Frequently Asked Questions

These questions were published by Frame House Gallery of Louisville, KY, which is no longer in business, from an interview in 1974.

Charles Harper is probably the only wildlife artist in America who has never been compared to Audubon. And never will be. For his is wildlife art without the fuss and feathers - minimal realism. he calls it. "I don't try to put everything in; I try to leave everything out," he explains, adding impishly, "I never count the feathers in the wings; I just count the wings." At his studio in a beechwood near Cincinnati, Harper recently answered some of the questions asked most by collectors of his work.

When did you become interested in nature?
"When I was growing up on a farm in West Virginia, learning that I didn't want to grow up to be a farmer. I goofed off a lot and roamed the hills. I disliked hoeing corn, hauling hay shocks, cutting filth, and stomping down sheep wool inside those big burlap bags on hot summer days. I tried to disappear on hog butchering and cattle dehorning days because I felt so sorry for the animals. Even now, when I pass a truckload of animals on the way to market I can't look them in the eye. And before I was old enough to use a gun, I learned that I never wanted to. A hunter fired over my head at a rabbit and put a shotgun pellet through my scalp. I've been on the side of the rabbits ever since."

When did you decide to become an artist?
"When I discovered that I could draw better than anyone else in the fourth grade. Everyone needs something he can do better - for me it was drawing. In high school I took a correspondence course in cartooning and began to illustrate my homework. It was fun. I made portraits of all the presidents and my American History grade improved enormously. The message was clear: art for fun and profit."

Where did you study art?
"I spent a year at West Virginia Wesleyan, then took the plunge into the great outside world by enrolling at the Cincinnati Art Academy. I had just recovered from the cultural shock of this move when I was drafted into World War II, ending up in an infantry reconnaissance platoon in Europe. One of our jobs was operating observation posts along the front lines. I got a chance to do some sketching between mortar barrages. That's where I learned to work fast.
"I had to try New York, so after the war I showed up at the Art Students League in the midst of the GI Bill Stampede. I lived in a West Side walk-in clothes closet furnished with a bed. a dresser. and a 25 watt bulb. I skimped on food and ended up with eye trouble caused by a vitamin deficiency. Worse, I felt trapped, cornered by the man-swarm of Manhattan. It just wasn't a fit place for a good ole boy from the hills. I got New York out of my system fast - one semester. But now I can say I have really suffered for my art.
"The next year I graduated from the Cincinnati Art Academy and won the first Stephen H. Wilder Traveling Scholarship. I had all that money and no wheels, and I still tease Edie by telling her that I proposed because she owned an old Chevy. Actually our union has a much firmer foundation, starting before the war when we enrolled at the Art Academy on the same day, continuing through many of the same classes. Over the years, friendship blossomed into romance. So one day in August we said the vows and headed West, camping along the way to make the money last, painting and photographing, experiencing the Great American West as it can probably never again be experienced."

Did you ever paint realistically?
"Super-realistically. In school I was painting highlights on hairs. But I came to feel that this method of dealing with form never revealed anything new about the subject, never allowed me the freedom of adding my own comment. On the western trip I began to paint the vast landscapes by deliberately walking away from them before I started the picture, trying to eliminate such realistic devices as perspective and shading, and recording only what I felt was the essence of the subject. It was the most exciting painting I had ever done; I have never turned back.
"When I started to work as a commercial artist, economics forced me to crystallize my thinking into a salable product. I had expected to fall back on my realism for illustration, but I quickly flunked out of the happy housewife department. I could draw the soap boxes but not the gals holding them, their vacant faces smiling from ear to ear with sparkling eyes wide open. Try it - it's unnatural. Besides, I couldn't resist giving them double chins and wrinkles. I enjoyed only one triumph with my realism - cysts for a medical booklet - before switching to a stylized, whimsical approach to illustration based on straight and curved lines describing flat, hard-edge shapes. I've been doing it ever since, with variations and refinements.
"When you look at my work, remember that I didn't start out to paint a bird - the bird already existed. I started out to paint a picture of a bird, a picture which didn't exist before I came along, a picture which gives me a chance to share with you my thoughts about the bird. Once you accept this seemingly simplistic but really quite profound premise, you will appreciate many varied approaches to the making of pictures, all of which start where realism leaves off, but all of which require an understanding of realism for their successful execution."

When did you become a wildlife artist?
"My work for Ford Times was the beginning of it, because much of it involved nature subjects, which I was allowed to interpret with freedom. My first prints were made for Ford Times, designs of fish, Model-Ts, and birds which were offered to their readers. Then I illustrated The Golden Book of Biology and The Animal Kingdom for the Golden Press and designed a ceramic tile mural depicting American wildlife for the Federal Building in Cincinnati. By that time I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life painting nature and that one life wasn't enough time to deal with all the subjects that excited me. My association with the Frame House Gallery gave me, precisely when I was ready for it, the opportunity to concentrate on wildlife art. That's when I started calling myself a wildlife artist."

