Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 5, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Lee Harper

I really think you will enjoy your visit this week with Lee Harper.  I remember a few years back, when he attended an SCBWI event and drew immediate attention.  You will see why as you scroll down to his artwork.  Here is Lee in his own words:

When I was a kid, art was important to me — it was a special world I could visit when I needed to escape the tumultuous reality of my dysfunctional family life. I loved inventing alternative worlds, and I loved entering the worlds other artists created in books. I got to be quite a connoisseur. By second grade I could tell the real artists from the artists just out to make a buck. I could tell that artists just doing a job from nine to five drew my Hot Wheels coloring book, and that a real artist drew Fox in Sox.

My abilities in art led me to a place called the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where I majored in drawing, painting, and sculpting in clay. It was at the Academy where I learned Dr. Seuss was just an illustrator. I learned illustrators (the word ‘illustrators’ was usually spoken in the same tone Seinfeld uses when he says ‘Newman’) were kind of like fine artists who’d sold their soul. Fine artists draw figures, still-lives, landscapes, or sometimes abstractions. So that’s what I did. I still did caricatures of my friends for fun, but I didn’t dare risk the ridicule I’d have received had I shown those drawings to my instructors. I was a fine artist now. Fine artist don’t draw cartoons.

After I graduated I got married and started a family. I found it impossible to survive as a fine artist. So to earn a living I started a picture framing business. The idea was to grow the business to the point where I could have assistants do most of the framing, and then I would get back to my real life’s work of being a fine artist. The plan was going well.  The business grew for many years, I had great employees that were starting to handle the workload, and by 1999 I’d grown out of my workspace and set up a new shop/art studio in New Hope, PA. It turned out to be a disastrous move. It never took root. Who’d have thought people would need a place to park their cars? Instead of relocating, I decided to use the business failure as an opportunity to try something new. After all, it wasn’t like I loved framing pictures.  It was just the means to the end.

First I tried landscape architecture. After a few college courses involving the memorization of plant names I realized landscape architecture wasn’t going to work.  I was terrible at memorizing plant names. Then I switched my focus to ventriloquist dummy making, but that didn’t last long, either. My wife said she would divorce me if I became a ventriloquist dummy maker. I changed focus again…this time to real estate sales. I went on a few sales calls and quickly realized I’m not a real estate salesperson. I needed to make things. But whatever I did, I was determined that I would stay true to the ideals of fine art. I would keep that part of me pure. I wouldn’t sell my soul.

Around this time I was making abstract art. I found a gallery to represent me, and began selling my abstractions. But the way I felt about art was changing. It was no longer something I did as an escape from reality like it was when I was a kid. So why was I doing it? I asked myself. I found myself questioning the basic principals of fine art that I’d learned at the Academy. Why was I working so hard to create something that would probably just end up decorating the mansion of Tyler Greystone, the CEO of Greystone Enterprises, and then after his death, be passed on to his son Tyler Greystone the third who only got through Harvard because of his fathers connections, never does anything useful with his life, and ends up selling the painting you poured your heart and soul into for a butt-load of money to help pay for his villa in Tuscany? I love art, but the Academy model of the fine artist was beginning to feel selfish, elitist, and a bit pointless. And doing work with no guaranteed income is a little hard to rationalize when you have a family.

That’s when I started thinking about making picture books. I started thinking maybe I could stay true to my own artistic values, get paid, AND make a difference in the world. I could make books that a kid could escape into…books that would encourage a kid to read. I could make alternative worlds that make a kids’ life a little happier, in the same way books made me happier when I was a kid. These all felt like worthwhile goals to me.

But it still feels a little funny when I’m referred to as an illustrator. In the end I came to the conclusion that I’d live by my own model of what it means to be a fine artist. In my model, what differentiates a fine artist from illustrator is the motivation of the artist.  If an artist is approaching his craft from a place of integrity and honesty…if his work is coming from the heart…if his main objective is to create something beautiful, or something meaningful — then it’s fine art. If the main motivation is to make money — then it’s illustration. Turns out I’d known what real art was since second grade. 

Getting past this mental hurdle opened the door for me to do what I now believe I was born to do: draw and write picture books. I still use what I learned at the Academy. I draw all my books with a pencil and I paint the pictures in the traditional medium of watercolor on paper. I make clay models of my characters. I don’t copy photographs. Sometimes I start with someone else’s words; sometimes I start with my own words. My books include figures, still-lives, landscapes, and even passages that are pure abstractions. I put my heart and soul into each one. I never know exactly where I will end up. I try to make books that are fine art, according to my own definition of the word.

My idea of what it means to be a fine artist might be different than what I learned at the Academy, but I still think it’s important to maintain artistic principals beyond just making money. If you don’t, that’s how you end up sitting at a desk from nine to five creating Hot Wheels coloring books. It’s a fine job I guess, but personally, I’d rather be a llama farmer.

In my studio I built a 40” X  56” drawing table. On the table you can see how I stretch all my watercolor paper on Gatorboard when I work. On the table to my right is my paint, brushes, and a couple of clay models. To my left are my tubes of watercolor paint. I have a swatch of each paint on the color wheel on my wall so I can match colors precisely from page to page if I need to. On the wall behind my table are photo references and drawings. The table to my right is my light box I use for tracing my sketches. I trace very roughly just to get the lay-out. I add details later.

The next three pictures are a sneak peek from THE EMPEROR’S COOL CLOTHES written and illustrated by Lee Harper coming out September 1st, 2011 published by Marshall Cavendish.

LOOKING FOR THE EASY LIFE by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Lee Harper  Publisher: HarperCollins (February 1, 2011)

I like to make clay heads of the characters. It helps to feel them in my hands. I figure out things I might not figure out if I only drew them. These are the characters for Looking For The Easy Life.

In this detail from a final of Looking For The Easy Life you can see how instead of painting solid colors, I like to leave room for accidents and little abstractions. I had a lot of fun with these branches. There’s Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Rose, Sap Green, and Burnt Umber all intermingling in here.

This is a typical pencil sketch I do when I’m making a dummy. This was from Looking For The Easy Life.

This is a pencil sketch from Snow! Snow! Snow! There were six pages of nothing but different angles of the three main characters flying through the air.

SNOW! SNOW! SNOW! written and illustrated by Lee Harper Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (October 20, 2009)

After I have the characters figured out I draw the whole book on one page so I can see how it all works together. This is my storyboard for Turkey Trouble. Later I will blow these up, fine tune and put into a dummy.

After getting a concept approved for the cover, I do a detailed drawing. A little more attention gets paid to the cover because that is a big part of what sells the book. This is the drawing for the cover of Woolbur.

        WOOLBUR by Leslie Helakoski, illustrated by Lee Harper Publisher: HarperCollins (January 2, 2008)

Around Thanksgiving I donned my giant turkey head to promote Turkey Trouble. Can’t be shy in this business…

I told you you would be enjoy your visit with Lee Harper.  Lee lives with his family in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. To see more visit:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Spectacular work and fascinating story, Lee! Seeing your process and level of preparation is extremely helpful. Thanks!


    • Thanks, Mary. I’m happy to be able to share it.


      • P.S. I love your cows!


  2. What a treat to see all this, especially Lee’s (stunningly neat) studio. Thank you.


    • I cleaned up the studio a little bit for this picture, but I guess I am a bit of a neat freak — helps counteract the chaos in my mind…


  3. Incredible blog that helped me alot is : hxxp://hottestgossiping.blogspot[com]


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