Tim O'Brien (illustrator)

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Tim O'Brien
Born (1964-11-16) November 16, 1964 (age 52)
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
Nationality American
Education Paier College of Art
Known for illustration, fine artist
  • Hamilton King Award, 2009
  • Medals, Society of Illustrators, Graphis, The Art Directors Club, Society of Publication Designers
Website obrienillustration.com

Tim O'Brien (born November 16, 1964) is an American artist who works in a realistic style.

His illustrations have appeared on the covers and interior pages of magazines such as Time, Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, National Geographic, Der Spiegel, and many others. His illustrations are also used by the US Postal Service for postage stamps.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

O'Brien's paternal grandparents came from Ireland, and his maternal grandparents from Norwich, Connecticut, arriving in the United States from Quebec.[2] His grandfather became a caretaker at Yale University.[3]

The artist was the second of three boys in his family.[3] At age nine, his father passed away and after his fathers death, O'Brien got into trouble for vandalism. A youth officer suggested boxing and O'Brien took the advise and began training as a boxer in high school, going on to box as a middleweight amateur in the Police Athletic League.[3][4] Although he drew and painted all during his youth, O'Brien thought boxing would be his career.[3]

At the age of 18, O'Brien gave up his ambitions of becoming a professional boxer and in the same year received a Pell Grant which he used to enroll in the Paier College of Art,[3] New Haven, CT.

He went on to graduate in 1987 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. His instructors at Paier included Leonard Everett Fisher, Ken Davies and Robert Zappalorti. While attending Paier, the young artist would paint Trompe l'oeil images for fun, which his instructors Ken Davies and Robert Zappalorti were also known to do, in which the viewer of the paintings are deceived into thinking they were seeing an actual object. In one such case, students attempted to use electrical outlets that O'Brien had painted on the wall.[3][5]

Artistic influences[edit]

In grade school, O'Brien often visited the Yale Art Gallery.[3] O'Brien's favorite art works at this early age, which he was able to view at the Yale Gallery, were by Thomas Eakins and Paul Cadmus, of which the young artist especially admired the detail and brushwork of Cadmus.[3] Other early influences for the artist were the 19th century Russian painter, Ivan Shishkin, and British painter, Lord Leighton.[6] Later influences for O'Brien include various contemporary artists such as Gottfried Helnwein, George Tooker and Mark Tansey, as well as illustrators such as Guy Billout and David Suter.[2]



Before graduation from Paier in 1987, O'Brien entered into what would become a long relationship with the artists' representative Peter Lott. Lott had seen O'Brien's work at the Society of Illustrators Student Show.[3]

O'Brien started his illustration career primarily as a book cover artist[2] and continues to work for book publishing houses, creating covers for such authors as Ray Bradbury, Thomas Hardy, Walter Dean Myers and many others.[7]

The artist credits his first big break as a Time Magazine cover done in 1989.[2] Even though O'Brien's contribution to the cover was only a painting of a small teardrop overlaid on a Gilbert Stewart portrait of George Washington,[8] it got him the attention of magazine art directors, and bigger assignments quickly followed.[2] Interestingly, O'Brien would be called on again almost 20 years later to paint another teardrop on the cover of Time, for the cover story "The Price Of Greed" following the onset of a severe global financial recession in the September 29, 2008 issue of the magazine.[9]

Notable works[edit]

Book covers[edit]

Time Magazine covers[edit]

Time Magazine covers by the artist are in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian[12]

Starting in 1989, O'Brien worked with art director, Arthur Hochstein, and created over a dozen covers for Time with him. Other art directors at Time that the artist has worked closely with are Joe Zeff and D.W. Pine.[13]

O'Brien occasionally creates cover illustrations for Time Magazine that are a possibility for publication but never used, as was the case with his Person of the Year (2007) portrait, in which the artist was commissioned to paint Vladimir Putin.[14] Putin was selected as "person of the year" by Time in 2007, however the final image the magazine selected was a photograph by Platon.