How are your prints made?
"By the silkscreen process. That's what commercial printers call it. If a museum hangs a silkscreen print, it's called a serigraph, It's an ancient oriental process in which a piece of silk is stretched tightly on a wooden frame, a stencil is adhered to the silk, and paint is forced through the openings in the stencil onto paper by passing a rubber squeege over the silk. Each color requires a separate stencil, and the difficulty of registering the colors multiplies as new colors are added. Technically it's such a frustrating operation that I hate it; but I love it because it gives me the best possible duplication of my work. The paint has a surface quality that cannot be matched by the ink used in offset printing."

Do you make the prints yourself?
"In the beginning it was a basement operation with an assistant. Now it consumes so much time and space that I work with a commercial printer, Silk Screen Products of Cincinnati. I still make the stencils, set the registration, check the color, and closely supervise everything that can affect the quality of the print. When everything is working right, I go back to my studio to paint. Usually a phone call is waiting from the printer: 'Come back, something's gone wrong.' The printers try cheerfully when I demand the impossible of the silkscreen process and their equipment and smile indulgently when I reach the limit of my patience, kick the drying racks, howl when my foot hurts, and vow to give up silkscreening forever,"

Do you write the captions for your prints?
"Yes, and I have as much fun with them as with the pictures. Usually I have no idea what the caption will say until the painting is finished, so it's like playing a game of what-do-you-see-in-this-picture? I try to make it a verbal extension of the picture, carrying the idea a few puns further."

Where do you get your ideas?
"If I knew, I'd be spending a lot of time there. Getting ideas worth painting is the hardest part for me. All I can say about it is that I look at nature a lot, read a lot about animal behavior, and ask myself 'What if?' For example what if a buzzard, which only eats dead meat, comes upon a possum, which plays dead when threatened? The answer has to be that the mild-mannered marsupial will win his Purple Heart-possumously,"

How long does it take for you to paint a picture?
"Artists have an Old, reliable answer to that one - took me all my life to learn how and a couple of days to do it. Actually, it's not so clear cut. Some pictures go very quickly, everything happens right. Others I discard over and over before they work right. Some I keep simmering on the back burner for months, even years, before they take form. The physical act of putting down the paint is fast and easy. Getting the idea to materialize out of nowhere and fit onto a two-dimensional plane can be agony that turns into ecstasy when it finally works out."

How do you know when a picture is finished?
"It's finished when I have achieved a satifying compromise between the ecological facts of the situation I'm depicting and the visual ecology involved. It's interesting that a picture can be discussed in the same way as a natural ecosystem because a picture is a small universe that becomes visually self-sustaining when its forms, colors, and tensions are combined in a delicately balanced interrelationship. Some colors gobble up other colors. Overpopulation by certain shapes can lead to disaster. And so on. The joy of making pictures is, for me, the achievement of this delicately balanced visual ecosystem. And learning that I've given pleasure to another person - that's a bonus."

Is the rest of your family involved in art?
"My wife is a painter, printmaker, photographer, weaver - she's tried all kinds of crafts because everything interests her. When I get stuck I ask her advice and occasionally I steal an idea from her, I stole her pig because I couldn't think of a better way to draw one. Our son, Brett, was a teenage printmaker and became quite accomplished at silkscreening, but he's an English major in college. He recently got an A on a paper he wrote about my work in which he said, among others things, 'Reducing all of the most obvious mannerisms of his creatures to common form denominators (angles and curves and circles) by use of the T-square and French curve, he creates the essence, the "gestalt" impact of the creature on the viewer.' I couldn't have said it better myself."

What about you and ladybugs?
"We're the best of friends. I really started appreciating them once when I needed a red spot to save a composition. They are good luck symbols around the world and they eat some other insects that pester people. They are attractive, and I can make many visual puns on them, so my family has used them on Christmas cards for years, Rudolf's red nose, for example. And I painted the world's largest ladybug on the side of our house - four feet in diameter. Ladybugs are possibly the only non-controversial subject left in the world; you can start a ladybug conversation with a total stranger without getting hit in the mouth."

How do you feel about nature after painting it so much?
"I need it a lot more than it needs me. And the more I become involved with it, the more I am troubled by unanswerable questions about our exploitation of plants and animals and our casual assumption that the natural world is here only to serve people. I have to ask myself how man, the predator with a conscience, can live without carrying a burden of guilt for his existence at the expense of other creatures. Where does one draw the line between preservation of nature and preservation of self? Can a nature lover ever find true happiness at the top of the food chain? Maybe all of this is why my pictures are usually humorous - I'm laughing to keep from screaming."