Thick Dark Outlines In Art And Illustration

Thick, dark outlines in art and illustration is associated with several completely different types of art.

First, let’s takes a look at thick, dark outlines in fine art, which is a distinctive feature of certain art movements.

This painting is called “Woman in Thought II” (1928) and I choose it mindfully. The artist is Gabriele Münter. Art, and what we consider great art has always been political, and always tied to which demographics already garner the most privilege. Gabriele Münter belonged to an art group known as Der Blaue Reiter, which included several other women who got nothing like the attention afforded the male artists working at the forefront of the Munich avant-garde in the early 20th century. (I’m talking about Kandinsky, Macke, Marc, Klee and Von Jawlensky.)
Portrait of a Young Woman (1909) – Gabriele Münter. These almost look like stained glass windows.
In Bermuda by Prudence Heward 1939
House In The Garden 1912 Adolf Erbslöh (German, 1881–1947)
Bassily Kandinsky Saint Georges and Dragon
Max Weber Still Life with Blue Pitcher 1911
Felix Vallotton
Emile Othon Friesz (1879-1949) Roofs and Cathedral in Rouen, 1908. Friesz later called himself Othon Friesz. This painter was French artist of the Fauvist movement. “The wild beasts” were a group of early 20th-century modern artists. The movement lasted only a few years, but their art is distinctive for emphasising painterly qualities and strong colour. It’s like Impressionism, but unlike Impressionist paintings, does away with any representational or realistic values. The standout Fauvist painter is, you guessed it, Matisse. Can you think of any picture books which look a bit like this painting? I’m thinking of the Madeline series.
Heinrich Emil Adametz (c1884 – 1971) Woman with elbow resting on a chair, 1916. (Commas are important. I am also ‘with elbow’. No one ever done a painting of me and I also have an elbow. Two of them, in fact.)
Lawren Harris (Canadian, 1885-1970) Coldwell – North Shore, Lake Superior, September 1922.
Jean Brusselsmans, Belgium, Landscape of Snow 1938
For Esme With Love by JD Salinger


Parenting goes through fashions, just like art. In the 1990s parenting gurus were using new research about babies and baby eye-sight. Babies respond well to well-defined black and white shapes, parents were told. Hence all the black and white mobiles above cots decorating 1990s baby bedrooms.

This research also made it into picture books, which had already been full of bright colours and big shapes, but I suspect the black and white craze did influence book design for the very young.

As you’ll see from the illustrations below, thick dark outlines precede the 1990s. But illustrations such as the Chinese example below may have also been to do with artists shifting to digital content creation. Early versions of Adobe Illustrator just weren’t that great, at least not by today’s standards. The outlines of those peas are vector shapes, with the function of separating the main characters from the background. (A type of atmospheric perspective.)

But just because art is created digitally doesn’t mean it has to look it. Art software now allows artists to create tapering, interesting lines, and this is reflected in picture books. (It is in fact impossible to tell if an artist has worked entirely digitally now.)

すやすや 松本英三 2014, a Japanese picture book Suya Suya by Eizo Matsumoto

Here are two picture books with remarkably similar composition and design.

AMY’S LONG NIGHT Whitman Tell-A-Tale Book 1970
De prinses met de lange haren 2004

A standout example of a popular children’s character with thick outline: Miffy. The first Miffy book was produced in 1955. There have been at least 30 published since. (Here is the official Miffy website.)

Here’s another rabbit with thick outlines, published five years after the first Miffy came out.

ぶくぶくぷわぷわ からーぶっくふろーら ふくだしょうすけ (1969). Shousuke Fukuda, Buku Buku, Puwa Puwa.

I really like the book cover below as an example of a thick, dark outline because the outline itself is an interesting, textured part of the illustration. Sheep in real life don’t have thick, dark outlines but they are fluffy, and the fluff is incorporated into the outline.

くうちゃんめめちゃん からーぶっくふろーら ふくだしょうすけ 1968

I’m reminded of the illustrations of John Burningham, who doesn’t always make use of thick, dark outlines, but who always makes much use of texture.

Oi! Get Off Our Train by John Burningham, first published 1989.

Here’s an example of thick, dark outlines created by felt tip markers.

かねもちのねこと 1989 Rich Cat

This style of art isn’t limited to art made for children, but does tend to have a slightly childlike quality to it. Peter Arno’s work makes use of heavy dark outlines which look to be made by a tapering brush.

Peter Arno

Comic books are full of outlines, of course. Some comic artists utilise thicker lines than others. Tatsuya Miyanishi is an example of an artist whose line work is on the thicker side.


This stands in direct contrast to what is called atomic style, with the ‘clean’, fine lines.

See also examples of white outlines.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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