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The DART Interview: Chris Harper

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday May 30, 2019

Peggy Roalf: Which came first, the type or the grid?

Chris Harper: This is a difficult question for me to answer, having worked as both a designer and Illustrator. It depends upon the intent or context of the work being made, whether it is design focused or illustratively focused. As both type selection and grid structure are part of the visual semantics of any particular job, I believe they are subservient to the message that needs to be communicated. As an illustrator my choice of media (digital or analogue) is more tacit, personal, a visual language and vocabulary that has emerged based on trial and error, born out of experience that hopefully enables me to respond to a wide range of communication needs. For me as an illustrator and designer, it all starts with the finding an idea, and I invariably find my ideas and starting points in language and words. 

PR: What is there about hand lettering that appeals to you? Do you often include hand lettering in your assignment work?

CH: I tend to use hand lettering in all of my illustrative work. I love the vitality, urgency and approachability that handmade typography can convey to an audience. I have always been fascinated by how words and images interact to create meaning. Studying and developing my practise as a designer/illustrator there was a slightly reverential attitude to typography as a discipline. It had ‘rules’ and conventions that needed to be understood and applied rigorously in order to create effective and consistent communication. As a consequence the type was perceived as the preserve of the graphic designer and the pictures were left to the illustrators. I never felt precise enough to be an exceptional typographer, but nevertheless loved to play with words.

During my postgraduate study at Central Saint Martins, exploring the relationship between type and image became a focal point of my work. I moved away from being an entirely collage/design based illustrator and began to draw and paint exclusively. The words gradually filtered into my images, not as typography but embedded as pictorial and authorial components of the composition and drawing process. I usually try to ensure that the text extends the idea or at times comments upon the content of the idea. At times the language is in effect in conversation with the concept described. I have always regarded the use of text as a part of my visual language therefore when commissioned as an illustrator I will try generate concepts that enable me to include text as part of the image and the idea 

PR: Please describe your work process—is most of your work done directly, or do you also use digital media? 

CH: My illustrative practice is rooted in drawing. I tend to draw very quickly, almost brutally. There is little virtuosity in the initial/preparatory drawings I make, as I try to get a sense of form and composition. It is a rush to grasp the idea and give it form. Once I have convinced myself that the idea meets its intention, I will create a working rough. 

The rough is vital for me as it is the point where I am most expansive and experimental with the materials. At this stage anything goes, the process is intuitive, additive and subtractive as necessary. The rough goes through a process of revision and correction until the drawing and the concept are legible. The process is more like an archeological excavation at the end of which an image emerges. In the past the rough would then be photocopied and enlarged, to create a template for the final painting. In my most recent work my methodology has changed. I will scan the rough and all elements with the potential to be included and start to digitally assemble the final artwork. 

The final artwork may be a composite of five–fifty fragmentary drawn or found elements, it depends upon the concept I am creating. Likewise I have started to integrate photographic backgrounds, digitally printing these onto a variety of papers and substrates and drawing directly onto these surfaces. Invariably the outcome of this process is assembled and digital but I my intention for my work is to retain some degree of autographic authenticity, to somehow retain the history and vitality of the making the final artwork. 

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

CH: I grew up in Africa—Zimbabwe (Rhodesia as then) in the 1970’s, one of three boys. My parents travelled out from the UK to Africa as Salvation Army missionaries. Most of my early childhood was defined by this religious framework and a great deal of time was spent in Sunday Schools of varying denominations. My brothers and I were no angels, (three boys always in trouble for one thing or another), but I guess that the language and imagery of the Bible, Old and New Testament, filtered into my visual DNA as an image-maker. The Old Testament documents stories of triumph and adversity, characterizing the worst and best of human nature, full of impossible miracles, signs and wonders. The New Testament parables became the basis of my Masters study and submission, as these were simply narrative linguistic illustrations, stories created to explain complex ideas. I chose to explore these linguistic and metaphoric structures in a contemporary cultural context. There are many creative references that have informed my work: I am drawn to drawing, markmaking and materiality best exemplified in the work of David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Kurt Schwitters, Jacques Villegle, Mimmo Paladino, Antoni Tapies, Cecil Collins, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sister Corita Kent, Ben Nicholson, Roger Hilton, Cy Twombly. 

Illustrator’s work that continue to inspire me include, Andrew Foster, Gary Powell, Janet Woolley, Paul Davis, Henrik Drescher, Alan E. Cober, Ed Fella, Sue Coe, Marshal Arisman, Frank Hohne, Stephen (Neasden) Smith, Dan Fern, Eduardo Recife, Carolyn Gowdy, Sol Robbins and all the radical illustrators. There are so many more….

PR: Do you keep a sketchbook? If yes, how does that contribute to your work process? If yes, does this figure in with your travels?

CH: Drawing practice, inside or outside of the sketchbook, is central to my thinking as an illustrator and designer.I use sketchbooks as an experimental laboratory for exploring the synthesis between drawing processes and the development of ideas. A place to consider the relationship that exists between materials and meaning, a space for experimentation and visual play, where the tangible form of an idea can be given shape and purpose. I don't consider myself a natural sketchbook practitioner though, and on occasion, find that I am fighting it, because of its size, or because of the implied narrative structure of a book. This often causes me to feel more self-conscious when I am drawing. When this happens I move out of the sketchbook onto larger loose sheets of copier paper. This change of scale acts to focus my drawing, mark-making and compositional thinking. I progressively rework these preparatory studies until I reconcile the image and idea.


