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Charley Harper's Animal Kingdom

Birds and beasts come to life in a colossal volume of illustrated work

by James Thorne in Design on 15 January 2013

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American artist Charley Harper's fascination with the natural world kicked off with a childhood spent on a West Virginia farm. In his professional work, Harper rendered natural subjects for "The Golden Book of Biology," Ford Times, the National Park Service and the Cincinnati Zoo. Ammo Books—who previously released a massive large-format dedication titled "Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life"—recently followed up with an equally expansive volume, "Charley Harper's Animal Kingdom." The result is a hefty survey of Harper's preferred illustrated subjects.

The book has been affectionately edited by designer Todd Oldham, a dedicated fan of Harper's work who describes with nostalgia memorizing "The Golden Book of Biology" as a child. Oldham also acted as editor on the monograph "An Illustrated Life," which made its way to print just before Harper's death in 2007.

In "Charley Harper's Animal Kingdom," the focus falls squarely on wild and domestic creatures, of which birds were Harper's favorite. "When Arthur Lougee [of Ford Times] asked me to paint some of our feathered friends, I took my first good look at birds as subject matter. I didn't see scapulars, auriculars, and primaries, tail coverts, tarsi—none of that," Harper once said. "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."

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Harper's work for Ford Times garnered him a bit of a cult following—not to mention revenue, as readers could order sikscreen prints of the magazine images for $5. The Harper family went on to create thousands of bird-themed silkscreens by hand over the years. Later, Harper was commissioned to produce a series of National Park Posters, which he would continue to do at a rate of one per year for 10 years.

Beyond iconizing America's wildlife, Harper's style was fundamental in the formation of contemporary graphic design, promoting "minimal realism" that relies on basic geometric forms and crisp lines. His sense for color shines in this high quality printing from Ammo, and the exaggerated scale shows off Harper's eye for detail.

"Charley Harper's Animal Kingdom" sells from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Also on CH: Peekaboo Forest

Images of the book by James Thorne

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