is one of those people born with a unique and enviable ability: he can draw just about anything. Growing up, he sketched and doodled constantly; as early as first grade, he knew he wanted to draw for a living, and he honed his skills at Capital, graduating in 1996 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Since then, he’s been a busy commercial artist, illustrating everything from T-shirts and greeting cards to comics and textbooks. He’s been inspired by, and often works with, some of the best-known illustrators in the industry.
But lately, his career has morphed into something very different. Today he spends most of his time with people who aren’t very good artists – or, at least, they don’t think they are. His job is to remind them that everyone is creative. And he proves it to them every day.
Harpster is the author and illustrator of a popular series of books that encourage even the most apprehensive kids (and teachers, for that matter) to pick up a pencil, pen or crayon and draw wildly imaginative animals, monsters and more. His secret: having kids start by drawing familiar shapes, such as letters and numbers, and adding lines and squiggles to bring them to life.
The key to Harpster’s success? A mixture of innate entrepreneurism, a youthful energy that kids relate to, and a busy schedule of in-person (and online) school appearances that put him face-to-face with his audiences and drive sales of his books, iPad apps and more. His business model is strikingly simple – and effective. He self-publishes his books, which keeps the cost low. And his visits to schools are free – all he asks is that parents are given the option of buying his books. He even offers each school 30 percent of the revenue from these sales, which in just three years has totaled more than 30,000 copies.
“All kids love to create and draw,” Harpster said recently. “It touches them in different ways.” His job is to never let them forget it.
Born to draw
Harpster was raised in Central Ohio, and his skills were evident very early. (He often shows a stylish sketch he did of his father holding him; he was just six at the time.) He chose Capital largely because his father is a graduate – and because Capital offered him something other design schools lacked: a chance to play football. He always knew he wanted to study art, but didn’t want to limit himself. “I wanted to do more than focus on art all the time,” he remembered.
“I looked at Capital, and it just seemed like the better choice for me.” He played defensive tackle for the Crusaders for one season, then left the team to focus on his studio classes and a growing interest in the business side of design.
An early influence was Professor Gary Ross, a renowned sculptor who regularly worked on commissioned pieces, including iconic statues of Bob Feller and Ohio Governor James Rhodes. Harpster hung out with Ross in the Capital art studio, peppering him with questions about developing clients and managing the financial side of his projects. Harpster also took a class on marketing, and enjoyed one assignment in particular: creating a product concept and writing a business plan to support it. “It came naturally,” he said. “It felt like common sense.”
Harpster loved his Capital experience, and squeezed as much into it as he could. He drew comics for The Chimes, interned at a local animation company, and even acted in a few theater productions, including Taming of the Shrew
. “I played Hortensio,” he said. “To do Shakespeare in college – it was pretty cool. I tried a little of everything at Capital. I have great memories.”
By Steve Harpster
Drawing Animals with Numbers