I don’t remember exactly when I stopped drawing. I don’t mean the occasional doodles I do now; I mean before, when drawing was like daily bread, a childhood mainstay. I mean the classes, the contests, the urge to recreate images I saw in books, from movies, outside, everywhere.
It was definitely before middle school, before that one time in English class where we had to speak about one of our hobbies and why it meant a lot to us. Being a teenager with no particular aspirations, I chose to pluck something from the past and spoke about drawing. I talked about how I would spend hours tracing and retracing, how time would dissolve while depicting a new world, the pride I would feel after finishing. After class, my best friend at the time pulled me aside.
“I have never seen you draw. Like at all.”
He was right. One day I stopped. I dropped the old ways and went on. But the memories were still there. The drawings, too.
A few months ago while visiting my mom, I asked if she still kept some of the old sketches from when I was a kid. She returned with a pile of drawings, preserved in clear cellophane sleeves. I sifted through an illustrated and alliterative alphabet book I did while in ESL (“The K was killed by a knife!”), blueprints of spaceships complete with lasers and engine specifications (NASA, if you’re looking schematics for a dual-powered nuclear fusion/ion drive shuttle capable of doing 90 million miles an hour, let me know). But the majority of drawings were of animals, of zebras and apatosaurs and giant ground slothes, by themselves, on grasslands, stretching into the prehistoric past. That seemed about right.
“Why do most children respond both to real animals and to stories about them, fascinated by and identifying with creatures that our dominant religions and ethics consider mere objects for human use – raw material for our food, subjects of scientific experiments to benefit us, amusing curiosities of the zoo and the TV nature program, pets to improve our psychological health?
… What is it the child perceives that her whole culture denies?”
– Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl
My earliest recollection of being compelled to draw animals was at the age of five, while flipping through Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. I couldn’t read much English back then, but Scarry’s books were generally designed to instill more noticing than reading, and so I followed anthropomorphic bears and cats and mice go about performing their mundane human tasks. There was some of firefighting, some truck driving, a lot of fruit-peddling. But the things I wanted to draw came from the zoo, where animal visitors had the chance to gawk in wonder at their raw animal selves. From that first impulse to put to paper the initial trio of elephant and rhinoceros and hippopotamus opened a new world of discovery. The act of drawing these bound me to them, pushed me to take in their stories and tell them in turn. To this day, animals are my guides to distant lands and fantastic realms beyond my urban experience and human reality. Even as my way to tell their tales has shifted forms from shapes to words, I still find myself bewitched by that gaze across the gulf of being, these kindred spirits hewn from a common cloth yet are forever alien, unknowable.
“The animals of the mind cannot be so easily dispersed. Sayings, dreams, games, stories, superstitions, the language itself, recall them. The animals of the mind, instead of being dispersed, have been co-opted into other categories so that the category animal has lost its central importance. Mostly they have been co-opted into the family and into the spectacle.”
– John Berger, Why Look At Animals?
Looking back at the old drawings, I see the seeds of my present-day traits and tendencies. I still have little patience for details or precision. When I draw animals, I still strive to get as close as possible towards an essence, a spark, a type of shorthand that connects me with the subject I’m trying to render on the page. For there is magic in the moment when black marks on bleached pulp transforms into a staring eye, a curved neck, a sprint unfolding in full flight. Maybe that’s why I felt a strong connection to the work of the late Charley Harper, a famous Ohio artist renowned for his minimalistic but iconic animal art.
“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…”
– About Charley, website
I’m delighted to have been granted permission to feature a few pieces from Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, a collection put together by Todd Oldham. Each of the five following illustrations highlights Harper’s prowess in revealing the essence of the natural world with his trademark elegance and whimsy. The following are my musings.
“I discovered [water striders] early on and spent a lot of time lying on the creek bank, watching them walk on the water. When they walk on water, on a shallow stream, and the sun is shining, they cast shadows of themselves on the bottom. The ripples that ring around their feet also cast shadows – round shadows. And these move around over the bottom of the creek, which is what I painted. It’s still my favorite painting.”
– Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, p. 16
“Jesus Bugs” was one of the images that first caught my attention. On the surface and up close, the painting seems almost too simple: There is nothing but a few circles, lines, and dots. Yet when I pull back and take in the double-page spread, the greater pattern is revealed. I begin to see the very strands of nature at work in the water striders’ body and movement, with wonder emerging from that conveyed simplicity.
