which it was originally popularised, comics.


The legibility of ligne claire as a graphic style makes it a perfect example of the dynamism between reading pictures and text simultaneously. There is a quality in it which provokes a viewer to become a reader. Why is this the case? Firstly, I agree with what Daphne Milner writes in her article on Milstein, that the dichotomy between uncomplicated lines and richness of detail prompts the viewer to “interpret a rich range of narratives.” Pictures with such inviting details give us so many prompts without textual answers, leading us to substitute with our imagination. At the same time, ligne claire manages to keep you at a distance through its coloured flatness. When reading a text there is a level of intellectual penetrability; as the expression goes, we can read between the lines. Meanwhile with images such as Milstein’s the lines mould to the eye and in between them lie blocks of colour, further intangibilities. There is a level of allusiveness to ligne claire which explains why it’s flat surface was chosen to hide Where’s Wally?


Secondly, I would suggest that something in the softness of colour and the friendly equally-sized lines offer an aesthetic comfort which is utterly inviting. There is precisely the right level of evocative detail to recognise and place yourself in a scene, yet never enough for you to wholly grasp what seems like such an inviting experience. Many have talked comparably about the infamous style of Studio Ghibli, which is not consistently ligne claire but done in more cinematic proportions. In reading one is expected to mentally position oneself: in a description, an atmosphere, a narrator, an argument. However in the visual, you expect to position yourself as you do seeing, that is, to position yourself physically. Of course this is ridiculous- you can attempt to be in a picture but obviously, and perhaps a little frustratingly, you are very aware that you are more three dimensional than ever. The pictorial feel like a promise: a promise of what could be and what could perhaps be seen. In ligne claire is where I feel this most: the satisfyingly drawn experience is there, but in an intangible half-life. Consciously lined, consciously drawn. Unreal and yet with the reality of natural colour and architectural realism. Clear lines that tempt you to read yourself into them.


‘The Muse’s Revenge’ by Ilya MilsteinIlya_Milstein_Muses_Revenge

‘A Dog on a Mexican Beach’ by Ilya MilsteinIlyaMilstein-ADogOnAMexicanBeach-Illustration-ItsNiceThat

‘A Library by the Tyrhhenian Sea’ by Ilya MilsteinFINAL+copy


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