John Harman: Portrait of the Artist as a Digital Man

By Jordan Kushins

Digital artist John Harman’s exploratory, give-it-a-go-and-see-what-happens attitude has propelled him since he was a boy. His iterative journey has had its fits and starts, but its forward momentum has been fueled by his unceasing curiosity and his desire to learn—not just from his tools, but also from the larger creative community.

Self-portrait by John Harman.

 “I grew up in a science-y household,” says Harman, who lives in Waynesboro, Virginia. “I had a computer before most kids did. My mom was a park ranger and a teacher, and she would bring home lasers and other neat stuff that we could try out. I always loved that feeling of discovery: ‘What can I do with this cool thing?’”


After a four-year stint in the Navy left him feeling slightly directionless, he got his creative start during slow periods at an IT gig. “Being a geek and a gamer, I frequented a lot of online forums, and people always wanted custom graphics for their signatures,” he says. “One of the computers at work had Photoshop installed, so I taught myself how to use it while sitting on long support calls.”

He began working on quick fixes—polishing up screenshots, editing backgrounds out, adding names—until he slowly fell into what he calls the “amateur art crowd.” At that point, he was simply adding color to other people’s line drawings, but it was enough to stoke his growing desire to do more on his own.

While working full-time, Harman pursued a four-year degree in video game art. The courses taught him a lot, but they skipped right over the basics, so, as with Photoshop before, his made his own way through 3D Studio Max, Adobe InDesign, and a whole host of other programs.

Harman frequently takes inspiration from popular culture, as in these posters—done in Illustrator—from his ongoing vector character series.

Harman then landed an IT position, at a slot machine company, that he parlayed—with a bit of gentle persistence—into a role on the design team: finally, an opportunity to put his burgeoning skill set to professional use. But first? An on-the-job crash course in Adobe Illustrator. “We had a Flash guy, and we had a fine arts guy; I became the middleman, and I made it my duty to figure out how to use the program,” he says. One two-second, 60-frame-animation-of-a-flying-pelican later, Harman was hooked. "Falling in love with vector changed everything; it became the foundation for nearly all the work I’ve done since. At this point, I’ll go out of my way to do something in vector, even if it’s being taught using something else.”


Illustrator was a thrilling revelation, but by 2014—though Harman had subsequently finished an online MFA in media design—he was in a bit of a slump. “I didn’t have a ‘style,’” he says. “There was nothing I could call wholly my own.” Inspired by an online community where he had connected with like-minded souls, Harman embarked on a 100-day challenge: he would produce a new piece daily for a little over three months. In addition, he would hold himself accountable by posting his projects publicly.

To create this image of a cardinal, Harman used the “tilde trick” in Adobe Illustrator. With a drawing tool selected, holding down the tilde key (~) will make Illustrator repeat a shape rapidly as you move your mouse.

Doodles in Adobe Illustrator Draw kept him busy until he stumbled upon a low-poly portrait, a type of illustration based on the rigid, geometric look of late-1990s video games, with polyhedrons making up the facets—and it was perfectly suited to his sensibilities. “I totally latched onto that idea,” he says. “I started out doing a couple of friends’ faces, but I couldn’t quite get a good handle on it,” he says. A quick tip on Adobe’s Facebook page led him to experiment with a new Illustrator technique: holding the tilde (~) key down while using a drawing tool will cause Illustrator to repeat a shape rapidly as you move your mouse.

He used this more fluid look to create a series of birds, but it wasn’t until he blended the sharpness of low-poly with the of smoothness of what he calls this “contour” form that he developed what he considers his own portrait style. “I call it painting with lines,” he says.


To Harman, the subject matter matters. He’s a pop culture obsessive who doesn’t just follow current events—he feels them. “At the beginning of 2016, people started dying,” he says. “Losing Bowie hit me real hard; I needed to do something. I finished the Blackstar image shortly after his death.”

For these portraits of David Bowie and Prince, Harman first found a reference image and then sketched the shapes of features and other elements, using Illustrator. “Depending on the detail, it’s sometimes easier to build the shapes with the reference image set to a low opacity on a background layer,” he says. Next, he does what he calls "finding the shapes”; it’s a process of looking at how shading varies in the image. “I do my best to limit the number of shades, to give the image a more striking look, but that depends on what I am working with.” Once he has the mapping, he starts drawing triangles. “This is the bulk of the project. It takes some practice to figure out what works. I did these in the touch interface when I had my Surface Pro 3, and laid every individual point of every single triangle.”  

And Harman’s passion doesn’t stop at monumental musicians and blockbuster movies and TV shows.

“After the election, I was completely numb. I began to realize that—as a designer, an artist, an illustrator, and a person—I wanted to use what I do, and my privilege, to help others,” he says. “It hit me that a poem series I was developing could be used to show the faces and words of people who have been most affected, or marginalized, to fight against hate.” Using Behance as a hub to link up with fellow artist Larry Cooney Jr., Harman launched the Face My Words illustration series. The ongoing initiative will pair activist portraits with their own quotes.

Harman hopes it will gain the same kind of attention that some of his previous portraits have received—he’s gotten online love from everyone from Bruce Campbell to the folks at Westworld and Preacher—but he understands that the Internet can be a bit of an enigma, in terms of what hits and what doesn’t. Even so, he’s optimistic. “You can’t force people to look at something, but you can give people a reason to click the link,” he says. “I’m not making any of this stuff for money. Ultimately, it’s a means to bring people joy. If something I create makes me happy, it might make someone else smile, too.”

These portraits, of George Takei and Nelson Mandela, are from Harman’s Face My Words series. These illustrations begin with a reference photo (he’s careful to secure permissions first, or choose a photo that’s licensed for reuse with modification). He then pulls the image into Adobe Illustrator Draw on an iPad Pro and does a quick outline, while marking the main features with the pen tool. For people with dark hair, he’ll fill in the shape and use the eraser to create highlights; for lighter hair, he’ll build the hair with the pen tool. Then he begins fleshing out the rest of the features and simplifying shapes. On a separate layer, he shades the face with light hatchmarks; this layer will typically be set to a lower opacity in the final image so it doesn't hide the text. He exports the drawing to Illustrator to finish things off and place the text—dropping the quote in and centering it in an oval shape that’s roughly the same size as the face. Then he searches Typekit for a font that fits the tone of the piece. The text block is converted to outlines, and each line is grouped individually with Illustrator’s Make With Mesh tool (Object > Envelope Distort > Make With Mesh). “Typically I use two rows and four columns—sometimes increasing to six columns around the eyes and nose. Since I am going for a more symmetrical look, I try to make sure that there is a set of points in the center of the mesh so I can manipulate from there.”

The longest part of the process involves moving and tweaking each point to fill the space. “There’s a lot of trial and error, adjusting handles and shifting points until it looks clear and follows the shape like I want it.” Once all the lines of text are filling the space, Harman expands the objects and figures out colors. From there, he adds “a grungy texture” from his personal library, along with the logo and any other pertinent information.

See more of Harman’s work on his Behance page.  

January 2, 2017

Illustrations courtesy of the artist.