Most American wildlife artists don't think twice about following the super-realistic path blazed by pioneering talents Mark Catesby and John Jay Audubon in the 1700s and 1800s.
As Harper himself confessed, his unconventional Modernist approach — which distilled and simplified his subjects into deceptively basic shapes and flat, bold colors — made him "the only wildlife artist in American who has never been compared to Audubon."
It also led to a 60-year-long legacy of eye-grabbing images that — especially in the last years before his 2007 death — attracted such fervent admirers as internationally known designer and television personality Todd Oldham.
Now, nearly 30 of Harper's works can be seen at the Virginia Living Museum through April 25 in an exhibit of silkscreen prints and posters called "Beguiled by the Wild."
And the more you look at these unexpected yet engaging takes on the creatures of the natural world, the easier it is to understand why he turned away from realism, then honed his minimalist sensibilities in a way that gave his portraits much more rather than less character and expression.
"Instead of trying to put everything in when I paint, I try to leave everything out," Harper once explained. "I never count the feathers in wings. I just count the wings."
Despite his long focus on wildlife art, Harper never claimed to be the kind of artist who was just as much a field naturalist as a sculptor or painter. Though he'd always try to observe his subject in the wild if he could, his most important sources were his extensive library of bird, fish and animal guides and the deep appreciation for the outdoors he acquired as a rambling kid growing up on a farm in Appalachia.
He may have gotten his gift for distilling and simplifying things during his wartime days, when — as a member of an Army intelligence and reconnaissance unit— he began making quick sketches and paintings recording the essence, though not every detail, of the devastated landscape he found while fighting in Europe.
But not until after Harper finished his training at the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1947 and turned his back on an early infatuation with realism did he begin exploring and perfecting the simple but character-filled images for which he would become so noted.
First, he'd reduce the irregular outlines of his subjects to straight lines and curves, then recreate their forms through simple geometric shapes produced with mechanical drawing tools, including a compass, T-square, triangle and French curve. He'd simplify the colors, too, eliminating natural variations in feathers, skin and fur in favor of flat expanses of pigment recalling the most definitive hues and markings.
Much harder to explain are the clever and unexpected ways he would place his subjects in space, creating unusual points of view that often puzzle his viewers, then reward them with a moment of discovery and surprise as they recognize the creatures in the images.
In works such as "Scary Scenario," especially, you might not recognize the icy white polar bear on which a bright red and black cardinal is perched because its massive head barely breaks the surface of the water.
Harper scored his first big success in 1961 with his illustrations for the widely admired children's classic "The Giant Golden Book of Biology." But he's probably best known today for his silkscreen prints, many of which were based on wildlife images originally created for Ford Times, a popular travel magazine published by the car manufacturer until the early 1990s.
So faithfully did the silkscreen process reproduce the simple shapes and flat colors of Harper's unconventional, minimalist visions that he preferred the results to his paintings.
"The rich surface of the print has all the quality of an original," he wrote. "In fact, I find my prints are usually more satisfying than the originals."
Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more of his columns on our online museums page.
News to Use What: "Beguiled by the Wild," prints and posters by Charley Harper Where: Virginia Living Museum, 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News When: Through April 25 Cost: Included in general admission ticket of $15 adults, $12 children 3-12 Info: 595-1900, www.thevlm.org