Project Ideas, Techniques and Tutorials

Charley Harper: Creative Minds Art History Project

I was first drawn to Charley Harper‘s work in the gift shop of a local museum. One of my dad’s main hobbies is birding and wildlife photography, and Harper’s Mid-Century-Modern style illustrations just screamed the perfect birthday gift.

Harper grew up on a farm in the Midwest, and was inspired by the wildlife he experienced around him. He called his style “minimal realism”, taking in the world around him and distilling the imagery he observed down to the most essential details. He said, “When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or unutilized parts; and herein lies the lure of painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.”

Inspired by images from Harper’s body of work that capture his signature style, I encouraged my students this week to create their own minimal realist birds. Though Harper’s works were painted, they bare quite the resemblance to modern day digital art and graphic design. Instead of painting, we used a collage format to create our Charley Harper Birds. We used paint chip samples for our vibrantly colored creatures, colored cardstock for the background, and paint markers to add the linework details. From working on repainting the interior and exterior of a house over the last couple years, I had an accumulation of samples but never felt right throwing away even the colors I ended up not using. Upcycling to the rescue! At an arts non-profit, we love free materials ;). We outlined our geometric shapes onto the samples with a pencil, then cut them out and adhered them to a foam core board base (any heavier paper would work as well) with a standard glue stick. I’d suggest laying out the entire design before gluing in case you want to make some changes before the final masterpiece.

I teach adults with varying physical, psychological, and intellectual disabilities but this project is perfect for all ages and abilities. It is all inspired by simple geometric shapes and blocks of color, and can be done as simple or with as much detail as the artist desires. We created our works in an easy-to-frame 5×7″ size.

I hope you are inspired to try this at home (This would also be a fun project for bored kids, hint hint 😉 )! This is a simple, whimsical project that you don’t have to be an “artist” to enjoy. Unwind after work and get crafty with some basic, easy to access materials. As always, if you end up making one of these yourself I’d love to see pictures!

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