Master Portrait Painter
Communication Arts, September 2002
HOW DOES HE DO IT? IN THESE SMALL, PERFECT PORTRAITS, every hair is articulated, every hair of the eyebrows and mustaches. And the skin: you can almost feel each pore, all the tiny wrinkles, the blemishes. He paints famous people: Gandhi, Einstein, Cleopatra, Queen Victoria, Ben Gurion, Franklin Roosevelt, Boris Yeltsin, Princess Diana, Bob Dole, Alan Greenspan, Ted Turner, Bill Clinton (20 times), Hillary Clinton, Muhammed Ali, his hero. They are idealized, bathed in a golden glow. But they are also 100 percent human.
A close look around Tim O'Brien's Brooklyn studio -- the small gessoed illustration board taped to the wall, the sketches in crow-quill pen and wash, the squeezed-out tubes, the hundreds of brushes -- reveals little of the secret. Even the artist's own patient explanations -- how he draws with needle-sharp white and sepia pencils, how he "scrumbles" (pushes around) the semi-transparent oil paint on the smooth surface, how the long pointed brush hairs carry paint like a fountain pen -- don't suffice to explain how these hyperrealist paintings come about. It's got to be something like Michaelangelo's moment of creation. That mystical 'ping.' Maybe the right word is 'talent.'
"When I was in kindergarten I knew I could do things that other people couldn't," offers O'Brien. This is said with quiet modesty. He isn't bragging. "When we had drawing in nursery school, everyone, the kids and the teachers, would stand behind me and watch. The other kids could barely scribble stick figures but I was capturing a likeness of my parents. I could draw things in perspective. I had a photographic memory and good hand-eye coordination. And I liked all that attention."
He is getting plenty of attention today. At 37, Tim O'Brien is one of the illustrators Time> magazine calls for a cover portrait of the person of the year or the decade or century. He's done more than 15 covers for Time. He also works for The Atlantic Monthly, Business Week, Entertainment Weekly, National Geographic, New York, Newsweek, Playboy, Readers' Digest, Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, Worth, and for every leading book publisher. He used to do 50 paintings a year, nearly one a week. Now that he has a small son, he completes 30. "Illustration is fine art on a deadline," he claims. "I enjoy making beautiful paintings. In days, not months."
The middle brother of three boys, O'Brien grew up in a working-class household near New Haven, Connecticut. Although he drew and painted all the time, he knew he had to grow up and earn a living, and thought it was going to be as a boxer. "I had some rough years," he explains. "My dad died when I was nine and I badly needed a male influence. I viewed art as soft and wanted to be a tough guy. I got into trouble for vandalism and a youth officer suggested boxing. I was matched up with someone my own size, which was perfect because I was never big enough to stand out in team sports." During high school O'Brien boxed in the Police Athletic League. After art school he ran a boxing gym in Philadelphia where he trained amateur fighters, including a few kids who became Olympic athletes. These days he trains two evenings a week at the Park Slope YMCA.
"Both are physical, solitary endeavors," he says of painting and boxing. "I paint eight hours a day -- unless there's a deadline and I go nonstop -- and then I need to get away and use a different part of my brain." And what about protecting his hands? "I'm the best wrapper in the business," he maintains. "I like the game of illustration, too," he adds. "The rules, the sport. Illustration is a tight community of artists with different styles and common clients."
For O'Brien, choosing which path to take was not easy. "I decided at 18 that I wasn't going to fight professionally, a choice I just recently came to terms with," he grins. He used a Pell Grant to attend Paier College of Art in Hamden, Connecticut. A small private academy, Paier was close to home and offered a pragmatic curriculum. "I was lucky," he says. "I got all the great teachers before they retired. They were old-school guys who smoked pipes and looked like Norman Rockwell. There was Leonard Everett Fisher, an illustrator of children's books; Ken Davies, a noted realist painter; Dennis Luzak, another well known illustrator; I studied trompe l'oeil with Bob Zappalorti. There was Rudolph Zallinger, who did the murals in the Peabody Museum at Yale."
