Tim OBrien
Putin for the Wall Street Journal

Our world seems to have an open assignment that some leader seeks to take in every era.  Who would seek to be an expansionist leader and rule with intimidation and fear all under the guise of being exceptional?  In 2014 that is Vladimir Putin.  I've painted him several times including as a person of the year for Time a few years ago (didn't run).  He is a walking cartoon of how he acts and I think this is one reason that there are not tons of illustrations of him in articles and covers.  He makes scowls, sinister stares and dead eye expressions that work as simple photographs.  Illustration works well in cases were a writer seeks to make a broader point and uses some sort or historical or literary analogy.  In this case it was Putin as a classic Russian Czar.
I had a great, and I mean great source painting to work with as requested but had to swap out the czar for Putin.  Sometimes a job is a rush and I have a limited amount of time to do the work and need to size the painting smaller in order to finish it in time.  This assignment for the Wall Street Journal started as a one week painting but it then got pushed, which allowed for a bit more detail.  I learn so much doing these kinds of pieces and know I'm standing on the shoulders of master painters to do my illustration.
The original painting was by Franz Kruger 1797-1857 and it's of Alexander II.  I removed much of the background in simplified that as added more monumental clouds.
The smartly written piece is by Leon Aron and concludes with this:
"Mr. Putin's appeals to the unique ways of Russia and Russian civilization may not be enough, however, to force the country back toward dictatorship, especially after the brilliant moral explosion of glasnost and a decade and a half of liberty. Russia's fate will be determined by how much repression he is prepared to deploy—and by the wishes of the Russian people, who now face a choice between living in a normal country or in one that is aggressively and chauvinistically exceptional."
I don't know how Russia will evolve under more years of Putin, but I do think there is going to be many illustration assignments with Putin as the subject in years to come.

I also was in the New York Times this weekend and had a fun time painting a suitcase with two men holding it.  The article was about gay travel and how so many places seek out gay and lesbian travel business.  I thought I'd tack it onto this Putin painting because I know how much Czar Putin loves gay people.
Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal use illustration is such a bold and grand manner and I must admit a but of jealousy each week as I see so much of it in print, above the fold and looking spectacular.  I'm thrilled to have been one of the illustrators this weekend.
You never know when something you've painted in the past will prove useful again.

As an homage to a good friend who is having a hard time, I added his name to the label.  He's in the minds and hearts of many of my friends and family these days. 
Much love Dave.

Adam Silver for Sports Illustrated

Last week I was called by Sports Illustrated to paint the new NBA commissioner and suddenly famous Adam Silver, the for their cover.
Adam Silver, as many now know, was thrown into the public consciousness by handing down an appropriately harsh sentence to the pathetically racist Donald Sterling, for remarks he made in a taped conversation leaked all over the internet last month.
History moves slowly forward and as a nation we do improve, kind of like an incoming tide.  Sure, it recedes here and there, but I like to think it does move forward.  Racism is our nation's dark history that has strong grip on some towns and minds.  Adam's action in such a public manner was to again signal that racism is not only inelegant, it is an evil that is unforgivable. 
I saw my job as making Adam Silver look confident and majestic.  I had great reference and used subtle lighting and texture to make him look his best.
Being on the cover of Sports Illustrated is a thrill.  My first was last year and ironically enough it was another national sport commissioner, the NFL's Roger Goodell in a Game of Throne's motif.
As I said then, I think of how long I've read Sports Illustrated.  I received a subscription from my Uncle Eddie after my father passed when I was 9.  It would come every week and I would read about boxing, learn about Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler, my brother Jay would read about hockey and paper his room with Boston Bruin photos, and my brother Dan would read about Baseball and Football.  The photos were always great and the art was as well.  To be a part of that history is wonderful. 
Thanks to SI for thinking of me and to Uncle Eddie up there somewhere, for the same.
Here is a sketch that was requested using my drawing of Adam Silver. Though it put him in an arena, it was not as good as the somber cover they finally approved. It's good to see the options.

Here is Adam Silver handing down his Donald Sterling decision. I hope Sterling goes away without a fight.

Up close are a million brushstrokes. Earlier in my career I would blend values together with a blending brush or fan brush. It works well, but makes all textures appear the same. From observations of the work of Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and Gottfried Helnwein, I saw that brushwork left untouched can both optically mix areas AND create a surface that can be understood like a topographic map. Some like it, others don't. I work almost to size so that the brushwork is not TOO evident and therefore is not read as hair. If I work too big and the client reduces the work too much, that brushwork is lost and the face goes back to looking like velvet.

The full portrait. I am waiting for Mr. Silver's office to's suitable for framing.

The God Project for Stanford Magazine
Genome technologies could bring back extinct species such as (from left) the smilodon, woolly mammoth, thylacine, ivory-billed woodpecker, dodo and Pyrenean ibex.