O'Brien's The End of Bin Laden cover, which the artist created in 2002 when editors at Time believed the al-Qaeda leader was trapped and was or would soon be dead in Afghanistan,[5] would not be published until nine years later in the May 20, 2011 issue.[2] In the case of The End of Bin Laden cover image, O'Brien employed a concept that had been used much earlier by Time in which is a red X is painted over the portrait. The first time this concept was used was for Adolf Hitler in the May 7, 1945 issue of the magazine, before Hitler's body was discovered.[15] O'Brien had used the same red X approach for an earlier Time cover, The Death of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi,[16] for the June 19, 2006 issue of the magazine.[17]

Listed below are a selection of notable works for Time by the artist.

Rolling Stone Magazine[edit]

O'Brien illustrated portraits of The Police,[26] Michael Jackson,[27] Nirvana,[28] and Little Richard[29] in Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time[30]

In 2012, O'Brien said the work he was most proud of was his 2008 cover illustration for Rolling Stone in which the magazine endorsed candidate Barack Obama for President.[11] The cover, which depicted the future President with a halo-like glow around him, created a mild controversy, with critics of the image saying it deified the candidate.[31]

Mother Jones Magazine[edit]

For the December 2012 release, the magazine printed double covers, in which one cover was sent to subscribers of the magazine and the alternate cover was shown on newsstands. O'Brien illustrated both covers, and in very different stylistic ways.[37] For the cover that went to newsstands, titled Sugar Kills, the artist created a surreal vignette of a glass pitcher as a human skull, and for the version delivered to subscribers, titled Solitary in Iran, O'Brien painted a lonely jail cell with a single occupant. That both covers were illustrated by O'Brien was more by chance than design. The Mother Jones creative director Tim J Luddy first completed conceptual sketches for both covers and after doing so, decided O'Brien would be the best choice for both.[38]

Magazine work[edit]

O'Brien magazine covers have received numerous awards and citations including Cover of the Day by the Society of Publication Designers. Below are listed a small sample of noted cover illustrations by the artist.

Postage stamps[edit]

O'Brien's work first appeared on U.S. postage stamps in 2006. The artist was commissioned to portray Hattie McDaniel as part of the U.S. Postal Services Black Heritage stamp series.[50] The choice of the actress to be featured in this series of stamps which had included prominent figures in civil rights history such as Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr caused some to voice concerns[51] The U.S. Postal Service defended their decision by noting that the actress was the first African American to Win an Academy Award as well as a being an influential civil rights advocate during the 1940s.[52]

US postage stamps by O'Brien that followed:

Working process[edit]

O'Brien begins with a detailed drawing on gessoed panel, working on sepia or grey half tone and drawing with pencil, charcoal pencil, colored pencil, gouache. When this is completed the artist uses an airbrush to even tones and set the key of the artwork and add light and dark to areas. Then an acrylic coat is applied to the drawing and finally painted over in thin layers of oil.[57] Although the artist began illustrating well before personal computers were able to render complex images, some of his concept images are currently rendered using computer software.[2]


The turn-around time between an illustration being commissioned by a weekly magazine such as Time is often less than 48 hours from concept sketch to final art for the artist. During this time, the sketch or draft of the idea is the most demanding.[5]

Arthur Hockstein, art director at Time Magazine from 1994 through 2009[58] said of O'Brien that the magazine staff was amazed at the intricacy and draftsmanship of O'Brien's work, delivered under such short deadlines.[3] Robert Newman, former Design Director at Entertainment Weekly recounted the paintings still being wet, delivered in specially constructed boxes containing the art by O'Brien and the smell of oil paint filling the room as the work was opened just before deadline.[2]

Creative process[edit]

O'Brien has said that he thinks of his paintings as one frame movies and his job as illustrator is to direct the viewer to see the idea when he wants them to see it.[59]

