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Tim OBrien
Broken Britain for Harper's
posted:

In the middle of a particularly busy period of this early fall I was working on many jobs at once, in full training for the NYC Marathon and starting to teach at Pratt in Brooklyn and Uarts in Philly.  I was feeling overwhelmed.  In an odd way, I perform better under such circumstances.  I gain a clarity and a focus that must come from trying to be efficient.
In a period like that I have to be careful NOT to overbook or to take the wrong fitting assignments.  This is an anxiety filled experience I'm sure many of you are aware of.
I have a bucket list of art directors that I've never worked with and even though I've been illustrating for such a long time, since 1987, and it has some big names on it.  I had a long list  of names here but the thought of leaving someone out and ruining my chances in the future that they might call made me think the better of that.  I will say that one of the names was Roger Black.   The list keeps growing as such fantastic newer art directors make their mark, but I always wanted to work for Roger.
I was asked if I would do a cover for Harper's Magazine, something I've always wanted to do, since that long horizontal space and elegant look is quite unique and shows the illustration unfettered and alone without type.
In my super focus mode, I listened to his request to do an illustration about the class riots in London.  He wanted a sort of horizontal tableau of an old master-like painting of a churning battle, figures intertwined and made to look involved.  My well tuned focus meter returned a blinking red light.  
 
This is that I think he might have been looking for.  Now that I see it here, it's a great image.  I think there was some mention of bobbies and young hooligans...I was starting to think of another way.
Not only would this illustration be difficult to pull off quickly, I feared it would not be a good fit for my style.  Rather than start working on variations of that idea I quickly offered an idea that I thought would be a better fit and aligns itself better with the kind of work I do.
I talk about this calculation with my students all the time.  Taking an assignment and filtering it through what you like to paint AND what you do best.  In some cases the idea offered by the AD is a perfect fit, sometimes it's only slightly off and you can work with that idea.  In this case I felt that I would offer my concept and if it were not quite right, I would pass and wait for another time to do a cover.  
I wanted this assignment, I hated saying no again (I had just begged of a previous cover with Roger because the fit was not quite right) and will at least show him what I can do in turning it down.

Summing it all up.  What symbolizes London?  To the west, Big Ben is so iconic and connected with it's regal past that ripping it down and letting that silhouette rise in front of monumental clouds of smoke just works and is what I came up with.  It was literally thought of in 3 minutes.

Thankfully Roger liked the idea and quickly got approval and I was given a quick green light.
First value idea: A dark Big Ben with the illustration being mostly about the fire, noise and commotion below.
The value setting I went with; light on the face of Big Ben, I still get the silhouette in the back against the cloud and a starry night.

I have been thinking of green lately. I rarely use it but it's so prevalent in so many paintings and photographs I love that I'm trying it out. Not this time.

I usually sent a few color takes on the image. I feel that in preparing the final files I often see the illustration differently once I adjust the color. I want the AD to see the variations just in case it works better for them. This one was not chosen.


The painting itself was at first a very detailed drawing.  Once that was done the painting did not take very long.  The image needed to be scumbled over and painted in oil, wet into wet.  I timed it right by painting the background in alkyds so that I could paint the ropes or cables over it without smudging the blue and red.  Painting in alkyds is almost like working with slow drying acrylics.  Work fast but you can blend just before it starts to set.

Finally, I sent the job in and I can't tell you how thrilled and satisfied I was with the results but more importantly, with the process.  It was a confirmation about how one must consider carefully whether or not a job is a good fit, and a confirmation that working with great art directors means that they know a good idea when they see it and have the credibility to get that approved.

Now, back to that growing bucket list...
People have asked my why I paint so small. Lazy? Not really. The reason is that I don't like seeing my images reduced to the point of removing brushwork that makes the illustration look like a painting. However, the inverse is true. IF I paint something smaller than it reproduces the enlargement is often shocking to me. I painted it not expecting a zoom in. Sometimes this makes everyone see the actually sloppiness in the brushwork. Roger was initially concerned that the flap that Harpers uses would cover my cover hit completely. The solutions was to run it as a vertical slice on the flap. It works but my brushwork is a bit sloppy.


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