Mike Harbar and the art of Vintage Motorcycles

Set of Vintage Motorcycles stamp issue

English-born Mike Harbar has been a professional freelance illustrator since 1990. He emigrated to Australia in 2000 and has built an international reputation for his illustration of vehicles, which he creates at his Classic Lines Artist studio on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. Mike is commissioned by clients all around the world, both private individuals and large company brands, to produce original illustrations and customised prints.

One of Mike’s recent commissions was to illustrate the four magnificent motorbikes featured in the Vintage Motorcycles stamp issue, released on 4 September 2018. This stamp issue features four motorcycles that were constructed or conceived in Australia prior to World War II: Kelecom (1904), The Precision (1912), Whiting V4 (1919) and Invincible J.A.P. (1923). The illustrations are based on restored motorcycles from private collections.

Vintage Motorcycles prestige booklet

For Mike, there really wasn’t a path into drawing – it’s just something that he’s always done, “since day one”. Same with why his passion for drawing led to a specialisation in vehicles of all kind. This was not some kind of conscious or strategic move, but an organic response to an in-built love of vehicles. He wasn’t even from a family of mechanics or car collectors; he just drew lots of pictures of cars and bikes in his exercise books at school and found classic 1960s English cars incredibly beautiful to look at.

“What got me hooked is probably the aesthetics,” Mike says of his love of vehicles.

“The first time I saw an AC Cobra, for example, that my jaw dropped. And my uncle had a European Ford Capri when I was growing up, and I absolutely loved it. He always took me for a ride in it. I’ve always just loved the whole thematic of cars, bikes and transport,” says Mike.

While Mike’s specialty is transport – cars, motorcycles, motorsport, airplanes and luxury boats – he also enjoys portraiture and landscapes as well as drawing for architecture, technical manuals, patents and product design. In fact, product design is where Mike began. He trained in industrial design and steered towards the technical illustration side of things. It’s this technical eye that helps Mike infuse such detail into his work. However, Mike is still keen to impart a painterly quality, rather than striving for photorealism.

“Some illustrators directly copy a photo of a car, including the lighting used in that photograph and the exact setting in which the car sits. But what’s the point of that? You’ve just replicated a photo,” says Mike.

“Similarly, some people can draw something in such a technical way that it lacks an artistic quality. Sometimes I actually need to simplify something in order to highlight its shape. In fact, sometimes it’s what you don’t draw that makes the difference,” Mike adds.

While Mike isn’t going to ‘go digital’ in terms of his drawing (“Mike, never lose your manual skills,” he was once told), he does use digital techniques to tidy up his illustrations (removing any rubber residue or dust etc.) or to customise them into personalised prints (changing the colour or number plate, for example).

What does Mike believe are important qualities in a technical illustrator?

“You need to understand the different facets of good drawing, such as light and dark, colour and contrast. Drawing is really a form of communication – you are literally showing what’s happening to a shape. It’s not really a cliché to say, ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. You need observation skills – to look and then look again. And of course you need patience,” says Mike.

“You also need a strong eye for detail and to know where to put the requisite amount of detail and how to break a drawing down into elements. For example, you can’t see a tyre tread in detail in a reference photo, but I try and bring out that kind of detail in my illustrations, because I can,” adds Mike.

Mike’s amazing illustrations for the Vintage Motorcycles stamp issue took more than 40 hours to complete, and Mike’s artistic process is explained in details in the prestige book that accompanies the stamp issue.

Sketches from the Vintage Motorcycles prestige booklet

As the book explains, Mike gathered the best-quality high-resolution photographs that he could find and selected a “hero” shot for each bike – the photos taken at the best angles and which would provide four illustrations that would work well as a set of stamps.

Mike then used his trusty tools of the trade (think: Staedtler Mars Lumograph lead pencils, a rubber eraser and high-quality Arches 300gsm hot press paper) to produce his incredible drawings.

“I love that these illustrations have been placed on Australia Post stamps. This is the first time I’ve been asked to do a full set of stamps and I feel privileged to have done that,” says Mike.

In the prestige book, Mike explains in detail the process used to progress from a simple outline, to something more intricate and then, finally, a complete painted piece.

“Watching the artwork grow is one of the greatest pleasures I get from my work. That’s why I do the ‘work in progress’ shots, because I enjoy watching it being created piece by piece, and then they come together to form an artwork,” says Mike.

“Someone once told me that my pictures have got soul to them. When someone enjoys what I’ve created, that makes me happy: happy customer equals happy artist,” says Mike.

That’s not to say that this kind of detailed illustration is not without its challenges, such as finding the time to fit in passion projects among the paid commissions and dealing with tricky customers.

“Stamina is a big challenge; to stand up and draw all day. When sitting, you can’t get to the top of the page or move around freely. I need to see the artwork from the top-down, and I dance around the artwork as I draw!” says Mike.

To learn more about Mike Harbar’s work, visit: classiclinesartist.com

The Vintage Motorcycles stamp issue is available from 4 September 2018, online, at participating Post Offices and via mail order on 1800 331 794, while stocks last.

View the gallery and technical details from this issue

This content was produced at the time of the stamp issue release date and will not be updated.

Philatelic team