What is the atomic style of illustration?

Tintin The Shooting Star

The atomic style of illustration is closely related to ‘ligne claire’. In French this means ‘clear line’.

The ligne claire/atomic style of drawing was created and pioneered by Hergé (real name Georges Prosper Remi). Hergé was Belgian and lived from 1907 to 1983. He is best known for creating The Adventures of Tintin.

Hergé’s style of cartooning wasn’t called ‘ligne claire’ until 1977, coined by Dutch artist and graphic designer Joost Swarte.

Rewind a bit and French illustrator Yves Chaland (1957-1990) sort of relaunched Hergé’s style in France. This is when the style also started to become known as ‘atomic’.

The French Clear-Line master Yves Chaland is the main representative of the so-called “atomic style”, a nostalgic 1950s retro style. In his modern style of nostalgia, he created an ironic note to the classic Franco-Belgian comics, in the form of his popular series ‘Freddy Lombard’.

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Yves Chaland sadly died young, in a car accident, at the age of 33. Below is one of his illustrations. If you’ve seen Tintin you’ll recognise the style.

by Yves Chaland. The atom ‘light’ style of illusration juxtaposes with the dark subject matter. The effect of dark/light matter juxtaposition always serves to make dark matter even darker. This was for his own book c 1980 ‘La Comète de Carthage’ (The Comet of Carthage).

FEATURES OF THE ATOMIC STYLE OF ILLUSTRATION

  • Clear, strong lines. In ‘clear line”ligne claire illustration, these lines are all of the same width, though there is clear pressure sensitivity utlised in the style more broadly, with tapering lines. We also see thicker lines used to outline objects and/or people.
  • However, there is no hatching.
  • Contrast is downplayed.
  • Shadows are important to the balance of the composition, and are therefore emphasised, as if there is a strong light source somewhere. Grounding shadows might be black, for example. A darker hue is often used to suggest form where shadow would fall, but it would not look so obvious in real life, or in realistic painting.
  • When coloured, atomic illustrations feature hues which are more saturated and ‘interesting’ than what we’d expect in the real world. In Chaland’s illustration above, a yellow hue stands in for what would clearly be coded as ‘brown’ in the furniture and picture frame.
  • Where the illustration features a background, cartoonish characters juxtapose against a ‘set’ which is more realistic than they are, with dots for eyes and other simplified features.
  • Together, these elements result in a ‘flat aspect’ (relatively little depth perception). These illustrations seem influenced by the stage rather than the camera of modern TV, with its close-ups and various angles. This ‘stage’ aspect is partly what contributes to the nostalgic feel of atomic illustration, harking back to a pre-cinematic era.
Yves Chaland (1957 - 1990) circa 1980 illustration for his own book Le Jeune Alber, tram
Yves Chaland (1957 – 1990) circa 1980 illustration for his own book Le Jeune Alber. This illustration features a low ‘camera angle’ with exaggerated perspective.
Edgar P. Jacobs (1904 – 1987) 1948 illustration for his Blake & Mortimer series Le Secret de l'Espadon (The Secret Of The Swordfish)
Edgar P. Jacobs (1904 – 1987) 1948 illustration for his Blake & Mortimer series Le Secret de l’Espadon (The Secret Of The Swordfish)

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of what the atomic style looks like is via a Pinterest collection.

The atomic style of illustration didn’t come out of nowhere. The illustration below by Italian artist Ettore Tito dates from around 1920. This is not clear line/atomic — notice the crosshatching. But we have the clear border outlines, the atomic colour palette and little in the way of depth perception. (Look at the artist’s other paintings and you’ll see this isn’t his usual style.)

Ettore Tito c.1920 fixing car in the rain
Ettore Tito c.1920 fixing car in the rain

ATOMIC STYLE IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND STORIES

  • The Where’s Wally? series by Martin Handford is especially well-suited to this style — indeed requires it — because the illustrations are so detailed they can’t take further interest value in the line and hatching.
  • Mo Willems illustrates with strong black line and flat aspect, though his line is less ‘ligne claire’ because much of it appears to have been created with a pencil or crayon, giving the work a more naive look. (See Elephant and Piggie.) The lines also overlap at times, deliberately, adding to the ‘handdrawn, sketchy’ look.
  • Numerous examples can be found in graphic novels. The graphic novels of Raina Telgemeir are similar to the atomic style. The strokes clearly vary in width and contain interest in their own right. Thicker lines outline an object, while thinner lines add interior detail. However, there is no hatching. The flat aspect, the use of darker colour as shading, the absence of hatching and the character illustration is clearly ‘Tintin’-esque.

WHAT TYPES OF STORIES SUIT THE ATOMIC STYLE OF ILLUSTRATION?

Whereas the atomic style of illustration is often used in stories for adults to juxtapose against dark subject matter, there is often no such juxtaposition in stories for children, in which case the ‘lightness’ of the illustration style more closely matches the subject matter, with less ironic distance between (illustration) style and (subject matter) darkness.