O'Brien was an illustration major. "It was a career-minded school, and still is. I took design, lettering," he says. "I was very competitive with my roommate, Steve Brennan. We were like Lennon and McCartney. We pushed each other."
When he describes how art was taught at Paier, the development of his meticulous classical technique becomes clearer: "First we painted black-and-white cubes, Then black-and-white objects, like vases. Then color cubes. Then color objects. Then figures. There was lots of instruction in formal anatomy, " he recounts. "All this was not about self-expression. It was about doing it right. We drew teddy bears, skulls, folds of fabric. We learned all kinds of visual tricks: lighting, textures, wood, water, how to give objects volume. Practice and repetition were the watchwords. There's no need for me to reference certain things now." O'Brien cites Thomas Eakens and George Cadmus as among his major influences. "Starting in grade school, I used to go to the Yale Galleries and look at the Eakenses, the most macho paintings," he says. "I liked Cadmus, his application of paint, the short little brushstrokes. I was not focusing on art history or 17th century Dutch painting. My real influences, to tell the truth, were comic books, the photographs in Sports Illustrated and the Age of Reptiles mural in the Peabody Museum. My grandfather was a caretaker at Yale and when we visited I would go over to the museum and spend time with the reptiles in their deep primeval world. It was incredible good luck to get the artist as one of my teachers."
Just before graduation from Paier in 1987, O'Brien was approached by Manhattan artists' representative Peter Lott, who still represents him. Lott had seen O'Brien's work at the Society of Illustrators' Student Show and called him. "Tim had two pieces in the show and they made a great impression on me," says Lott. "He came in with a student portfolio that just blew me away; 12 or 15 pieces, each one better conceptually and technically than the last. We started working together and never looked back."
This year, as one of the school's most notable alumni -- and on the executive committee of the Society of Illustrators himself -- O'Brien delivered the commencement speech at Paier -- for the second time. The theme was making meaningful art, rather than making money, in the post 9-11 world.
He understands the notoriety, sort of. "Not a lot of people can do this kind of painting any more," he explains. "Hyperrealism is a kind of perfected realism. It's a lure. It draws you in. It's like looking through a window. It's capturing the one moment that says everything. I use the fine lines to describe the surface and to direct the eye, to get to the meaning. I'm not just a technician," he emphasizes. "I want the painting to mean something."
One of the moments of greatest meaning in O'Brien's life came when Muhammed Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games and Time commissioned O'Brien to paint the portrait. "I knew so much about Ali. I just had to do him justice," he says. He's done a half dozen more portraits of Ali by now. His favorite, hanging in his dining room, shows a youthful Ali, serene, at the height of his powers, idealized as a Byzantine icon on a gold background. Another assignment O'Brien recalls as "a really great moment" was the dual cover portrait of Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr as Men of the Year in 1998, when America was obsessed by Monica Lewinsky. He is also fond of his "organization kid" painting of the high-achieving, pony-tailed high school senior for The Atlantic. Surrounded by books, a violin and soccer ball, she wears a white T-shirt, cassette headphones, a gold watch and pearl bracelet, and holds a violin bow and a book. A cellphone rests near another book. She is not portrayed as anorexic or anxious or frantic. She is the paradigm achiever.
In addition to portraits, O'Brien's work includes subjects that can only be called surrealistic. There's an obsession with sailing ships and water, the water having an almost sculptural quality, like granite. In one trompe l'oeil canvas, the stormy sea falls out of the gilded frame and a clipper ship spills out with it. A glowing portrait of Ben Gurion shows Israel's founder in front of a sea in which the setting sun is framed by a six-pointed star. Then there are animals: elephants sailing the ocean; dolphins jumping from puddles spilled from a water glass; a rhinoceros lifted over fluffy clouds by white doves. Boris Yeltsin wears a bear suit; a leopard accompanies Cleopatra. Famous paintings and subjects are parodied, such as tennis star Venus Williams as Boticelli's "Venus on the half shell" and Mumia Abu Jamal, the radio personality on death row, as a crucified Christ on a hospital gurney with an IV in his arm. They are painted with technique that might do Boticelli proud, or Vermeer.
