feature By: Jeff Nedwick | September, 20
In that sense, a Bill Harrison portrait is like a classic novel. The subject matter is felt more than seen; hidden in plain sight between the smudges, lines and dots made by his Wolff carbon pencil. Viewers of a Harrison portrait don’t just see a hunting dog; they feel an adrenaline rush through the dog’s eyes as a grouse bursts from an aspen stand.
Harrison describes his depictions of hunting dogs and wildlife as “realistic, but not photo-realistic; expressive, but not self-expressive.
“My fascination with art has always been with the process of making something look like I want it to look, not with conveying any kind of message or self-expression,” he says.
“I don’t have anything balled up inside of me looking for a way to express itself. I just like the technical challenge of art.”
Even the most realistic photographs can’t match the intensity of a great realistic drawing because photographs
are limited to what the camera lens sees. With his pencil, Harrison transcends such limitations, bending reality to suit his purpose.
The Wolff carbon pencil preferred by Harrison combines the sharp lines of a graphite pencil with the rich, black lines of a charcoal pencil. When he draws the pencil across 300-pound hot press paper — heavily textured paper with a thickness between heavy cardboard and light poster board — tiny white spots appear where the pencil doesn’t reach fully into the paper’s tiny pocks and crevasses. Harrison painstakingly goes back and fills in some of those spots to achieve the desired texture and precise level of detail.
Given Harrison’s attention to detail, the use of a fingertip or dirty, kneaded eraser to blend or smear the carefully drawn lines seems counterintuitive. However, close examination of his drawings reveals the calculated precision of his messiness. The contrast between smudges and precise lines or dots help direct the viewer’s eye to features Harrison chooses to emphasize.
To maximize the contrast, Harrison takes extra care to prevent unintended smears or smudges. He uses a combination of frisket film — a self-adhering, lightweight, clear plastic film most often used by airbrush artists — and Mylar to cover and protect the parts of the drawing he’s not working on.
“I’m always looking for the trick or approach to bring out the texture, the essence and the lighting of what I’m trying to draw,” he says.
Harrison’s deep appreciation for realism transcends his art. A self-described pragmatist, he’s driven by a desire to understand. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a trial lawyer. Upon graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Illinois–Champaign, majoring in psychology because he thought it was a good foundation for a career as a trial lawyer. However, he found psychology to be too subjective and ambiguous.
“I used to complain that not only could psychologists not agree on the answers, they couldn’t even agree on the questions,” he laughs.
In his sophomore year, he took an independent study course in underground comic art — his first formal art training — and discovered that art was something he really loved. He was especially drawn to the objectivity of realism and how the imagery cannot be phony.
Nearly two years into his work on a psychology degree, he decided to switch his major to art, even though it meant starting over as a freshman. A specialization in illustration would have been a natural expression of his interest in comic book art, but the University of Illinois didn’t offer such a degree, so he chose painting instead, even as he pursued professional opportunities in illustration.
One day he saw a posting on the university’s Fine Arts Building bulletin board seeking an artist “who can do Marvel Comic-type illustrations” for the building’s newsletter. Harrison got the job, and his work was very popular among the building’s residents. A short time later, his work caught the eye of the head of advertising for the Illini Union — the home for student organizations, meetings and programs — who offered him a job as an illustrator.
Upon graduation in 1977, Harrison put his skills as an illustrator to work as a commercial artist, and for the next 20 years he catered to an exclusive client base comprised of advertising agency giants like J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett. Ads for businesses like Burger King, McDonald’s and Citibank featured Harrison’s illustrations.
Harrison continued to perfect his style of illustration, adopting a technique called “stipple.” Stippling involves lightly touching the pencil to the paper to produce dots that create shading and texture. By varying the distance between the dots and the size of the dots, the artist creates the illusion of shading. Using the stipple technique, Harrison converted customers’ high-resolution color photographs of their product into black and white charcoal pencil drawings suitable for print publications.
“I was basically a really good Xerox machine with a brain,” says Harrison. A modernized version of this approach — hedcuts — is still used today by publications like the Wall Street Journal.
Before Harrison and his fellow commercial artists popularized the stipple technique, color photographs needed for a black and white publication underwent a process called “screening.” The screening technique, dating back to the 1880s, utilized a ruled glass screen containing a grid pattern during processing of an image captured with a film camera. The screen converted the image into hundreds of tiny dots, which could then be used in the publication. However, screening cannot match the realism of the stippling, which affords the freedom of interpretation that only an artist can provide.
“I was able to put my dots wherever I wanted,” Harrison explains.
Harrison’s successful run as a commercial artist lasted through the late 1990s but ended abruptly with the rapid rise of digital imaging technologies which automated the process of converting photographs to images suitable for publication. Harrison, along with about 75% of his fellow illustrators, soon found himself out of a job.
“When my career as an illustrator ended, I felt like I had died,” he says. He became depressed and even suffered through a bout of alcoholism. He considered drawing for his own pleasure, but as he says, “It felt pointless to draw something and then just stick it in a drawer.”
So Harrison took up other vocations. He proved to be quite good at one in particular — real estate — and became the managing broker of a good-sized real estate office in a Chicago suburb. However, the economic downturn that began in 2007 killed that industry as well, and he felt “like a sea captain who’d just had his second ship torpedoed out from under him.”
Around that same time the Alzheimer’s that had been developing in his mother-in-law reached a point that she could no longer care for herself, so Harrison became a full-time caregiver. This afforded him plenty of free time, and he started drawing again “just to amuse” himself.
Between caregiving and drawing for his own amusement, he came across the work of British artist Andrew Tift. Harrison admired Tift’s charcoal pencil drawing technique — a realistic style — and began corresponding with him. In the course of their correspondence, Tift encouraged Harrison to pursue his own career as an artist.
Harrison sought Tift’s input regarding the type of subject matter preferred by galleries. Tift suggested drawing “Hell’s Angels, musicians and other fringe types.” Harrison took this feedback to heart and started hanging around fairgrounds, carnivals and other Chicago area biker hangouts. Showing no fear, he approached the gnarliest, road-worn bikers he could find and asked if he could take their pictures. He transformed the pictures into charcoal pencil drawing portraits and circulated them to galleries. The reaction from galleries was positive, and a few galleries began displaying his work. The problem was that his subject matter made for a limited market.
“Most people don’t want to hang a portrait of a dangerous looking thug in their living room.”
So he experimented with other subjects, like nudes, which he found boring, and musicians, which sold decently, before finally settling on hunting dogs and wildlife.
Now in his late 60s, Harrison can comfortably reflect on a career that’s had its share of twists, turns, setbacks and successes. From a kid who started with aspirations of being a successful trial lawyer, he’s quite content with where he ended up: a successful artist specializing in portraits of wildlife and hunting dogs.
Harrison himself sums things up with, “I love to draw. It’s my favorite thing in the world, and it’s something I’m really good at. I’m going to keep doing it for as long as I can continue to produce at a quality that pleases me.”
To view Harrison’s work, go to williamharrisonartist.com.
He is represented by Paderewski Fine Art in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Sportsman’s Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina. Both galleries can be found at sportsmansgallery.com.