The Nature of Inspiration: Charley Harper’s Minimal Realism

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Long before Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth became a visual phenomenon and YouTube videos of dogs befriending cheetahs and shrieking goats were a Facebook staple, American artist Charley Harper (1922–2007) drew inspiration from the environment, inventing a style now deemed “minimal realism” in the process.

Harper rejected hyper-realistic renderings of wildlife that dominated Audubon volumes and the like. Instead, he chose to create line drawings with bright colors and eye-catching patterns. As he writes in the newly resurrected edition of Beguiled By the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper, “I never count the feathers in the wings; I just count the wings.” He was also known for illustrating as an architect might when designing a building, rendering his subject from all angles while using mechanical drawing tools like a T square, compass and ruler.


“I have chosen to do it differently because I think flat, simple and funny,” he writes. “Instead of trying to put everything in when I paint, I try to leave everything out. I distill reality. I reduce the subject to the simplest possible visual terms without losing identity, thereby enhancing identity.”

Originally published in 1994, Beguiled By the Wild has long been out of print. This update includes new images, as well as essays from Harper, his son and collaborator Brett Harper, and environmental journalist Roger Caras. Taken together, it’s easy to see why Harper once told his son, “If I had not become an artist, I would have been a conservationist.”


[Related: Fifty-Nine Parks Reimagines WPA Posters of the 1930s | The WPA: 92 Posters Paid For By the Government]

Luckily for the future generation of creatives inspired by his work, Harper instead was able to develop iconic images for conservation groups like the National Park Service, never losing his awe and wonderment for nature along the way.

“For a quarter of a century I have found in the natural world a wellspring of inspiration for my pictures,” Harper wrote. “Now—overcommitted, overwhelmed and over 70—I am still, as I was then, beguiled by the wild.”


Learn more about illustration in these helpful courses from HOW Design University:

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