RIP: Charley Harper

Photo from Cincinnati.com.

One of my favorite influences, illustrator Charley Harper died this past Sunday, June 10th, of pneumonia, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was 84. Charley was wildly popular among bird enthusiasts for his stylized depictions of various birds, not to mention wildlife in general. He had a great simplicity to his art, a certain modern clarity when depicting animals and nature. There's a classic quote by Charley that always seemed to be mentioned in every article written about him: "I don't count the feathers in the wings, I just count the number of wings." And that pretty much summed up his approach to his art.

I fell in love with the classic Charley Harper style several years ago after buying a couple of items he illustrated, The Giant Golden Book of Biology (1961) and the Betty Crocker's Dinner for Two Cookbook (1958). Whereas both were polar opposite in their execution (Biology in full-color and lushly illustrated, Dinner for Two spot illos done in the limited 2 color style), both exhibited Harper's unique wit and affection for the animal kingdom. I also loved his compositions and use of symmetry/asymmetry -- he had a graphic designer mindset that most artists and illustrators don't possess. (I plan on scanning some from these two books soon.) Harper also did a number of illustrations for Ford Times Magazine throughout the 50's and 60's.

In his later years, Charley Harper found a huge following because of the many wildlife posters and serigraphs he cranked out on a routine basis -- he was busy right up unto his final days. This year has been ramping up to be a big one for him: December 8th was proclaimed "Charley Harper Day" in Cincinnati, several exhibits featuring his work are currently running, and finally, Todd Oldham, who's been a big fan of Harper's, compiled a collection featuring the best of the artist's work in a massive tome, Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, becoming arguably THE definitive book on the artist.

There's an older book available, too, called Beguiled by the Wild, featuring most of his later work.

To read more about Charley Harper, check these links below:

Cincinnati Enquirer obituary.

Memorium to Charley. (More here.)

Contemporary Arts Center memorium.

Graphic Content: Contemporary and Modern/Art and Design. (CAC current exhibit -- Charley Harper is one of the featured artists.)

Interview with Charley by Todd Oldham.

Cincinnati Art Museum exhibit. (August 18-October 21, 2007)

Handmade Modern - Video of Charley Harper interview.

There's also a Flickr group devoted to his artwork.

Side note: I actually called Charley up one day, wanting to talk with him about his life and artwork. I told him that I was having a hard time finding one of the other science books that he illustrated, The Animal Kingdom. I wasn't trying to find out if he had any copies (I'm sure he didn't), but nevertheless, he politely answered, "Well, there's always eBay." I hated that I never got to meet the guy. He had a kind, gentle quality to his voice. A gentle soul. He definitely will be missed.


  1. Just wanted to say that I loved his work too. I knew about him as a kid becaseu my dad had a great book - Birds and Words - of his. Later I was able to track down another, signed copy for my boyfriend - now husband. Together we have loved his work and collected a few of his seriographs. I was happy when he started to gain in popularity recently - although I have to say it was mixed because I always felt like I wasn't sure if I wanted share him. Funny how that works.
    Thanks for the nice post about a wonderful naturalist and artist.

  2. Wow, very cool. I didn't know his name, but I definitely recognize the work. Thanks for sharing!

  3. A sad day for everyone who loves his work. Thanks for the post, Ward. I've uploaded some images from The Giant Golden Book of Biology here: http://pumml.blogspot.com

  4. What a tremendous loss. Completely under appreciated - his sense of composition, color, his enviable sense of style and technical ability. He really took illustration to another level and the images are just as compelling on the first, second, third...viewing.

  5. This is so sad. The world is less colorful due to his passing. I always loved the keen sense of design within his illustrations.

  6. Thanks for the post, Ward. How neat that you actually got to speak with him. We have three of his bird prints hanging in our living room - and they're wonderful!

  7. Damn! I thought the singer of the UK Subs had passed away, but this is a great loss too!

  8. His drawings still appeal today which is rare. I can't say anything bad about his work which is rare too. He's an original and thanks for this post.

  9. I'm very sad to hear this. I had the pleasure of working with Mr Harper back in the '90s. He was a true gentleman and fine human being that helped inspire my creativity. I'll definitely miss his work.