I knew if I wore a tie I would amount to something!
I fondly remember my parents buying me magic markers and large spiral pads. I would open to a white page and feel an excitement and an anxiety. A white page was and still is, akin to turning on a television. I might happen upon a thrilling program, one I had not planned on seeing, or I find it a frustrating waste of time. Many of my old pads from my youth have an attempted portrait, violently scribbled over and then the page is turned. I wanted to be able to draw what was in my head but would have that vision run right into my limitations. I kept at it, and soon I found ways to get what was in my head down onto paper.
This drawing was something I always did. I drew in classes, during math class, english, social studies, French and science.
From my earliest memories of nursery school, I remember being singled out as a young artist. When you're young and people tell you that you are something, I have to think it is such a relief. I have watched other people I know work so hard to find out what they are. I grew up knowing. Perhaps of all the things I feel fortunate about it is this gift of knowing.
I've been an illustrator for 25 years. It's been a thrill to be able to do this so long and still find it exciting and challenging and that I can still approach it as a hungry young artist.
The other part of my artist life has been as an educator. For 23 years I've been teaching and find it to continually anchor me to the struggle of young people, to the magic of being with talents and finally to hear my thoughts and philosophy come out of my mouth. I hear my ideas changing and evolving in a way I had not expected. Teaching gave me a life long connection to being a student, something I hope I never lose.
It was with this mindset that I approached a daunting task; to prepare to give a commencement address on May 18th 2013 at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Lyme Connecticut. This will be my third such address, the first two being at my alma mater, Paier College of Art. This time I am not only older but certainly wiser and even more humble. A good life is my goal, way beyond a good career. The career affords me a life, and I attend to it thoughtfully and carfefully for that reason. The art of living is harder. The white paper is out in front of me, so to speak. I have many pages turned with scribbles on them; attempts at something that I couldn't see clearly in my head or get right. I feel that only now am I able to get down 'on paper' the life that is in my head.
On May 18th 2013, I am receiving an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree.
This is something that I never could even imagine and I really so thrilled.
A heartfelt thanks to Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, president Scott Colley, interim dean Sally Seaman the the board of trustees and faculty for this honor.
This is during my Motherwell stage. 1969.
A lifelong attempt at taming the curls. Fail.
Someone gave me an ink pen with a quill and I loved how solid the ink flowed. I also loved monsters. I think I was 8 here.
There was an ice storm in 1974 in Connecticut. I did this imagined movie poster of a huge blizzard and with a type treatment of the time...SNOW.
My humor at work in 1975. I loved Jaws and liked to imagine this happened while it was being filmed.
A deficiency notice from my senior year of High School.
"Draws during his entire class"
I'm not that proud of this, but I do wish I could tell him that it was going to be alright in the end.
College boy on a mission.
Dr. Timothy O'Brien, 2013. ;-)
From a section of my commencement address...
"Very few artists can boast of smooth sailing from apprenticeship to self sufficiency. Most must travel like Columbus, across the ocean, moving forward on rickety ships on uncharted seas heading to India only to instead land somewhere in North America. Sometimes mistakes make all the difference."
Woolly Mammoth in NYC illustration, Time For Kids.
Recently I was asked to do the cover of Time for Kids. The idea was, what if scientists were able to clone back long extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth? The original request was to paint a mammoth in Rockefeller Center.
A red light immediately went off with the idea of painting 100 tourists snapping cell phone pictures and having to paint all of that. Before even sketching I asked why Rockefeller Center and what it represented. The answer was that it should be a city, contemporary and it need not be recognizable. Phew.
I could then ponder just what this might be. I immediately thought of my giraffe in the city painting as the way this one might look.
The giraffe painting was one I did over several weeks, with almost 3 years of thinking about it and looking for the right alley. The story of that piece is here... Giraffe on Drawger
The reason I say this is my mammoth painting was made all the more easy by the fact that I had worked out and thought about the lighting a long time ago AND had done a cover of a mammoth a while back too. The research and info about that helped me here. I used the same basic head from that assignment and made a new body/pose. The pose I was going for was that this mammoth is startled and does not know where to walk with a side-step.
The people in my mammoth piece was only hints of people with only ONE guy to paint.
The artwork is small and upon close inspection it's clear that while I may come off as a tight realist, I'm actually a brushy painter too. I just paint small. I've included some close up shots to show just how messy it all is up close.