The inherent nostalgic tone of this style is clear. It’s no coincidence that Raina Telgemeier uses it to depict stories from her own childhood. It doesn’t matter than Telgemeier grew up in the 1980s, long after the Tintin era. It seems that ‘any era before this one’ can be rendered nostalgic (especially to young readers), and stories set anytime in the past can be well-suited to an atomic illustration style.

Another advantage of this style: Characters are not highly individuated. Eyes are very often just black dots. Skin colour notwithstanding, these minimalist characterisations can therefore function as proxy for ‘the every child’.

Books for very young children often feature strong, black outlines and flat hue. This is because the board book crew are still developing eye control and are drawn to objects with strong outlines and primary colours. The atomic illustration style is therefore well-suited to books for very young children, including babies.

Header illustration is from Tintin: The Shooting Star.

Depicting Motion In Illustration

How do illustrators convey motion when creating static images?

As a case study, we can’t go past Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. Others have analysed her illustrations in depth. Although soft watercolours aren’t the usual medium for high action, life-or-death picture books these days, Potter successfully used soft watercolours to create excitement. It’s deceptive. Impressively, she created high action illustrations even without the comic book flourishes, without the slashes of primary colour, without the art noir techniques.

THE FIELD OF UNIFIED MOTION

Building a field of unified motion has been an artist’s tool for attracting the viewer’s attention. A unified field of motion keeps the image coherent, sustains the attention of the viewer and, invests the image with an enlivening spirit, “its Alive!” We pay more attention to active than inert subjects.

J.M.W. Turner took pride in his ability to suggest motion. He invested so much motion in his later works that viewers complained he sacrificed legibility. But, motion is more evocative of vitality than objects delineated in stasis. Turner’s fascination with motion inspired him to create his famous early 1844 locomotive painting, “Rain Steam and Speed”. The entire surface roils with clouds of movement.

David Dunlop
Rain Steam and Speed, Turner
Rain Steam and Speed, Turner

In his post, David Dunlop also talks about Degas and Van Gogh, and points out how natural weather events contribute to motion. Wind is one such event.

Joseph Farquharson - Cauld Blaws the Wind frae East to West
Joseph Farquharson – Cauld Blaws the Wind frae East to West
Samuel Bough - A Windy Day
Samuel Bough – A Windy Day

Rain is another, creating a natural sense of vertical motion, except of course when it’s accompanied by wind.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 1888 - 1960 The Storm
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite 1888 – 1960 The Storm

Back to children’s books, Blinky Bill is another interesting case study into motion, partly because koalas are famous for doing nothing all day (or appearing to). Yet Dorothy Wall created a story full of action. For young readers who knew koalas, this in itself would have functioned as a comic paradox.

By 1933, the comic book conventions are established. Notice the motion lines of the kangaroo, of the items flying off the desk, and of Blinky Bill’s slingshot. The image of Madam Hare reprimanding Brer Rabbit is more interesting, because Wall has used a motion flourish behind the onlookers, who are still, to suggest drama. The black flourish itself looks like a massive motion line. Wall reuses this technique in the final blow, where Madam Hare delivers a parting kick. This time, Wall makes use of ‘pow!’ lines as well as that black, background flourish.

More modern children’s book illustrators also use comic book flourishes to suggest motion. In full colour illustration, the white brush stroke is aesthetically pleasing.

The troll from the Three Billy Goats Gruff flies through the air. Illustration by Robert Lumley.

Chris Van Dusen also uses the interesting technique of bordering his characters in a thin corona of white aand/or yellow, to help them stand out against his beautifully detailed backgrounds. (Basically this is his way of dealing with aerial perspective.)

Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Mo speed, mo lines. The entire road in this poster comprises motion lines.

Le Mans 1954 poster by Charles Avalon motion
Le Mans 1954 poster by Charles Avalon motion

Back to Billy Goats Gruff and Robert Lumley. No motion lines here, but we do have a visual depiction of sound, which coincides with the goat trip-trapping across that bridge. This technique is especially widespread throughout manga, which originate in Japan — a language rich in onomatopoeia and mimesis.

Robert Lumley illustrates the billy goat trotting across the bridge.

The Art Deco poster below uses decoration to double-duty as the motion of ringing bells and a visual representation of the ringing coming out of them.

Certain objects lend themselves to motion, and in this case the motion of the lasso provides a ‘grid’ for the entire composition. This is an excellent case of typography helping out with the sense of motion.

Cover by N. Zimelli, 1931 motion
Cover by N. Zimelli, 1931 motion

As Beatrix Potter knew, watercolour, in the hands of a master painter, is excellent for depicting motion. Even in the hands of a master painter, it always does its own thing, and this unpredictability is felt by the viewer.

Janusz Grabianski (1929-1976), Polish children’s book illustrator. This fox in motion is from The Big Book of Animal Stories, 1961
In The Snowman, Raymond Briggs demonstrates that colour pencil/pastel is also pretty good for motion lines, too.
In The Snowman, Raymond Briggs demonstrates that colour pencil/pastel is also pretty good for motion lines, too.

