Illustrator Tim O'Brien to visit LACFA

Fusing a crystalline sense of realism with a bold sense of wit and imagination - as it all pertains to the complexities and nuances of the world today - illustrator/portraitist Tim O'Brien is a unique creative force.

His work is routinely seen on the covers of TIME, Rolling Stone, Fortune, Esquire and in the New York Times, and every major publishing house in the world has commissioned O'Brien; those are his iconic visions, for example, on the book jackets of "The Hunger Games" trilogy.

An exhibition, "Tim O'Brien - Portraits and Illustrations: A Retrospective," opened Oct. 11 at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and runs through Jan. 11, 2014. O'Brien will be on hand Friday for a reception and will then deliver a lecture called "Inside My Studio."

Last week, O'Brien answered email questions about his work and career. Here are excerpts from his comments.

On elements of magical realism in his approach:

"When I began my career ... I did mainly covers for horror and mystery books. These were always very obvious situations that quickly conveyed what was behind the cover. I've always liked the clever idea; one that takes a beat before the viewer gets what is going on. I have tried to utilize this trick in the years since. I think of my paintings as one frame movies and my job as illustrator is to direct the viewer to see the idea when I want them to see it."

On what attracted him to realism:

"In the '80s, figurative illustration was beginning its comeback but, as a student of Paier College of Art, the focus was realism. The college's specialty melded well with my natural tendencies and I became a realist. My goal was not to enter the fine art world but rather to be a working illustrator. Realism has always had a profitable position within the illustration field."

Many of O'Brien's commissioned illustrations are of politicians. Do such jobs ever conflict with his personal beliefs and would he turn down a gig for such reasons?

"I think I have illustrated a pretty wide spectrum of political types but have found that I do care about the truth and being on the right side of history. I do have strong political beliefs and have politely turned down assignments that I feel are not a great fit. I never say that directly; I just say I'm busy. I often am."

On the creative difference between commissioned and personal work on any given day:

"A commissioned assignment is often a good starting point. I didn't wake up that day hoping to illustrate a certain topic, and suddenly I'm there. I solve the problem in that case. As an illustrator, I'm used to a deadline. Without a deadline, there is always another day to ponder alternatives. Deadlines force decisions, don't they?

"With personal work, it originates from me. I feel much more pressure in that scenario and have to ponder and work out the best solution or design, and this can take a long time."

On the broad expanse of pop culture personalities and whether he's ever unfamiliar with a subject:

"For most pop culture references, I know what I am illustrating. Sometimes, the request is something I'm not aware of, and I just do my best. Only later would I understand who it was I was illustrating. Several years ago, I was asked to do some portraits for the Grammy awards, and one of them was of Beyonce. I did the painting small and never knew she would become the star she is now. If I would have known, perhaps I would have made a bigger painting. Usually, though, I know who I'm illustrating."

On the solitary nature of his work:

"One thing I've learned in putting this exhibition together is that much of what has made my career satisfying and the paintings memorable are the many art directors and editors who put their trust in me. I've been really fortunate to have received so many amazing assignments and I only hope I continue to be a valuable part of these collaborations. I don't do this work in a vacuum, so I will forever be grateful for their faith in me."

"Inside My Studio," Tim O'Brien, 6 p.m. reception and 7 p.m. lecture Friday, Chauncey Stillman Gallery, Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, 84 Lyme St., Old Lyme; $10, $35 series of four; exhibition runs through Jan. 11, gallery hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; (860) 434-5232,


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