Ford Times Retrospective of Charley Harper

Charley Harpers Covers for Ford Times Magazine

Charley’s History with Ford Motor Company

Over the period of late-1948 through mid-1982, Charley Harper (1922- 2007) contributed hundreds of illustrations to the Ford Times magazine, produced by the Ford Motor Company. Ford Times magazine was sent by dealers to their patrons, free of charge, on a monthly basis. The format was unchanged over decades; each issue was 5″ x 7″, and contained 64 pages, not including the glossy front and back covers. (In the early 1980’s this was changed.) The publication was produced in color. While this publication was a commercial product, meant to promote Ford automotive products, the overarching theme was to get out and see our country (by car, of course!) Many feature articles were therefore of natural wonders, nature, and places of interest around the United States.

Ford Times Format and Editorial

Each issue contained about a dozen feature articles, Ford product advertisements, and a favorite recipes section. The articles were typically short, but each contained at least one (up to 10) illustrations (or pictures), and the recipe section was also illustrated. Notably, there was a very wide range of contributing artists, each who may have illustrated covers, feature articles, and locales featured in the ‘recipes’ section of the publication. Many of these artistic contributors specialized in one type of painting or another. For example, Charles Culver’s contributions were almost always of animals and birds. Other artists specialized in landscapes or scenery.

Charley ‘Did it All’ for Ford Times

One unique aspect of Charley Harper’s contributions, aside from his sheer longevity as a contributor, was that he contributed across-the-board, and his work is represented in all aspects of the magazine. The graphic at the top of this article shows some of the many cover illustrations Charley contributed to Ford Times over four decades. But, Charley ‘did it all’, contributing over 30 covers, hundreds of article illustrations, diagrams and restaurant illustrations. The lone exception appears to be that his work was not featured in any Ford product advertising. Besides the visual arts, Charley also wrote articles in which his art was featured.

Charley Contributed to 120+ Issues

One might ask why it is at all interesting to recap work in a commercial publication, such as Ford Times. In light of Charley’s prolific life’s work featured in the The Giant Golden Book of Biology, the Childcraft Encyclopedias, and his own books, Beguiled by the Wild, Birds and Words, and Todd Oldham’s CHARLEY HARPER – An Illustrated Life, this is a fair question. The answer is that such a review gives us a great look at Charley’s art over a long time span, that is most of his working life, from when he was just starting out in his twenties, until his early 60’s, a period of over thirty years.

Charley contributed to approximately 120 issues of the Ford Times magazine, from the December 1948 issue up until the June 1982 publication. Over this period we can see how his style developed and matured. And, as we will see, much of his commercial art was later adapted to more purely artistic designs. Indeed, some of Charley’s early design elements are present in work published by the Charley Harper Art Studio, many years later. By combing through the over-400 issues of Ford Times, between December 1948 and June, 1982, we also come to understand (along with past interviews granted by Charley) how he came to be associated with nature and specialized in these subjects, later in life.

Charley’s First Illustrated Contribution

Charley’s first contribution to Ford Times appears to be for the December 1948 issue. Then, and for the next couple years Charley’s contributions were primarily, but not exclusively, focussed on illustrations for the recipe section of the magazine. From this first issue, through February 1954, Charley contributed at least a dozen illustrations for this section of the magazine, but later, only very sporadically, suggesting he had proved his greater talents and abilities to contribute to feature articles.

Charley’s First Wildlife Illustration (Ever)

The first such article for which Charley contributed an illustration was actually the January 1949 issue, in which the article “Sheep Penning” features Charley’s first ‘wildlife’ illustration. In February and June of the same year, Charley contributed illustrations to “The Case of the Missing Muskeg”, and “State Park Sample: Missouri,” respectively. In 1950, Charley contributed illustrations to: “Ohio’s Roadside Parks”, and numerous favorite recipe venues. In 1951, he illustrated the articles “The Cincinnati Pay Lakes”, “The Pacific Northwest – Two Views”, and “The Hocking Parks.” The April 1951 issue, including the Cincinnati article, is the first issue in which Charley provided cover art. Charley’s first cover came about two and one-half years after his work was first featured in Ford Times. This first cover shows fish of five midwestern species swimming amongst an array of baited fish hooks.