I must mention that I always think of one of my college professors, Rudolph Zallinger, when I paint a dinosaur or Ice Age mammal. Rudolph was a muralist who painted the famous "Age of Reptiles" for the Yale Peabody Museum. He also painted the "Age of Mammals" and both were famous Life Magazine covers. At the end of this article I'll include a video that discussed Rudy and his mammoth work...pun intended. Rudy painted huge works. I marvel at that prospect. One of my first assignments as an artist was given to me by Mr Zallinger, a mural in the lobby of a building on west 37th street in NYC. The mural assignment paid $3900 dollars and helped me pay for my senior year at Paier.
Finally, not long ago I was forced to begin wearing glasses to work. I had not noticed how badly I needed them and viewed things near to me with a slight double image blurry quality. Once I had the glasses on, I picked up several past paintings and felt ill. What a mess! So, I am please that I see better up close and can knock a painting out quickly AND have them look good as well.
I've worked for Time for years now. I've done numerous covers, some run, some don't. I've done all manner of international editions and worked for the kids' magazine too (years ago to a young AD named Edel.)
Time is always a pleasure to work for. I think it just has a culture of nice that permeates the place, at least that's my take.
Original Mammoth sketch for a past assignment.
This is the kind of 'light valley' I was looking for. This reference seemed like a good place to put the mammoth but it also seemed dull.
I liked this haze and knew fully well that this haze would be my friend in not only making the background easier to paint by simplifying things, but would provide a nice back glow to set off the creature.
This is the background I used for my painting. The far away people with cabs and the fortunate "SCHOOL" marking in the street made a perfect setting.
This is a zoom in of the painting. Note the sloppy brushwork all over the place.
Another zoom in of the camera guy. This was another fortunate pair because though there are two, you only have one head and she's mostly behind him.
Bob Ross script liner. A must have brush.
A curious subheading that states;
"In this illustration, an artist imagines a mammoth in the modern world"
I like this primarily for saying that the illustration was created by an ARTIST. Funny.
Conservation triage. That's the term conservationists use to describe the difficult decisions they must make when deciding which species they will focus on saving and those they have to reluctantly let die off. It was one of those facts that boggle the mind and from an assignment Scientific American's Mike Mrak asked me to illustrate.
I think the initial pitch was animals in spheres with some sort of cracks. I was sent the article and once I read it, I began to smell a musty specimen lab, such as the one I saw at RISD during ICON last summer. I saw jars filled with small animals and large ones, all labeled and put into storage.
The first thumbnail was a simple, iconic image of a small bird on a piece of land, perilously floating. Of course, it's compelling but the bird could just fly away. Perhaps that's still enough and is just a metaphor for the idea of an animal having no place to live.
My second thumbnail more closely aligned with the idea of animals in small spheres and used specimen jars instead.
I knew I wanted labels on the jars but I wanted them to state their IN or OUT status. This was not where we finally went.
Once this sketch was approved, I went to a more finished sketch.
The thing about being a portrait painter as an illustrator is that you learn to connect the reader or viewer to the subject matter through eye contact. A myriad of specimen jars would look impressive but we would just see them and not necessarily feel anything right away. Eye contact was crucial.
The hard part of this assignment was the scientific nature of the article. Each animal I chose had to be part of this conversation. Were they in danger? Were they being saved and is this specific animal the right one?
This process took a while. The front jar was important. I considered all the animals I found and this specific tree frog had the most 'humanoid' possibilities.
First digital sketch with a Penguin...not quite right.
This slowly worked out design took a while. It is almost exactly what I painted in the end. I loved the animals, how they played against each other and even the white. Still, I wanted to have them on a table. It could have worked either way. Highlights pop better on a value other than white. The only thing I had to do was to put the labels ON the jars. That was a bit heartbreaking but it works better.
I had to acquire many different specimen jars in order to visualize the look of the painting.
I loved this huge cork top. It would mean the jar would not have to distort at the top and therefore one could see the animal more clearly...plus it's just cool.
As much as I like a challenge, the type was put in digitally. This crop is the heart of the image.
Thanks again to Mike Mrak, who many of us know through the Society of Illustrators. He's a great guy and smart Art Director.
Finally, let's take care of this planet.
Sports Illustrated cover by Tim O'Brien, March 2013
In the summer of 1974, my brothers and I were fatherless and figuring out how to be young men, how to go forward in life. My mom, of course, pulled double duty beginning in those early days and raised us alone. There were very few adult males left in our life as all my father's friends stopped coming around and I also had very few uncles. My grandfather was a huge figure in our life but also was our father's sister's husband, our Uncle Eddie. Ed O'Neil for several years paid attention to us with visits from Chicago, generous gifts and the longest standing gift, years of a weekly magazine sent to Mr. Daniel, Timothy and Jay O'Brien. Sports Illustrated arrived each week and was a constant reminder of him. We passed it between us and each followed the sports of our choice. For my older brother Dan, it was the Cincinnati Reds, the big red machine, and the New York Giants. My brother Jay was quite young at the beginning of the subscription but soon became a huge fan of the Bruins and hockey. For me it was boxing.