FABRIC IN THE BREEZE

Where characters wear loose clothing with billowing potential, illustrators can easily convey motion by simply billowing the fabric. (Actually drawing fabric in motion is an art in itself, however!)

Where the fabric is not particularly billowy (ie. most clothing worn by masculo-coded characters), leaping and jumping is conveyed by inserting some space between the feet and the ground. It’s not entirely clear how high this guy is jumping as there’s no grounding shadow. (I conclude he’s flying more than jumping.)

RENE BULL (1845 - 1942) Leaping Warrior based on Ballets Russes, Polovtsian Dances by Michel Fokine
RENE BULL (1845 – 1942) Leaping Warrior based on Ballets Russes, Polovtsian Dances by Michel Fokine

Long hair is as useful as fabric in the motion department. Birds are clearly necessary to the story in The Great Sea Horse illustration below, but birds in flight come in handy more generally for conveying a sense that the static world illustrated before us is alive. A bird with its wings in ‘m’ position cannot exist without constant motion. Ditto for humans in mid stride, and so on.

The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson 4
The Great Sea Horse 1909 by Isabel Anderson

Skies, especially stormy skies, can be utilised to convey a sense of motion on the ground. This pretty much always results in a dramatic scene. Notice too how Alexander Zick makes use of birds in flight to indicate the motion and direction of the ship.

Alexander Zick (1845-1907) 1892 illustration called ′The Viking’s Funeral’

A fight scene, on a ship, during a storm. Peak motion. Notice that Amos Sewell also makes use of static onlookers (proxy for us). These static viewers serve to emphasise the motion they perceive (as well as lead our eyes to the fighting characters).

Amos Sewell fight on deck during a storm

MOVING BUILDINGS

I’m not talking in this case about houses on legs, Baba Yaga style, though that’s one way of moving a building!

Is the building moving in each image below, or does motion solely derive from the movement of the viewer? It doesn’t matter, and in fact I think it’s both, in which case art does something everyday vision cannot achieve: a melding between object and perceiver.

First we have an example of a music theatre from Gaston and Josephine, a French children’s book from the mid 20th century, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky.

In this double spread illustration, we can clearly tell the music has begun, because the interior itself appears to be in motion, with the people in the gallery dangerously tapering away, their seats sliding far to the right (at least they would be if this illustration conformed to the laws of perspective and physics).

Otar Imerlishvili is ‘known for his whimsical scenes that depict daily life through the colored lens of innocence and wonder.’ This fantasy piano house is another good example of an illustration of music. You wouldn’t think it possible to illustrate music, which is an auditory experience rather than a visual one, but the magic of music seems to morph the visual world in synesthesic fashion.

Otar Imerlishvili piano motion
Otar Imerlishvili

Below are more examples of the ‘liquify filter’, applied long before Photoshop existed. In all cases, the buildings and background seem to be in motion.

Cover art for House Beautiful by Marjory C. Woodbury [1891-1964]
Cover art for House Beautiful by Marjory C. Woodbury [1891-1964]
Tumble Timbers (study drawing), around 1925–26, by Wanda Gág
Tumble Timbers (study drawing), around 1925–26, by Wanda Gág

The ‘liquify filter’ on the house below is more subtle. The scrubby brush strokes on the trees work harder to convey a sense of motion. But the wavy lines and slightly off-kilter perspective on the house is still there, aided by the unlikely height of the building.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime

TILT THE HORIZON

This illustration technique works especially well for ships. In the work below, the ‘horizon’ of the ship is tilted, but the actual horizon remains horizontal. It’s the mismatch which conveys the motion. I almost feel sick.

Jean Emile LABORER (1877-1943) Transatlantic, 1907 transatlantic steamboat

In Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustration below, the horizon itself has shifted. We view the ship from a distance, not as a passenger.

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ illustration by Bernie Wrightson (1976)

Below we have a non-seascape example of a tilted horizon. Storms and titled horizons go hand in hand. This comes in handy even if your ‘storm’ is pathetic (inducing pathos) rather than literal.

H. R. Van Dongen (1920 - 2010) 1954 cover illustration The Big Rain for Astounding Science Fiction magazine storm
H. R. Van Dongen (1920 – 2010) 1954 cover illustration The Big Rain for Astounding Science Fiction magazine.
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime

Contrast with the painting below, in which the artist aims for absolute stillness (and achieves it admirably) with a horizontal horizon, water almost like a mirror and a collection of three artfully arranged ships, differing in distance but nonetheless evenly spaced from the viewer’s perspective.

Carl Brandt (1871 - 1930) After the Storm, 1914
Carl Brandt (1871 – 1930) After the Storm, 1914

Wait Till The Moon Is Full by Wise Brown and Williams

Wait Till the Moon Is Full is a 1948 picture book written by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Garth Williams. The story has carnivalesque elements, a gentle utopian storyline and a well-drawn mother figure, who is safe and warm but who also joins her son in his imaginative play.

This picture book is a perfect going-to-bed story because of its poetic elements. For this reason it has been produced as an audio play. It works even without illustrations.

Continue reading “Wait Till The Moon Is Full by Wise Brown and Williams”