Natural History Through the Eyes of Charley Harper

Plate from The Animal Kingdom, 1967.

In my experience, natural history illustration has always glorified the photorealistic. As a discipline grounded in scientific inquiry, there has been a persistent desire to portray the wonders of the natural world as realistically and as accurately as possible.

Even as early as the late 1700s and early 1800s, naturalists were making attempts at recording accurate visual representations of life on Earth. Just think of the work of Johann Friedrich Wilhelm HerbstCarl Gustav Jablonsky, or John James Audubon. Their work laid the foundation for centuries of magnificent naturalist imagery that continued well into the 20th Century with pieces by other natural history icons like Roger Tory Peterson.

Triggerfish by Charley Harper. 2003

Breaking from Tradition

Despite this unspoken artistic code glorifying photorealism, at least one naturalist illustrator was portraying the world around him in an altogether different way.

For Charley Harper (August 4, 1922 – June 10, 2007), the captivating complexity of nature could be interpreted more directly. A champion of Modernism, Harper described his style as “minimal realism”:

“When I look at a wildlife or nature subject,…I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or un-utilized parts; and herein lies the lure of the painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.”

Charley Harper

A Discerning and Meticulous Approach

Harper would scrupulously study his subjects in both the field and in books, learning all that he could about their habits and habitats before attempting to extract their elemental core from all the intricacies. A firm understanding of his approach and perception can be gleaned from the Introduction of his 1974 book Birds and Words,

Giant Squid and Sperm Whale by Charley Harper. The Animal Kingdom, 1967.

I didn’t see scapulars, auriculars, primaries, tail coverts, tarsi—none of that. I saw exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. And so I have never counted the feathers in the wings for that is not what my pictures are about. I just count the wings.

Charley Harper

Harper’s illustrations lack the utility of more realistic depictions in terms of, say, replication or identification. Regardless, I still find them to have tremendous instructive and philosophical value. When I view a more complex work like Audubon’s Birds of America, I often find that it is easy to get caught up in all the detail.

Audubon’s “Lousiana Heron”

Just look at “Lousiana Heron” by Audubon. What are you, the viewer, supposed to look at? The bird, the plant behind the bird, the water, the beautiful background? The eye jumps around the page with such frantic enthusiasm, desperately attempting to digest all the components in one fell swoop, that suddenly they find themselves forgetting what you were viewing in the first place.

Aquatic Food Chain by Charley Harper from The Giant Golden Book of Biology, 1961 pg. 20.

Charley Harper, on the other hand, managed to depict a similar level of complexity without the cacophony. He made a marine food chain or the biodiversity within a fallen tree immediately accessible. He realized that you don’t need to see every last photorealistic detail to understand what is going on, and I find that profound and intriguing.

Harper helps us to return to the basics, reminding admirers of natural history how important it is to continue to consider the foundational elements of nature in our enthusiastic quest for understanding; and that extends beyond Form.

For me, his work also serves as a reminder that it’s ok to embrace the whimsical, almost childlike fascination with nature that can all too easily be lost during years of rigorous and rigid scientific training or by being surrounded with nothing but technical, Realist depictions.

After all, I would argue that that perspective is what got all of us started on our path toward a lifelong appreciation of nature in the first place. No one was born counting the feathers on a bird. We all started life seeing the bird first and only later desiring to view things in more detail.

While not all people will embrace Harper’s Modernist, sympathetic, and almost wholly affirmative perception of nature, I think all would agree that his unique approach is beautiful and effective. Though I value photorealism as much as the next naturalist, I’m grateful that someone like Charley Harper came along to show me such an intriguing and graphically masterful alternative.

Secretary Bird and Mamba by Charley Harper. The Animal Kingdom, 1967.
Nocturnal desert life by Charley Haper. The Animal Kingdom, 1967.
Subterranean environment by Charley Harper. The Giant Golden Book of Biology, 1961.

This post has been updated from the original version posted in August 2014.

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