The Genius of Charley Harper

December 20, 2011 — 19 Comments

Charley Harper 'Snowy Egret'


Charley Harper is an American Modernist artist known for his illustrations of all sorts of wildlife. He called it “minimal realism” but I call it awesome. I had seen the work of Charley Harper before but didn’t know what I was looking at. His stylized version of taking complicated forms and distilling them down to their geometric essence isn’t hard to miss. Once you know what you are looking at, you’ll recognize the genius of Charley Harper every time you see it.

If you trip through Life of an Architect with any regularity, you might recall that I have been on the hunt for some personality defining art work to adorn the mostly barren walls of my house and you’ll know that my first acquisition were two Josef Albers prints (see them here). I have since hung them in place properly (instead of using post-it notes) and they look great. Logically, you might think that the next step would involve me looking towards the highly stylized work of Mid-Century modernist pioneer Charley Harper because I actually know something about what I’m doing here.


Charley Harper in his studio

Yeah … that would have been cool if it actually happened that way … but it didn’t.

It all started when my wife Michelle decided she wanted to try her hand at some needlepoint and wondered if there were any good modernist style patterns available. So, being the incredibly logical and linear thinker that she is, she sat down, open the computer and searched on “modern” + “needlepoint” + “patterns” and as it turns out, the work of Charley Harper is quite popular with needle-pointers AND cross-stitchers! (stitchee’s !?! Anyway, don’t believe me? just look here). There were even cross-stitch magazines dedicated to Charley Harper images!!

**head exploding**  

Who knew?


Charley Harper Needlepoint


I have to admit that I can’t stand not knowing stuff – particularly stuff like this – cool stuff, graphic stuff, things I ought to know sort of stuff. [sigh] That’s part of the reason I continue to maintain this site … so people can share things with me and I can share things with them (but from a germ-free distance). Today, I am sharing the genius that is Charley Harper.

Just soak it in …


Charley Harper Cardinal Ford Times

Charlie Harper illustration

Charley Harper Flicker Ford Times

Charley Harper Lady Bugs

Charley Harper Green Jay Ford Times

Charley Harper Blue Jay

Charley Harper Western Tanager Ford Times

These illustrations are graphic in composition, and demonstrate Charley’s amazing sense of color. When I was trying to research this piece, I found an interesting quote (here) that is from the Todd Oldham book Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, where Charley addresses the simplified forms that he used when illustrating his subjects:

I don’t think there was much resistance to the way I simplified things. I think everybody understood that. Some people liked it and others didn’t care for it. There’s some who want to count all the feathers in the wings and then others who never think about counting the feathers, like me.  – Charley Harper

That’s awesome.

Here is the Todd Oldham book (clicking the book will take you to Amazon):

Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life by Todd Oldham


I also found out that the house that Charley lived in was designed by architect Rudy Hermes. The two collaborated to created some illustrations for the life style magazine Ford Times, that was published by the Ford Motor Car Company. The illustrations showcased extremely modern homes in some wild locations but always had a Ford or two parked out front … because that’s what forward thinking modernists would be driving. I found these pictures in a few places but these came from the site which makes sense since Charley Harper was based in Cincinnati, attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and spent his adult life living and working in Cincinnati.


Rudy Hermes and Charley Harper Ford Ads

Rudy Hermes and Charley Harper Ford Ads

Rudy Hermes and Charley Harper Ford Ads

Rudy Hermes and Charley Harper Ford Ads

Rudy Hermes and Charley Harper Ford Ads

Rudy Hermes and Charley Harper Ford Ads

Rudy Hermes and Charley Harper Ford Ads


Sadly, Charley isn’t with us anymore – he died in 2007 from pneumonia at 84 years old. If you would like to see more Charley Harper’s work, visit where you can find just about everything Charley Harper related (including a signed limited edition print – are you listening Santa?).

Thank you for indulging me, I hope you liked looking at the work of Charley Harper






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  • Erin

    Great post – I love his work.  A few years ago at Old Navy they had Charley Harper flash cards, ABC + 123 board books for kids and also a matching game of 2×2 square cards with his bird prints. when i was working on my son’s nursery 2 years ago and glued the 2×2 cards to a large piece of cardstock and framed it – it has always been a huge hit with him!  The great colors and bold graphics are great and a good learning tool too!

  • Sally

    Great post!  Now adding all the Charley Harper coloring books to my cart in Amazon…. 

  • Jennifer

    If anyone’s in Cincinnati January – February, DAAP Galleries at the University of Cincinnati is showing an exhibit entitled “Charley Harper: A Birds Eye View” which will present a retrospective view of Charley Harper’s career and will include many never before seen works.  The exhibit runs January 9 – February 16, with an opening reception January 12, 5-7 pm.  Full details can be found on the Facebook event at – if you’re not on Facebook, you can contact DAAP Galleries at UC by phone at (513) 556-2839 or via email at 

  • Wow, that was spectacularly cool.  I want to live in the house hanging from the rocks, the second one that is, though the first would be cool.

  • archaalto

    absolutely fantastic Bob.  do you know what particular media Harper’s wildlife artworks were originally in?  were they all acrylic paint?  i can’t seem to find any info on his preferred technique.  from the looks of the photo you posted, i could assume paint, but i could potentially see some mixed media happening in there too.
    thanks for sharing.

    • most of the animal images I included here are serigraphs … or silk-screen prints. These birds are referred to as the Ford Times images – there were 73 in total. These were all commissioned for Ford Time, a travel magazine published by Ford Motor Company. 

      I hope that answers your question – cheers

  • shtrum

    Reminds me of a more sophisticated Billy Blob (kind of combination Picasso/Charlie Harper).  His simple style cartoons were featured in Metropolis a few years ago (recommend Karma Ghost and Bumble Beeing).  Artwork and music aren’t bad either.

  • I was introduced to Charley Harper through Ranger Rick magazine when I was a kid.  They often used his illustrations.

  • great post – thanks for introducing me to Charlie Harper – what talent!  I love his clean simple graphics and the playfulness of his birds and animals.  Who knew you could get a Charlie Harper skin for your macbook or phone?  can’t wait until it arrives!.  Clever.

  • Nancie

    I became a huge Harper fan just this year. His work just sings to me – smart, clean, joyous without being sappy. Wish I could have known the man. I will be sharing on Mosaic Art NOW. Thank you, Mr Borson!

    • Mr. Borson?!?

      please … call me El Presidente or the The Senator (your choice)

      Thanks for the comment and I too wish I could have met him – he seemed very approachable

  • William Hardaway

    The fourth picture from the top is angry birds before the game even existed.

  • I thought this was going to be a post about Charlie Harper (A.K.A. Charlie Sheen).

    Thanks instead for introducing us to a late, great talent in Charley Harper. I’m a big fan of the retro-modern art, architecture, advertising and music of the “Mad Men” era (these were foundational sights and sounds for this child of the sixties).

    I now have a new source to explore. Harper’s wildlife art is terrific. Thank you, Bob

    • Super – although I must live under a rock because I didn’t know that Charlie Sheen played a character named Charlie Harper :/

      A side effect of writing this blog is that I watch a lot less TV … I suppose that’s a good thing

  • Anonymous

    Wow! Was unfamiliar with Mr. Harper’s work. Great way to start the day. Thanks for the treat Bob!


    • My pleasure – we can’t all have wives who search on modernist needlepoint patterns!