Charley Harper’s first cover for Ford Times
© Ford Motor Company

By 1951-2, Charley was an increasingly regular contributor to Ford Times. With his first cover we also see his first forays into illustrations of nature, to become the hallmark of his later career. However, it was not yet a specialty, or focus. In 1951, Charley provided illustrations for the recipes section (e.g., Park View Inn, West Virginia), landscapes (Pacific Northwest -Two Views and parks illustrations), and the October cover showing his rendition of a ‘Hunter’s Moon.’

Charley’s First Cover

The April 1951 cover must have been a hit, because we see Charley’s fish reappear the next year, in the article “Eight Familiar Fish” (March 1952.) This article also represents his largest single contribution to a Ford Times issue since he began contributing to the publication. The article contains eight illustrations, including King Salmon, Large-mouthed Black Bass, Crappie, Catfish, Muskellunge, Yellow Perch, Rainbow Trout, and Sunfish. Each fish is represented in a seperate painting. All five of the fish present in the April 1951 cover are represented in their own drawings and appear pretty much exactly as depicted in the prior cover illustration.

First Hard Cover Publication

In addition, these same eight paintings also appear in the Ford Treasury of the Outdoors (Simon & Schuster, 1952.) which may be the first hardcover publication in which Charley’s work was published. Each of Charley’s fish paintings accompanies a separate article on the illustrated species. For example, Charley’s King Salmon accompanies the article “This is the Champ.” For the first time, we see Charley’s paintings offered for sale through the magazine. These eight ‘hand-screened’ prints were offered at $5.00, each. These earliest of the Ford Times prints are unique in having a smaller size of 15″ x 10-1/2″.

Natural and Man-made Wonders

During the rest of 1952 and well into 1953, Charley illustrated a themed series of natural and man-made wonders entitled ‘Horseless Carriage Adventures.’ This series contained 24 painted scenes, issued two per month, between July 1952 (No. 1 -The Grand Canyon) and June 1953 (No. 24 -Old Faithful.) At the conclusion of this series, in June of 1953, eight of these prints were offered for sale. These, and subsequent Ford Times prints, were offered in a larger image size of 18-1/2″ x 13″ (on 20-1/2″w x 15-1/2″h sheets.)

The eight ‘Horseless Carriage’ prints are: 1. Lookout Mountain, Tennessee; 2. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico; 3. Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri; 4. Natural Bridge, Virginia; 5. Niagara Falls, New York; 6. Mariposa Grove, California; 7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona; 8. Saratoga Springs, New York. © Ford Motor Company

Charley’s First Bird Paintings

In 1954, Charley contributed to half of that year’s issues, including “They Make Mountain Music”, in June. This article is noteworthy, because Charley contributed many illustrations for articles on all things West Virginia, his birthplace. But, the most influential effort came with Charley’s contribution to the November 1954 issue with his ten paintings for “Feeding Station Birds.” This article, in the format of a single bird per illustration (a la “Eight Familiar Fish”) represented Charley’s first concentrated effort to publish bird paintings, for which he was to be acclaimed, from this point forward . “Feeding Station Birds” prints were also made available to readers in the form of ‘hand-screened prints’, each image 18-1/2″ x 13″, and costing $4.50. A reader could buy one, a combination, or all ten prints.

Highly Valued by Collectors

Because the prints were made available concurrently with their publication, a warm reception was likely anticipated, or at least a hoped-for response. In later interviews, Charley said he never made more than 100 of any of these prints. And, today, they are among the most sought after images from his career. The reception to Charley’s birds must have been very positive, indeed. For the next seven years, the November edition of Ford Times annually featured ten bird paintings by Charley Harper. And, in 1955, three covers were of Charley’s birds (March- Robin; September – Ruby-throated Hummingbird; November – Barn Owl.)