Unconcerned with depicting nature on a photorealistic level, Harper favoured instead a flattened and abstracted form of representation. Described as “minimal realism”, Harper strove to capture his subjects with as few visual elements as possible. In his drawings I find myself privy to the underlying forces of geometry and order that lay at the heart of the natural world, the same forces responsible for much of its majesty and splendour.
Yet Harper understood that nature’s beauty arises not only out of order, but also out of chaos. In “Ladybug Hibernating”, he juxtaposes the hard straight lines of fallen foliage with the random scattering of ladybugs. But within each the opposite is represented: The leaves are strewn haphazardly while each insect is precisely duplicated. From this beauty emerges, out from relationships, with everything depending upon another. A balance is struck within the captured scene. It becomes an ecosystem.
“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 the painting; in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe.”
– About Charley, website
Vitality is another hallmark of Harper’s animal art. Arguably his most famous collection, Birds and Words was published in 1974, and within its pages were some of Harper’s most iconic works, including illustrations of the cardinal, a bird he would return to repeatedly throughout his career:
“The cardinal? Great color. He looks good from all angles, especially coming at you, because he has that wonderful face with the wonderfully shaped beak. It’s a big beak, so you can see it easily. It’s orange. Well, he’s just a nice bird…”
– Charley Harper, Illustrated Life, p. 23
In “Cardinal”, I find myself moving in the opposite direction as “Jesus Bugs”, taking in the entire picture before moving in to appreciate the details. Perhaps it’s as Harper states, that it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the showy bird, by its large beak and brilliant plumage. Upon closer examination, I find myself once again astonished by how everything is built upon a minimal framework: Two triangles for the beak, a teardrop for the body, a few etches for the tracks, thin and thick bars for the seeds. With “Cardinal”, I find myself on a journey, traveling from line to life and back again, in awe each time as the transformation takes place on the page, in the mind.
“I’m always interested in behaviour. I guess that’s the big interest I have in nature, in animals and birds, because they give me a lot of ideas for situations to create for the birds…”
– Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, p. 24
When it comes to capturing personality and whimsy, “Burrowing Owl” from Birds and Words is another highlight. Here, Harper’s birds are rendered with a few sweeping strokes and a restrained palette; it’s easy to look into the drawing’s bones, its linear construction, the boundaries that delineate foreground from background and birds from night. Yet there is so much more. Contained within a few human-conceived arcs and geometries lay a vastness of animal and universe, staring back at me across the page. The longer I view this piece and into the owls’ eyes or the stars that dot their foreheads, the bigger my smile grows, and the quieter my mind gets.
Perhaps my favourite piece from Illustrated Life is “Octoberama”. For me, it exemplifies how Harper showcases nature’s workings on a multitude of levels. I love how repetition is employed in the building of the greater pattern, similar to how nature utilizes a few simple but distinct blocks to construct systems of immense complexity. I see how variation in colours serves to break up the monotony while at the same time highlighting how despite their similar origins, each tree in the forest still lives and grows according to its own rhythm. With difference comes change, and with change comes the reminder of impermanence; fall is here, and soon winter. Yet for this one captured frame at least time holds still, and the wood duck glides across the still surface, an interface separating the real and the reflected, the living and the abstract. There is nothing more to the drawing because nothing can be added or taken away. It is enough.
There is a tendency to simplify nature in our minds, to distance ourselves from it, to abstract it down into notions of good and bad, useful or not. Often this form of reductionism can cause us to narrow our gaze and either romanticize nature’s virtues or devalue it into commodity. Yet I believe Harper’s minimalistic artwork manages to sidestep such pitfalls because he is able to grasp the most essential thing: The striving for wholeness and the vital moment. In stripping away all else to get at these elements, he manages to reveal the core of the natural world and the animal soul. Through the skill of his life’s work, he helps me reenter these realms simply and profoundly, so that I sense the stirring wonder I grasped as a child drawing, that same wonder that arose when a circle becomes an owl’s gaze, a line begins a cardinal’s dance, a bend tracing the arc of a duck’s life. I am grateful for that.
- My Top 5 Eco-Art Tales, by the Artist at Ohio Falls
- Animal Sculptures by Ellen Jewett
- X-Ray Photography of Nature, by Arie van’t Riet
Berger, John (1972). Ways of Seeing. British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books Ltd., Great Britain.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (2009) Cheek by Jowl. E-book edition. Aquaduct Press, Seattle WA.
Oldham, Todd. (2009). Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life. AMMO Books, LLC.