In an interview conducted by The Illustrators Guild of Ireland in 2002, O'Brien described his style by saying, "My description is conceptual realism with a leaning toward the slightly idealized."[60]

Honors and service[edit]


On April 26, 2016 O'Brien spoke at the United Nations in New York City at the invitation of The World Intellectual Property Organization, during which the artist's work were shown. He discussed commercial art and intellectual property rights in a digital world and how technology is having both advantageous and troubling consequesnces on both.[61]



  • Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, Portraits and Illustrations: A Retrospective, 2013[64]
  • Norman Rockwell Museum, Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World, 2016 [1]
  • Corpo Gallery [2]

As an educator[edit]

O'Brien lectures frequently across the country. His speaking engagements have included the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Society of Illustrators, Syracuse University, School of Visual Arts, Pratt Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, and California College of the Arts.[64]

Personal life[edit]

Up until 2004, O'Brien stayed active active in the boxing world of his youth as a trainer.[4] Since 2006 O'Brien has run the New York City Marathon, raising money for The Children's IBD Center at Mount Sinai Hospital.[65]

The artist lives with his wife Elizabeth Parisi and son Cassius in Brooklyn, New York. O'Brien works from home out of his third floor studio.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d "Profile". University of the Arts. Retrieved 2016-10-06. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Newman, Robert. "Illustrator Profile: Tim O'Brien". AI-IP. Retrieved 2016-10-05. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Shapiro, Ellen. "Tim O'Brien, Master Portrait Painter" (July–August 2002). Communication Arts. Retrieved 2016-10-17. 
  4. ^ a b Ryan, Pete (2010-03-29). "Tim O'Brien Interview". Retrieved 2016-10-16. 
  5. ^ a b c Bellmore, Miichael. "North Haven native works quietly, but images stay with us forever". New Haven Register. Retrieved 2016-10-17. 
  6. ^ Parker, Charley. "Tim O'Brien". Lines and Color. Retrieved 2016-10-28. 
  7. ^ "Tim O'Brien". Library Thing. Retrieved 2016-10-30. 
  8. ^ "Time Magazine, Oct 23 1989". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2016-10-05. 
  9. ^ "The Price of Greed". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2016-10-05. 
  10. ^ Aronoff, Amy. "Professor Tim O'Brien Swept Up In Hunger Games Success As Logo Becomes Ubiquitous". Pratt. Pratt Institute. Retrieved 2016-10-05. 
  11. ^ a b Weichselbaum, Simone. "Wings of love: 'Hunger Games' logo is brainchild of Brooklyn couple". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2016-10-06. 
  12. ^ a b "Time Magazine Collection". National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian. Retrieved 2016-10-06. 
  13. ^ Newman, Robert. "The Time Covers of Arthur Hochstein, Pt. 1: Tim O'Brien". Society of Publication Designers. Retrieved 2016-10-11. 
  14. ^ Stengal, Richard. "The Covers You Don't See". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2016-10-05. 
  15. ^ Gustini, Ray. "A Brief History of Time Magazine's X Covers". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2016-11-02. 
  16. ^ http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20060619,00.html
  17. ^ Rothman, Lily. "Behind the Osama bin Laden 'Red X' TIME Cover". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2016-11-02. 
  18. ^ http://www.spd.org/2010/10/the.php
  19. ^ http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19981228,00.html
  20. ^ http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20030310,00.html
  21. ^ http://content.time.com/time/magazine/0,9263,7601081110,00.html