Ford Times Cover, November 1954
© Ford Motor Company

From 1954 until 1960, Charley’s birds appeared in every November issue of Ford Times:

* 1954: Feeding Station Birds
* 1955: A Farewell to Wings
* 1956: TenWestern Birds
* 1957: America’s Vanishing Birds
* 1958: Ten Southern Birds
* 1959: American Bird Architects
* 1960: American Bird Census

As with the “Feeding Station Birds”, Charley made silk-screen prints from the subsequent series’ available to readers. By November 1960, the price was $5 per print, the same his ‘fish prints’ offered in 1952! It was also during this period that Charley began narrating his own articles. The 1954 and 1955 bird series capsules about each bird, were written by E.B. White. Charley related that E.B. decided not to continue with them and therefore Charley narrated the series’ in 1956-60. Thus, Charley’s writing career was launched at the same time he was enjoying the initial popularity of his bird art.

From these seventy-plus bird paintings, one might get the impression that Charley was an avid birdwatcher. But, from first hand reports, that was not the case. Charley told interviewers that he studied birds via field guides as opposed to watching them in the field, calling himself “the world’s worst bird-watcher.” It is difficult to study wild subjects which are not amenable to showing all aspects of their anatomy, in a patient posed way.

“World’s Weirdest Water Bird”, Ford Times, May, 1969
© Ford Motor Company

More Bird Illustrations

During the 1960’s, Charley contributed many more bird illustrations to Ford Times articles, including: “Don’t Gainsay the Bluejay”, “Bird with a Split Personality”, “When the Buzzards Come Back to Hinkley”, and “The World’s Weirdest Water Bird.” In these issues, we can see how Charley’s work evolved and how art originally published in Ford Times was later adapted to his Serigraphs, published independently. The March 1964 issue gives us a good example, with an illustration for the ‘Buzzards’ article.

One of the two illustrations for this article, with caption ‘Buzzards Bundling at Bedtime’, shows five ‘buzzards’ (now known as Turkey Vultures) sitting on a roost. The endmost bird has a facing opposing the other four birds, and he has one foot off the perch. Clearly, this individual is the odd-bird-out. Compare that image to the 1979 serigraph entitled “Buzz Off You Turkey.” The latter serigraph shows the same scene of buzzards (Turkey vultures) on a roost, with the rightmost bird facing opposite the others, and with one foot off its perch. Clearly, the earlier painting was an inspiration for the latter. However, we see Charley’s style has evolved significantly during the intervening 15 year period.

Illustration from “When the Buzzards Come Back to Hinkley”
Ford Times, March, 1964, © Ford Motor Company

‘Buzz Off You Turkey’ Serigraph, 1979

Increased Emphasis on Simplification

The key aspect of change we note is the increased emphasis on simplification. The 1964 image shows Charley’s ‘minimalistic’ approach to design, with very little detail, only five colors, and simple shapes drawn with straight edge and/or French curve. This is a good example of the style he called ‘minimal realism’, and his application of it earlier in his career. However, “Buzz Off You Turkey” carries this design imperative even further, while improving the visual impact of the scene. In the latter print, there is one less bird, no sun, and fewer and more muted colors. Whereas the dominant color in the early print is the orange background, in the latter print, it is the red of the birds head, thus drawing attention to the subject of the print and de-emphasizing the background.

Further Simplification

The more complex wing shapes have been completely eliminated in the latter print. Overall, the composition is simpler. For all this further simplification, “Buzz Off You Turkey” loses none of its impact. The birds are just as fully recognizable as Turkey Vultures, and the odd-bird-out aspect of the theme, is amplified by making the end bird disheveled in appearance. One final subtlety between these prints. The early caption, ‘Buzzards bundling at bedtime’, is an alliteration. “Buzz Off You Turkey” is a much more complicated play on words, or pun, taking into account both the older and newer names for this bird. Thus, in this example, we can see the maturing of Charley’s talent and development of his minimal realism. We also see Charley’s humor developing, and shining through, in the form of visual and word puns with which his art is infused.

