Charley Harper

My love for vintage cookbooks led to my love for American Modern artist Charley Harper.  You might not recognize his name, but his signature style is unmistakable.  Throughout his six-decades-long career, his vibrant illustrations were the exclamation point of many publications for a wide range of audiences…including The Golden Book of Biology for children, magazines such as Ford Times for men, and (where I discovered him) Betty Crocker cookbooks for women.  

I am sure there were men reading cookbooks and women reading Ford Times, but let’s just keep it simple, shall we?   

Charley’s subjects were largely inspired by wildlife, so over the years he was also hired to create over fifty posters for many nature organizations, parks, and causes.  He called his style “minimal realism”, and when he was asked to describe it further he replied:       

“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.”       

Unlike the glossy cookbooks of today, where we want to see a photo of every recipe, vintage cookbooks relied on illustrations to punch up the columns of text.  Often there were a few pages of photos…but really, they probably should have stuck with the drawings.  When you see examples of cookbook photos from this era, you wonder how anyone ever worked up an appetite.       

For example, here is a selection of Charley’s delightful work from Betty Crocker’s “Dinner for Two” cookbook from 1958:       




And here is one of the precious few photos from this same volume, of a dish creatively titled “Small Whole Fish”:   


Yum, right?  I appreciate the fishing props and the notched wedges of lemon…but that just looks like yuck.   

Despite his death in 2007, Charley’s talent lives on in many forms.  For children there are puzzles, alphabet & counting books, and a Memory game.  For older audiences there are posters, prints, calendars, stationary, and holiday cards.  All of these feature his colorful nature illustrations.  A beautiful and touching tribute book by designer Todd Oldham also came out last year titled “Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life”.   

And if you are like me, you can hunt around for old cookbooks or copies of Ford Times and hope to find Charley on the pages.  You can’t miss him.    

Visit the official Charley Harper art studio here

Okay…one more drawing…you know I need to get a cat in here somewhere.   


Thank you, Charley!

3 thoughts on “Charley Harper

  1. Shannon says:

    Love Charley! Thanks again for that awesome ABC book for Donovan. He loves it and so do I! I love that bib. I’m headed to that site next!

    • Aimee says:

      Donovan gives me the perfect excuse to buy Charley Harper for kids! Let me know when he is ready for Memory – I can’t wait to play with him!

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