John Harman: Portrait of the Artist as a Digital Man
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.
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 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.”
SO NOW WHAT?
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.
DRAW WHAT YOU LOVE
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.”
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.”
January 2, 2017
Illustrations courtesy of the artist.