During the 1970’s

During the decade of the 1970’s, Charley continued to contribute to Ford Times. However, by this time, he had begun publishing his own independent art, in the form of limited edition serigraphs (and in many other projects.). More than 50 designs were distributed by the Frame House Gallery in the 1970’s. As busy as he was, Charley contributed illustrations to three or four Ford Times articles each year. 1972 was the exception when he contributed to six issues, including the February cover.

Defined as Nature Painter

What is obvious by the paintings in these articles is that, by this time, Charley had pretty much defined himself as a painter of nature. Fish, insects, birds and mammals were his preferred subjects. In the 1970’s we also see design ideas and elements being used and re-used in creative ways. In November 1971, one of Charley’s illustrations of otters for “Good TimeCharley of the Woods” shows two playful otters in a birch grove, on a riverbank. The trees, in their stark pixelated form, command attention, breaking up the outline of the playful otter as he slides down the bank towards the river, below.

Just a year later, in 1972, Charley released “Bear in the Birches”, wherein he carries this visual device to an even higher level; much more of the bear is obscured, and this adds measurably to the overall impact of the print, in this later and more refined work.

Left: An illustration from “Good Time Charlie of the Woods”, Ford Times, Nov. 1971.
Right: “Bear in the Birches”, serigraph, Frame House Gallery, 1972.

Fine Art / Commercial Artist

As Charley’s involvement with Ford Times neared its end, in 1982, one more aspect of his work bears noting. Charley walked the line between fine art and commercial art very very well. He was practical and yet pursued what he loved, illustrating nature, in its many forms. He painted nature while earning a living as a respected artist at a commercial endeavor. Evidence of this, and Charley’s practical nature, come shining through in one final and fitting example. In the May 1976 issue of Ford Times, Charley had the cover for the issue featuring “Cincinnati – My Kind of Town.” In fact, Cincinnati was Charley’s town; as a long-time resident, it made perfect sense for him to illustrate the cover of this issue. The image he produced is full of symbolism, showing a pair of cardinals (Ohio state bird) on the stem of a buckeye (Ohio state tree) overlooking the Cincinnati riverfront.

Ford Times Cover, May 1976
© Ford Motor Company

Parallels Between Cardinals

The parallels between Charley’s cardinals on this cover and his prior limited edition serigraph, “Flamboyant Feathers”, released in 1974, are visually obvious. As an example, in both pieces the bird species is dimorphic, and the male is facing right! During this busy time in his life, he was undoubtably more productive for his ability to adapt and reuse visually interesting compositions, in a most fitting way. We cannot imagine painted buntings on a palm leaf, in Ohio. But, what is more fitting for this cover than the Ohio state bird and a representation of the Ohio state tree. Thus we see Charley’s very practical nature crossing from the private fine-art focus to the commercial, with adeptness and pragmatism. Even further evidence is forthcoming, in this final example. In 2006, Charley released another serigraph, this one titled “Cardinals Consorting.” Does it look familiar?

Left: “Flamboyant Feathers”, serigraph, 1974
Right: “Cardinals Consorting”, serigraph, 2006


In closing, Charley’s career, which spanned nearly sixty years, is awe inspiring. The genius of his distinctive art is self-evident. By examining 30 years of his contributions to Ford Times Magazine we have a glimpse into not only the development of the style he called ‘minimal realism’, but also into his gradually developed focus on nature, and birds more specifically. And, we begin to understand Charley’s prolific nature. Besides contributing illustrations to 120 issues of Ford Times, he generated perhaps another 150 wildlife images as Giclees, Serigraphs and Lithographs. And, we haven’t even touched on the many eco-posters Charley designed for the National parks, and many other entities. His lifetime achievement is a legacy to the natural world one can only admire and respect.