"Tim's work is reminiscent of the classic Time covers of the '40s and '50s," points out Arthur Hochstein, Time's art director. "We have a long history of portraiture we like to maintain even though the editors often favor photography. "We're wowed by the intricacy and draftsmanship of Tim's work, even under crazy magazine deadlines. It's amazing what he can accomplish in an unbelievably short period of time. Tim is congenial and even tempered and a pleasure to work with, no matter what happens. Sometimes covers run and sometimes they don't, having nothing to do with the artist," explains Hochstein. "Another big story could hit."
O'Brien lives with his wife, Elizabeth Parisi, a senior art director at Scholastic Inc., and their 2 1/2-year-old son Cassius in a leafy, culturally diverse Brooklyn neighborhood just south of Prospect Park. It's a surprising -- because it looks more like Minneapolis than New York City -- enclave of historic three-story single-family Victorians and Tudors with front lawns, picket fences and beds of primroses. The studio is on the third floor, and O'Brien is painstakingly renovating the rest of the house, scraping off layers of paint and flocked wallpaper and restoring its 1901-vintage wood moldings and stair banisters. Cassius's train sets, Duplos and Little Tykes cars are neatly lined up, parking-lot style, in a playroom off the parlor. Parisi and O'Brien met at a business lunch in 1991; she had been admiring his children's book covers for other publishers and wanted to commission some for Scholastic. "I love working for my wife," he smiles, showing pre-teen fiction book jackets with paintings of aristocratic young ladies in period costumes.
He also loves working for the art directors and editors who take illustration most seriously. "Some magazines commission photography when they're serious and hire illustrators to paint visual jokes, to make everything exaggerated and funny," he claims, recalling an assignment he passed up. "It was a story about Clinton after the presidency and they wanted me to paint him with his saxophone, a girl, a car. I wouldn't do it. I'm at a place in my career when I can pick and choose."
O'Brien was recently engaged in a minor difference of opinion with the art director of the Village Voice. The cover subject was pedophiles in the Catholic church, and the direction was to depict a priest as devil, in red, with horns and scaly hands. "I wanted to approach it in a less heavy-handed way," he explains. His computer sketches -- scanned ink-and-wash drawings so elegant of line they resemble the finished art of Milton Glaser -- portray the devilish aspects of the priest with more subtlety; small horns in shadow are half-hidden by the masthead. The reaction of the editors: "Push it farther." Ultimately, both O'Brien and the art director agreed that the Voice should use an illustrator who's more of a caricaturist. "Going over the top isn't a good fit for my style," he says.
This practically begs the question: why not be a fine artist? Why be at the mercy of editors and art directors who want to sell magazines, who have different agendas? On the day of my visit, a leading international auction house took out a full-page ad in The New York Times featuring a lavatory urinal inscribed by Marcel Duchamp estimated to sell for $2.5 million; a Barnett Newman color field painting -- a single vertical stripe on a colored ground -- for $3.5 to $5 million. Doesn't O'Brien, who's paid less than $5,000 for most covers, feel that something is askew with the valuation of art these days? "Fine art versus illustration is not something I worry about," he answers. "It doesn't gall me to see a painting worth $5 million. Besides, those were the masters, the guys who changed the whole direction of 20th century art."
Then, he adds, grinning: "I'd love to have a paint-off. Fifty top illustrators vs. fifty top fine artists. You'd see who wins. Illustrators are the visual communications. We work with text. We know how to meet deadlines. We communicate with the public. Many fine artists don't know how to do that. They either paint what they think will sell or they work on spec. Most fine art, if it's sold, ends up in the homes of rich collectors. Only a few people ever see it. When I do a cover for Time, millions of people see it. I get mail from all over the world. Then it goes to The National Gallery in Washington. That's the power of illustration."
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