Tim O'Brien Profile
posted: January 18, 2007
The other day I went out to Brooklyn to visit Tim O'Brien, age 42, in his studio. He talked about navigating the waters of illustration for the past 20 years, and what it feels like to be the captain of a clipper ship in a regatta of speedboats.

"I was kind of a child prodigy. I was aware in nursery school that I was way above other kids as far as my ability to draw. I was drawing things in perspective and I wouldn't just draw people as sticks: I would draw full volume legs and I would put the light side and the dark side. We had some little kids’ art shows and my paintings looked like my parents did them, and I suddenly became aware of the whole power of it:  that I got attention for it. I've always been intrigued with getting attention, and the first way was with art.

"In my earliest drawings, I would start something and do tiny little things and turn the page if it didn't work out; I had a strong sense of perfection. That's my memory of drawing as a kid: if things went well, then I kept going with it. I used to like to build Rube Goldberg type of vehicles. Or I would draw a dome that a person would sit in and weapons would all come out, and I'd just build on it for so long, and fill the whole page with this stuff. And I liked to build underground little cities and things; I would draw the grass and trees and roots and then there would be this tunnel underground. I loved the idea of this split, and I never have quite done that in my illustration. I started to think that my first children’s book has got to be that kind of thing, very fun and like coming full circle.

"After my dad died when I was nine, I sort of floundered for years. I didn't stick with anything. But then I got involved in boxing, and I found this little tiny family outside my own, with people who required me to really apply myself all the time, so I learned this way of sticking to things in boxing that I lost after my dad died. I've always felt like boxing trained me well for illustration. It's a physical thing for me because doing a painting is grueling, sometimes having to do three portraits in 24 hours, and you have to just stay with it.

"There was a period of time from sixth grade till tenth grade when I was trying to do anything but be an artist. I wanted to be a boxer; I wanted to be a class clown; I wanted to just goof off; I wanted to have a girlfriend. I didn't really think of myself as an artist until I got serious about picking a college.

"By now I've done hundreds and hundreds of paintings and the thrill at this point is that I've been doing this for a long time and I've got a reputation. When I meet young illustrators who're like I used to be, who are tigers, then I realize that I've got to maintain that ferocious quality. I shouldn't be riding on the success, and being comfortable. The struggle is that I want to get back to the ferocious person I was when I started out. I think he's still in there; I think I still have that. I'm certainly competitive, but I don't wake up in the morning thinking, 'I can paint anything I want and I want to paint this particular thing.'  So being a successful illustrator has been great but it's also slowed down my experimentation.

"Sometimes when I'm on a jury with other artists, I hear comments about how people feel about realism as a style, saying , 'I hate this! It's so tired!' going through a litany of descriptive words for realism that make me feel like, 'Oh my God, what am I doing, sailing a clipper ship amongst the speedboats?' But, you know, I think a clipper ship is cool."