Ligne Claire – the Tintin way of drawing

Re-reading some old comics feels nostalgic, like playing football in the mud (not that I ever did that). And so it happened when I picked up a Tintin comic recently. But what was it that felt so comfortable about returning to Tintin that I had been missing in the wider world of comics?

Why, Ligne Claire of course!

I was equally puzzled by the term when I first chanced upon it. But I think that’s what I had been missing.

Ligne Claire, French for Clear Line is a school of comics illustrating that believes that

  • lines must be distinct and uniform, giving everything shape and boundaries
  • everything within the panel must be shown crystal clearly

If you imagine the pages within a child’s colouring book you will know what this mean. A sharp image, drawn using clear lines, just waiting to be carefully coloured in. no ambivalent brush strokes or light effects.

This style, as it turns out, was pioneered by Hergé, the creator of Tintin. It went on to take Europe by storm during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. The term itself, however, was coined much later in 1977 by another artist Joost Swarte. We in India had been well exposed to Tintin comics quite early on, and that is the reason behind the familiarity we feel for images drawn in this manner.

But really analyzing the effect of the style Hergé epitomizes can throw up startling insights. The lines are uniform, with no shading or highlighting. This implies the supremacy of form over all else. And the fact that there is no shading to offer the illusion of depth also means that the background is allowed to draw itself closer into our view. Compare the two images below to understand the difference that Clear Line holds.

Herge was fortunate to gain complete editorial control over this works, thanks to their incredible popularity. He started the Studios Hergé, a team of collaborators who helped him produce comics, and taught his protégés there his style. This developed into the ‘Brussels School’ of Ligne Claire.

The style’s popularity has risen and fallen, and occasional works adopt this method even now. Among the most popular recent works in this style was Jason Lutes’ Berlin volumes published since 1996.

Another very promising discovery for me is Peter van Dongen.

What attracted me through each of my readings, from childhood till now, are probably the details within the panels. It seemed to show me everything I wanted to know and more. Like the best of adventure stories it could be crowded with overflowing treasure chests, and intricate machines, all while the plot was advancing in the foreground. It was a cosy read, like pulling all of your toys together while playing with just one.

On a parting note, I just read how the makers of the upcoming Tintin feature film expressed the difficulty of recreating a faithful look for the film based on the comics. Technology has only now come to their rescue. How’s that for the power of the medium?