PR: Does posting to Instagram stimulate your sketchbook activity?

CH: No, I decided fairly early on that I would only post work when I felt that it constructively added to the narrative of my work or process. This however does not stop me from feeling a little guilty that I have periods of time when it appears that I have dropped off the face of the earth. 

PR: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work?

CH: I live in the Hebden Bridge a small town in the heart of the Pennines in West Yorkshire in the north of England. It is a vibrant and creative town midway between Manchester and Leeds. There is a big creative community living in the Calder Valley and as a consequence there is always some type of creative happening, be that exhibitions, gigs or performances etc. There is always a creative conversation to be had if needed and this diminishes any sense of creeping isolation.

PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to the illustrator’s basic condition of working alone.

CH: I work in a converted studio the attic of my home. It is crammed with books magazines and drawing materials. When tidy there is plenty of space (a rare occurrence). I have a large work table with drawing board and a digital area for my mac, scanner and printer. There are hundreds of CD’s replenished fairly regularly. Music is a continuous soundtrack to my working process. I rarely feel too isolated as I am a part-time lecturer in Illustration. Working alongside the students is a great way to bring you down to earth and back to reality. It is a reciprocal relationship, hopefully stimulating positive creative possibilities for tutor and student alike.

PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

CH: A good question! For me it is when the visual distractions or anomalies in the image no longer demand further scrutiny or editing. The image created can be read as a totality with no part demanding more attention than another, or than is necessary based upon the composition. This is however and intuitive decision based on my tacit knowledge of process and is personal to me. In the past this would have been a more involved decision but within my more recent pieces I have been trying to withdraw earlier from the artwork, to leave less certainty and to construct a slightly greater sense of incompletion. Therefore as an answer I would suggest that completion is both about instinct and intent, a head and heart decision.

PR: Do you use photographic reference materials very much? If yes, how do you avoid the pitfalls that can arise when working from reference? 

CH: I use photographic reference more now than I did in the past. It is usually a starting point for my working process. The initial referential drawings are for structural or mechanical information, to interrogate the properties that define the essence of the object, shape, form, weight, function etc. By drawing the object many times, each time with less observation of the photographic original (a greater reliance on memory), or with materials that deny the opportunity to over-describe, the drawings progressively become more of an interpretation rather than a literal description. Similarly exploring positive and negative space will add the same vitality to the interpretation. In the past a black and white photocopy worked well to unify drawn and photographic elements now a good scan and rebalanced levels will generate the same outcome. 


PR: What is ‘Deleted Manual’—and can you tell the readers about your conceptual process and work for the images that introduce the idea on your website?

CH: ‘Deleted Manual’ is an archive of my professional and creative practice as a designer and illustrator over the last 20 years. Through ‘Deleted Manual’ I hoped to bring together all the strands of my practice, illustration, graphic design, exhibitions, editions and painting. As much of the work was created by hand the task of digitizing it and archiving it was significant and a real labour of love. It was also essential as I had never constructed a personal website to promote my working practice. 

The name ‘Deleted Manual’ sprang from a vintage store find. I purchased a box of printing blocks and discovered that the litho-etched plates contained images of defunct pieces of technology. On the reverse of each block the printers had created accidental collages (to ensure an even print on the press). Written in pencil with the collage were the words ‘deleted manual’. I considered this idea in relation to my own work, which had progressively moved from the analogue to the digital. Without a ‘manual’ or ‘guide’ we are left to construct our own instructions and personal methodology. I found that to be a liberating thought.

The aesthetics of the site had to embrace all aspects of my work from design to painting. In order to do so I used an old manual that contained the circuit diagrams ‘Pencil Follower Type PF 10000’, an early scanner that digitized maps. This defunct folder became the background for all the sectional dividers within the site. The 'Deleted Manual' site represents my continued investigation of the dynamics that exist between autographic drawing and design, between text and image, between material and digital process, between authorial and applied communication. It is within these relationships and between these boundaries that I continue to find my creative direction.

 

PR: If you could live and work anywhere, where would that be?

CH: I loved living and working in London and still visit socially and for work commitments, but Hebden Bridge is a very fine place to live and work from. We live in a digital economy, so the notion of where we work has little to do now with where we live apparently. If only the sea were a little closer it would be just perfect.

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 

CH: It would be have a literary or lyrical starting point. I have always liked the idea of illustrating Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. 

‘Deleted Manual’ was established in 2016 as a visual archive, documenting the creative and professional practice of illustrator/designer Christopher Harper. Trained as both a graphic designer (BA Hons Multi-Disciplinary Design at Staffordshire University), and an Illustrator (PGDip and MA Communication Design/Illustration at Central Saint Martins), has enabled me to work in a variety of communication contexts for a range of clients, as both a freelance illustrator and graphic designer throughout my career. Graphic design commissions include websites, identity design, conference publications, CD design, promotional graphics and sequential design for TV production, including work for clients such as Ecover, Harper Collins, Tearfund, Alliance Music and Granada Television.Illustration commissions have included editorial, publishing and design work for clients such as Random House, Waterstones, Beavis Keane, Building Design Partnership and Building Magazine. My illustration work has also appeared, Creative Review, Eye Magazine, Creative Quarterly, and has been selected for AOI Images, 3x3 Annual and American Illustration. I have exhibited Illustrations nationally and internationally. I have also lectured extensively in Illustration and Graphic Design in Universities and Colleges throughout the UK. dart-interview
Website: http://www.deletedmanual.com/work
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/charper_dmstudio/?hl=en

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