Photo Courtesy of Charley Harper Art Studio, Wild Life, gestalten 2022

A mid-century modernist take on animal illustration

Charley Harper’s work from the 1950s onwards, which included both commercial projects and fine art, focused on reducing natural beings to their simplest, most geometric forms

Sitting just the right side of twee, US artist Charley Harper’s images of flora, fauna and wildlife scenes straddle the tricky line between whimsical and the rigid geometries of mid-century modernism.

While ‘vintage’ illustrations of ladybirds, owls, otters, underwater scenes, flowers and the like often take on more traditional approaches, including watercolour, Harper’s work across both commercial and fine art applications focused on reducing natural beings into their simplest forms; drawing out the mathematical patterns inherent in nature and placing them at the heart of his images.

Wild Life: The Life and Work of Charley Harper
Wild Life, Gestalten, 2022, Courtesy of Charley Harper Art Studio

Now, Harper’s work across posters, magazine covers, murals and more has been drawn together in a new book by the artist’s son Brett Harper and design writer Margaret Rhodes titled Wild Life, created in collaboration by publisher Gestalten.

According to Brett, the book offers a “welcome new look” at Charley Harper as artist, man, husband and father, as well as serving as “an overdue introduction” of his work to European readers. “We see that he could paint anything in any style, but he found his voice in wild things,” Brett writes. “He gave those creatures their due inside the picture plane, which he said was the only place where he really had any control.”

Wild Life: The Life and Work of Charley Harper
Courtesy of Charley Harper Art Studio, Wild Life, Gestalten 2022

Born in 1922, Charley Harper came to be known for his utterly unique portrayals of wildlife: stylised, reductive and veering towards abstraction. Harper was raised on a self-sufficient family farm in Virginia, which likely goes some way to exploring his lifelong choice of subject matter. He showed talent for drawing throughout his time in school, and after being drafted to fight in World War II he used the grant given to US soldiers for tuition fees to study at the Art Students League in New York. 

Finding his time in the city dispiriting, he left after one semester to return to Cincinnati and attend its art college. Though he drew particular inspiration from two Abstract Expressionist artists he saw in a New York gallery – Vaclav Vytlacil and Milton Avery, whose work he cited as directly inspiring his use of colour and shape.

One of Harper’s earliest jobs was as a commercial artist at CH Schaten Studios (now brand design agency LPK), creating work for clients including Procter & Gamble and Morton Salt. Harper also landed commissions at branded magazine Ford Times, having mailed the publication some of the pieces he’d painted while on honeymoon. The magazine’s art director at the time, Arthur Lougee, was struck by Harper’s work, and commissioned a number of pieces from the early 1950s onwards.

A number of the Ford commissions involved birds, and as such, his work for the title ended up having a huge impact on the course of his career. Harper, buoyed by these commercial successes, realised that avian forms were the perfect vessels for him to try out new methods of abstraction.

Wild Life: The Life and Work of Charley Harper, cover
Wild Life: The Life and Work of Charley Harper, cover

Throughout his career, Harper made around 5,500 works, and eventually depicted pretty much every animal you could think of, continuing over the years to reduce his subjects into simpler geometric shapes with increasingly precise curves and lines, drawn with an obsessive eye for animal behaviours, environments and anatomies.

Harper dubbed his distinctive way of drawing animals and their shapes as “minimal realism”. Brett Harper explains: “There, Charley was the master of colour and implied motion. His mind and eye were on a never-ending safari, searching for his ultimate quarry — the perfect portrayal of his concept.”

Photo Courtesy of Charley Harper Art Studio, Wild Life, gestalten 2022

Wild Life – The Life and Work of Charley Harper is published on March 31 by Gestalten;