Friday, June 22, 2012

Charley Harper

Now here's an artist who knew how to illustrate birds.

It was probably a couple of years ago that I first spied a Charley Harper calendar in a Paper Source store and immediately wanted to see more of those striking, stylized images as well as find out about the man who made them. There's certainly a lot of info on the web about Charley Harper, but I especially like this site, Charley Harper Prints.

He was of the generation that came of age around the time of WWII, and after his stint in the military, he graduated from the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1947.  Searching for a illustration style that would set him apart, he eventually developed a flattened, simplified approach which he called "minimal realism" and applied notably to nature subjects. It was a style also especially suited to serigraphy, aka silk-screen printing, which he embraced enthusiastically.  Be sure to read his own genial account of his artistic development and career.

One of the things I found most interesting was his work for Ford Times magazine. According to various Internet sources it was first an employee publication and later a general interest magazine.  The Charley Harper Prints website says it was sent by Ford dealers to their patrons.  My parents were Buick drivers, so I'd never heard of it; have you?  From 1948 to 1982, Charley Harper contributed illustrations to Ford Times, and it was through this publication that he became acclaimed for his renditions of birds, hand-screened prints of which were even made available to readers.

To me, whatever the date, his is quintessentially art of the 50s, and as part of the generation that fell in love with the whirls and curls of Art Nouveau in the late 60s, it took me a while to fully appreciate this particular aesthetic.  But who couldn't look at his brilliant reductions that capture so well the minimal telling details and not be impressed?  His artwork is graphic, colorful, and decorative, with subjects – birds, bugs, fish, forest creatures – that are easy to love.

Today's aesthetic sensibility seems to be attuned to his work; locally I've seen prints by at least a couple of artists who have obviously been inspired by him. It seems that designer Todd Oldham as creative director of Old Navy is probably responsible for introducing Charley Harper to today's shoppers; in a video that's definitely worth watching he talks about discovering a Ford Times magazine in a thrift store and his subsequent captivation with Charley Harper's art. Whatever may be the case, I'm certainly grateful to have been introduced to this artist with his unique vision. Not only is his artwork a delight to look it, it also helps one's own eye to see with a different perspective.


  1. Julia, I am thrilled to read about Charley Harper, especially after being at the DOL workshop and coming home with intention to silk screen more often. Thank you!!

    1. And I am looking forward to reading about your DOL experience, Mary.