  22. ^ http://content.time.com/time/magazine/pacific/0,9263,503100607,00.html
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  24. ^ http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20110520,00.html
  25. ^ http://content.time.com/time/magazine/0,9263,7601110905,00.html?iid=sr-link7
  26. ^ http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-artists-of-all-time-19691231/the-police-20110420
  27. ^ http://illoz.com/obrien/?section=portfolios&gallery_id=12&image_id=19933&search_id=2015&search_type=image
  28. ^ http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-artists-of-all-time-19691231/nirvana-20110926
  29. ^ http://illoz.com/obrien/?section=portfolios&gallery_id=12&image_id=395&search_id=10365
  30. ^ "Rolling Stone: The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time". Society of Publication Designers. Retrieved 2016-10-06. 
  31. ^ Powell, Michael Orion. "The Deification of Obama". Retrieved 2016-10-30. 
  32. ^ https://www.rollingstone.com/coverwall/2008#1048
  33. ^ https://www.rollingstone.com/coverwall/2009#1070
  34. ^ https://www.rollingstone.com/coverwall/2012#1149
  35. ^ http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/al-gore-the-revolution-is-beginning-20070628
  36. ^ http://www.theispot.com/whatsnew/2014/3/tim-o-brien-beck-for-rolling-stone.htm
  37. ^ http://www.foliomag.com/behind-mother-jones-s-recent-dual-cover-strategy/#.UHxWIBh5nV0
  38. ^ Newman, Robert. "Behind Mother Jones's Recent Dual Cover Strategy". Folio. Retrieved 2016-10-06. 
  39. ^ http://drawger.com/tonka/?article_id=4998
  40. ^ http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2010/09/bp-ocean-cover-up
  41. ^ http://www.coverjunkie.com/new-covers/4651
  42. ^ http://www.spd.org/2013/11/mother-jones-covers-designed-b.php
  43. ^ http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2007/01/harpy-hero-heretic-hillary
  44. ^ https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/2001/04/bgcover.htm
  45. ^ http://www.theispot.com/whatsnew/2012/4/tim-o-brien-the-titanic-for-smithsonian.htm
  46. ^ http://www.spd.org/2013/03/cover-of-the-day-friday-editio-38.php
  47. ^ http://www.insidesocal.com/dodgers/2016/05/10/vin-scully-is-sports-illustrateds-latest-cover-boy/
  48. ^ http://www.gq.com/story/mitt-romney-wells-tower-gq-august-2012
  49. ^ http://www.theispot.com/whatsnew/2016/1/tim-o-brien-illustration-cool-jesus.htm
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  52. ^ "Hattie McDaniel". PR NewsWire. US Postal Service. Retrieved 2016-10-30. 
  53. ^ http://postalmuseum.si.edu/tt/artwork/21/
  54. ^ http://about.usps.com/postal-bulletin/2012/pb22328/html/info_026.htm
  55. ^ https://about.usps.com/news/national-releases/2016/pr16_027.htm
  56. ^ http://about.usps.com/news/national-releases/2016/pr16_072.htm
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  58. ^ Newman, Robert. "Arthur Hochstein's 15 Favorite Time Magazine Covers". Society of Publication Designers. Retrieved 2016-10-30. 
  59. ^ Koster, Rick. "Illustrator Tim O'Brien to visit LACFA". The Day. Retrieved 2016-10-17. 
  60. ^ Byrne, Tom (2002-03-29). "Illustrators Ireland: Features". Illustrators Guild of Ireland. Illustrators Ireland. Retrieved 2008-05-17. 
  61. ^ "Tim O'Brien Speaks at the United Nations on a pane;; titled Digital Creativity: Reimagining Culture For Sustainable Development". Alternative Pick. Retrieved 2016-10-16. 
  62. ^ "Hamilton King 2009". Society of Illustrators. Retrieved 2016-10-06. 
  63. ^ Smyser, Kathy. "Artist Spotlight". Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. Retrieved 2016-10-06. 
  64. ^ a b "College Hosts Opening Reception for Exhibition by Famed Illustrator Tim O'Brien". Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts. College of the University of New Haven. Retrieved 2016-10-16. 
  65. ^ "Running the NYC Marathon 2007". Drawger. Retrieved 2016-10-16. 

External links[edit]