The God Project
Recently for Stanford Magazine, I was asked to illustrate an article about the idea of bringing back extinct species.
I did art for a similar article a few years ago for Mike Mrak at Scientific American.  These stories always produce such great images.
What I hoped to try was a bit of an homage to a mentor of mine from college, Rudolf Zallinger.  He painted the Age of Reptiles at the Peabody Museum in New Haven Connecticut that was subsequently and rather famously published on the cover of Life Magazine.  This was perhaps the first painting I ever saw as a child and it loomed large in my mind and still does.
Of course, on a much smaller scale, I was asked to work up two solutions.  One was a zoo of these animals and another was a walking image.
I had my doubts about he zoo image from the start.  In recent years the simple notion of a zoo has become an ethically questionable endeavor.
After sending my walking sketches with a few variations, I took on the zoo image.  Sometimes as an illustrator we need to pursue a direction we may not really want to because it is requested and it is my job to make it work.  I think I could have done the zoo image if I had to.
2014 so far has been an odd year for me.  I get hired for assignments and submit sketches I am really excited to do and am then asked to go in a different direction, one that is not the best direction.  So, in my mind, there is an alternative year floating just out of reach that COULD have been my output but is not.  When this one appeared to be moving that way too it was so thrilled to see my original sketches approved.  I provided a glimpse of the alternative idea and helped them decide which would look best.  My detailed sketches can work in my favor in times like these.
A big ‘thank you’ to Giorgia Virgili for her patience and willingness to reconsider the sketches. 
As for bringing back extinct species, that seems like a nice Jurassic Park notion but I would just love to see the humans we love made healthy, free from illness and to have nice long lives…and I’d like to see a Wooly Mammoth in the flesh, or the fur.

Beck for Rolling Stone
MORNING PHASE by Beck~~~~~~ Illustration by Tim O'Brien

When I read that Beck’s new album was to be somewhat of a revisiting of his 2002 release of ‘Sea Change’, I began to think of how I was back then and how I am now.  I first listened to that recording in the dead of winter on a lake in Eagles Mere, Pa.  I was searching for hope at the time and that record filled me with calm and tranquility.  Years have passed since and life has progressed and now in a different place I was fondly recalling that album and wondering what his new release, ‘Morning Phase’ might be like.  Early reviews stated that it was a reminiscent of those sounds and themes.
I was inspired to do some sketches of a potential painting of Beck and when Rolling Stone needed an illustration for this, I was ready. There were two things I was trying to do with this piece; one was to capture morning with it’s cold mist, and foggy, pink light, and the other goal was some sort of lyrically floating element. My sketches investigated these and in the end I agreed to proceed with a sparrow flying through the scene.
I’ve been trying to do different things lately.  Sometimes the people who hire us need to see us a different way and I think that’s hard at times.  Having illustrated so long a certain way, it takes a bit of courage for an AD and me to do that.  I think this painting moves me a bit into a new place.
Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes gave Morning Phase 4 1/2 stars calling it an “instant folk-rock classic.”I’ve listened to it several times now and it is deeply beautiful. 
In the second track, ‘Morning’, he sings…
“But can we start it all over again?
This morning
I let down my defenses
This morning
It was just you and me
This morning
I fought all out guesses
This morning
Won't you show me the way
It couldn't be?”
We all know Beck as the master of so many kinds of sounds, songs and music, but his lyrics are really powerful and he continues to be a remarkable artist in full bloom.
These are some of my first sketches presented to Rolling Stone. I had an idea of these transparent bars, akin to notes or sounds going through his body. This was a dream I had and actually inspired this illustration. The second and third sketches in this group are images I'd like to do eventually. We didn't proceed with them this time, but I like the idea. The hand raised is a delicate touch, the moment of creation that filled this long vertical nicely. I didn't want musical instruments. If they went with either the bars or the halo I was going to do that digitally.

This second round was a further exploration of what the bars were but putting him in a MORNING setting, referencing back to the title. I've been wanting to try some digital overlapping things so I offered that flower solution too. Small bees started me thinking about nature and flight...I did hone in on the preferred color and value pattern.

This was also part of the second round and I felt the need to offer an alternative view. The way things go for me is that I do a sketch, try out things with that sketch and exhaust it, then do another and try out things again. What end up happening is I arrive at the answer near the end. The floating bars activated the space, but were kind of Sci-Fi in the end. A request to move it to nature brought in bees, that became birds and butterflies. Birds worked best in the end and then I added branches throughout and buds too (longing for Spring these days) and it all came together.

Recent Articles

Stuff I Do (102)

Sketchbooks (26)

Sketch/In Progress/Finish (25)
My Links