Charley Harper’s bright, cheerful artwork depicts the natural world with crisp linear joy. His designs are known for their whimsy and graphic angular compositions. Born in West Virginia in 1922, Harper trained at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and studied color theory with visiting professor Josef Albers. He fell in love with a fellow art student named Edith McKee and after both interrupted their studies to aid the war effort, the pair married in 1947.
Upon graduation Harper started working at Schaten Studio where he learned how to silkscreen and gained fluency creating boldly linear commercial art designs. Harper’s commercial work included illustrations for The Golden Book of Biology, Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two cookbook, and a series of covers for the Ford Times Magazine. The popularity of his illustrations spurred the creation of a silkscreen business and Harper continued to draw wildly imaginative nature designs for the rest of his life. Ironically, Harper preferred to mainly work indoors using guidebooks as visual references. Many of his illustrations included a deadpan accompanying essay inspired by the writings of E.B. White. His commissions included posters for the National Park Service as well as many wildlife conservation groups.
In an interview cited in 1977 promotional literature for the Frame House Gallery, Harper described his style: “When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or unutilized parts; and herein lies the lure of painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe….
I don’t try to put everything in, I try to leave everything out….
Remember that I didn’t start out to paint a bird – the bird already existed. I started out to paint a picture of a bird, a picture which didn’t exist before I came along, a picture which gives me a chance to share with you my thoughts about the bird. Once you accept this seemingly simplistic but really quite profound premise, you will appreciate the many varied approaches to the making of pictures, all of which start where realism leaves off, but all of which require an understanding of realism for their successful execution.”
Harper passed away on June 10, 2007. His work has received renewed critical acclaim and is the subject of a recent monograph by designer Todd Oldham titled Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life.
Additional Charley Harper Resources:
The Harper family website
A 2006 interview with the artist
A 2011 article about Harper’s life and work with photographs of his studio