It is the intersection between language and illustration that inspires Ilya Milstein’s delicate illustrations. From detailed drawings of crowded libraries to romantic depictions of grape pickers, commissions for the The New Yorker to Red Bull, Ilya’s portfolio covers a broad range of subjects. “I’m trying to develop an efficient style that is inobtuse and highly legible, almost closer to writing than image-making,” Ilya says. “I think this is the greatest asset of my way of drawing, and one that’s entirely particular to this visual medium.”
Pictographic writing systems – like Egyptian hieroglyphics or Aztec codices – are where Ilya turns to for ideas. “These systems tend to employ single-weight lines and naturalistic colours, which allows the creator to build recognisable characters and worlds with an astonishing economy of means and scale,” he tells us. “I also believe that this graphic reduction is in some ways analogous to the half-formed way we either remember or conceive of things.” The influence of pictography on Ilya’s work is clear: the simplicity of his figures and objects are embedded within broader, more intricate contexts that, together, prompt the viewer to interpret a range of rich narratives.
“All my work is drawn freehand on paper with a single-thickness cheap fine liner,” the illustrator explains. “Switching between pen thickness and occasionally using drafting tools for straight lines strike me as ways of interrupting a natural flow of communication, like intermittently shouting or referring to a thesaurus during a casual conversation. As a result, my lines are often spidery and nervous. With a pen acting as an immediate extension of the writer’s body, the shaky line is an immediate translation of one’s physical limitations and vulnerability.” Vulnerability is, in fact, a running theme throughout Ilya’s work. One particularly poignant illustration, entitled The Muse’s Revenge, depicts a woman surrounded by nude portraits of herself, threatening the artist at gun point. In this case, it is the woman’s vulnerability to the male gaze – and the impact this unequal dynamic has on the pair – that Ilya powerfully portrays.
Ilya’s multifaceted body of work resists clear classification. “I think that the word ‘illustration’ is reductive, and I don’t necessarily identify with the title – illustration is just one professional implementation of this kind of work. While I love the job, I also recognise its limitations for self-expression,” he tells us. The restrictions placed on the artist by commercial commissions and the ongoing pressure of deadlines are just two examples of such limitations. "Being in a position where one can comfortably work on one’s own projects is no simple task, particularly in a city like New York. But I intend to routinely free up time in the next years to work on self-directed projects in many forms that will give me the space to be stranger and more ambitious with my silly little scribbles.”