I read that fall of 1974 of the miraculous Muhammad Ali's improbably victory over the seemingly invincible, George Foreman. The writing was descriptive and lush, and the photography was compelling. My bedroom wall was a tapestry of cut out boxing images taped to cardboard pieces tacked to the wall. I would be inspired to draw boxers and their lean arms and shoulders and determined faces. I would learn to box staring at the stances of my heroes, Ali, Leonard, Holmes and Hagler.
Sports Illustrated was the first place I noticed really compelling illustration. Bart Forbes was a frequent contributor as was Bernie Fuchs and I kind of thought I would like their jobs. They were sent to places like the Super Bowl, the US Open and was often hired to draw speculative examples of fights that were about to happen. These oil paintings were amazing. I cut all of their illustrations out and they were on my walls, my boxing shrine all through my youth.
Ali became my surrogate father figure after beating George Foreman in 1974
A great photo of a great punch in Zaire.
Ali by Bernie Fuchs.
Bart Forbes predicting Sugar Ray Leonard's Jab working on Thomas Hearns
This is the last relic I have left from my boxing wall in my childhood bedroom. It's shows the best example of Larry Holmes' amazing jab and his biggest flaw in one image. Snapping jab, chin tucked in, forward movement on springy feet. The flaw, well, it's that right hand down by his hip. This would send him to the canvas several times in his career. The man he's fighting here, Mike Weaver took him almost to the distance until Holmes caught him with an uppercut that knocked him out.
I saved this image all these years because it is how I see myself when I throw a jab, just with my right hand up.
In my career I have had the great fortune of being able to do illustrations on the covers of many magazines. One time, years ago I was asked to paint Tiger Woods for Sportsman of the Year. My art lost out to the much deserved illustration of Tiger by Lauren Uram. Close, but no cover that year (1996).
I have not been close ever since and actually have not even thought I would ever have a chance again. A couple of weeks ago I was asked, suddenly, to do Sports Illustrated's '50 Most Powerful People in Sports' inaugural issue. I immediately thought of ALL of my history with SI and how much it has meant to me. I thought of my late Uncle Eddie, and Ali, and Bart Forbes and Bernie Fuchs and Sugar Ray Leonard, and "The Mysterious Case of Sidd Finch" by George Plimpton, the most successful April Fools prank I ever read. I thought of a story about the light heavyweight, Billy Conn called "The Boxer and the Blonde" by Frank Deford that should be a movie. I thought of it all.
But then, I had to just do my job. The assignment was to illustrate Roger Goodell in the pose and on the throne as in "The Game of Thrones" HBO poster. It's a great image but if not done correctly Goodell would look silly and it would be almost a unintentionally silly image. So, I approached it as a serious image and shot myself in his place for the body and I selected a good headshot to work from. This is not always easy and one must not only choose one that has the right attitude, but the right lighting and position. Finally the throne. I had to paint it faithfully to pull off the intended double-take when it was on the cover.
I thought perhaps the throne or something needed to be altered in some way to connect his world to the scene beyond just him in the throne. I chose to add helmets and footballs. I have never received a more enthusiastic sketch approval as far as I can recall. They were so happy and psyched that I was going to do their idea.
After a weekend of painting, I did it, handing it in and went back to my life. Too many things can happen in a weekly magazine to bump a cover and this one could easily have been bumped if Goodell provided a photographer access and they shot a great cover image. Knowing all that, I choose to NOT ponder it actually coming out.
A couple of days ago I got a tweet from fellow illustrator, John Hendrix announcing the cover. He did killer work on the same story for a stellar opener. I saw my cover very small online for the first time, and did a sort of clenched fist, downward pulled "Yes!" alone in my studio.
Doing the cover of Sports Illustrated means a lot to me. I love the magazine, appreciate what it gave to me and my brothers growing up. It introduced me to functioning illustrations, to the story of boxing in the 70's and 80's, and was the elusive cover I thought would never happen.
Thanks to the folks at Sports Illustrated, Adam Duerson and Christopher Hercik, for making this happen and thanks to my Uncle Ed for knowing some boys needed your thoughtfulness.
Cautiously tiled out reference image for part of this illustration. I shot this many times alone to get all the parts right and assembled them to create a more beefy body of Goodell.
This head is painted really small. This is about 100%.
The battle-worn equipment.
The final artwork. Special thanks to the original poster artwork for the source reference for the throne.