IF Interview with Tim O’Brien


Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.

1) It has been a long time since people started talking about “photography replacing illustration” but you seem to be busier than ever! We are all fascinated by your work that they are more real than what photos can capture; George W. Bush tearing up in regret, Beethoven as a contemporary young man, Obama as Superman, and numerous TIME covers you have created… How do you define yourself in the contemporary editorial market? Do you sometimes feel that your competitors are photographers rather than other illustrators?

Realism was certainly the only game in town for most of the age of print so far.  Thankfully that changed over the past 30 years and now you can see all kinds of amazing and thoughtful illustration everywhere.  I am a rarity among editorial illustrators, a realist.  There are a few reasons why an art director might choose me to do an illustration or a cover.  First, realism has the power to connect to the masses in a way that a more unique style might not.  If I do a cover for a magazine it fits into the flow that the viewer is used to.  Many photos are used, this is true, so my work is not a jarring surprise.  Another reason an AD might choose me is I can take imperfect reference and create a perfect portrait.  I understand textures, color, anatomy and color enough to improve upon a bad photo.  Still another reason I’m used might be that the paintings have a power and a beauty or can convey a concept which might not be available in photography. Finally, I’m pretty fast.



2) Your work deals a lot with political figures and what is happening in the world of politics. Were you always interested in politics or did you become more interested over the years as you kept working?

Good question.  During my high school years when Ronald Reagan cut social security payments for surviving children (I lost a parent as a child) I saw that a president can do things that affect our lives.   I am a pretty liberal democrat but can illustrate from both sides of the political spectrum in the US.  As I continued as an illustrator, I learned more and more about the world.  The great thing about this job is the passive education we all can soak in after some time.


3) Also, you recently painted a beautiful portrait of Neda, the young woman killed during Iranian protest. It ended up crashed your blog because of the huge traffic from Iran by those people who were moved so much by the support of an American artist. Can you explain briefly about this? What motivated you to paint her? How did you feel about the whole (probably unexpected) experiences?

The “rigged” election happened while I was away on vacation.  Of course I’m totally wired all the time and using my iPhone I was reading the news and watching my fellow illustrators offer their take on what was going on.  I also saw the video of Neda online.  It captured the death of this woman in a shocking way.  It’s a slow death with no pain in her face, just life leaving her.  Her eyes looking up struck me as powerful, almost that of Joan of Arc.  When I returned from my vacation I did a drawing of her face and eyes.  It was very quick and muddy and I applied a digital dot pattern to the background.  I wanted it to read small as well.

I put this drawing on Drawger and in a few hours it traveled across the world to Iran.  I hear upwards of 100,000 visitors came to Drawger and posted links everywhere back to Drawger.  I still get comments every week.  The shocking thing to me was the nature of the comments.  Most thanked me for getting the word out and recognizing Iranian pain.  Finally, I was sent a link to YouTube video of Neda’s mother at her grave.  In it she wails in sorrow for her murdered daughter.  Next to her are two framed images.  One is a photo of her daughter, the other is my drawing.  I am humbled by the whole thing.  Art can build bridges.

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4) I have seen your original paintings many times and still cannot figure out how you made all the perfect marks! Can you quickly walk us through your painting process? Of course, you don’t have to reveal any of your secrets.

I do a detailed drawing on gessoed panel.  I work on sepia or grey half tone and draw with pencil, charcoal pencil, colored pencil, gouache.  When that is done I use an airbrush to even tones and set the key of the artwork and add light and dark to areas. I then apply an acrylic coat to the drawing and paint over it in thin layers of oil paint.  There, all the details and no secrets.



5) You also devote time and effort to The Society of Illustrators. Everyone remembers you running education committee for 10 years and helped so many young illustrators with s cholarship competition. I feel that almost all the illustrators started working in last 10~15 years got help from you  some way or the other (Including myself, of course! ) I am curious to ask what drives to you to help young talent, while you are so busy illustrating and teaching?

I got my start in this business pretending to be an illustrator.  I had talent but no career, not that much work and I used the Society to enter competitions and get my work seen.  It created the impression that I was an illustrator.  When I was in college, getting in the student competition helped me get noticed and got me representation.  I have the same agent today.

I enjoyed my time as education chairman and yes, I got to hand awards to James Jean, Tomar Hanuka, Kadir Nelson and so many others.  It was an honor but it’s good to move on to other challenges.  I’m now chairman of the museum committee and I help decide which exhibitions we will show.

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6) You are also very athletic, coaching boxing and running marathons. I read in an interview that you thought of becoming a boxer before choosing the path to become an illustrator.  I am curious to know, does sports help your art, or vice versa, in any ways?

I loved boxing when I was growing up.  It is a solitary sport and in some ways not unlike that of an artist.  Our success or failure is only on our shoulders.  I still love boxing but at a certain point I decided to avoid the punches to the head and try another one.  Running is a good fit for me now.  I like being out of the studio running.  I think of ideas when I run, I make plans, write letters and other things that fill that time.
Being an artist is a pretty sedentary lifestyle.  I walk up one flight of stairs to my studio and sit down.  If I’m busy I might not move for hours.
Without a sport I would be a whale.


7) What’s on your horizon?

I have been very busy for years doing my illustration work.  That is a blessing and a curse.  The curse is I don’t get enough time to do work for myself.  I have been building a backlog of sketches for work I hope to do over the next few years.  One series is perfect for a small one man show, others are similar to my elephants sailing across the ocean.  Truthfully, I love my career and I hope my horizon stays clear and beautiful for years to come.

See more of Tim’s work here and here.

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Posted by admin on 09/02/09 under Interviews

  • http://www.lindsayhollinger.blogspot.com Lindsay

    What an amazing illustrator! Tim is a great teacher and mentor, to boot. Thank you Tim, and thank you Yuko and IF!

  • http://www.emilypenso.com Emily

    Wow, what an inspiration.

  • http://www.studiololo.blogspot.com Laurel

    I’ve admired Tim’s work for years and years. His skills and his integrity are most impressive. Great interview! And WOW regarding the Neda story. Art really does build bridges.
    Thanks “IF!”

  • http://www.hannawhiteman.blogspot.com Hanna Whiteman

    Wow, truely amazing work, I find it hard enought to get my stuff in my illos recognizable, let alone realistic! Love the interviews and the personal insight of each illustrator, keep’em coming. Hanna

  • http://friedart.blogspot.com David Friedman

    Great article. Thank you.

  • http://www.ericbraddock.com Eric Braddock

    What an awesome little interview! Tim was (and still is) a great mentor. I learned so much from him and he continues to be an inspiration. Every single piece he does just impresses again and again, it’s no surprise that he’s so busy. With everything he’s involved in, I honestly don’t know how he’s human. He’s a great artist and a great friend. Thanks for posting this.

  • Pingback: A portrait by Tim O’ Brien. «

  • http://jamestarnold.com jamesTarnold

    Hey Tim is a great instructor also.
    He shows you what it takes to “make it” in the
    illustration world. A ton of hard work and perseverance.

  • http://www.007Pug.com Diana Taylor, Pug At The Beach

    IF is such a wonderful site! I’m grateful to be able to see/read what artists are up to. Thanks so much.

    Diana Taylor
    Top Dog
    Pug At The Beach

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