James OBrien
Recent work
New England TB Symposium illustration
I made this illustration for the New England TB Symposium. It was used for their program and posters as well as mugs and bags.
Initially, I drew a pattern of abstract shapes, but the client wanted me to show the drugs used to treat TB. The final sketch fused the cabinet with the head and shoulders profile.
I used my trimmed Pentel brush pen for the line work. It was getting low on ink which allows me to create a more textural line.
Below is the illo in a few stages of development.
Alzheimer's illo

Last month, I was assigned a job by Harvard Magazine to make an illustration for an article about Alzheimer’s. The concept relates to a treatment referred to as “meaningful engagement.”

One of the effective activities discussed involved patients tending to plants. I wanted to make a decorative portrait that showed this relationship between the patient and the plants, as well as the internal isolation of the patient’s mind.

The larger portrait represents the external activity, the patient tending to the plants, and the smaller internal portrait represents the patient separated from reality.

Below is the process, beginning with thumbnail sketches, rough sketches for the client, and the final sketch approved by the client.


Above is the ink line work I made with a Pentel Brush Pen.

For my work, I use new textures made from scanned elements as well as old textures pulled from previous illustrations. For this illustration, I used three textures pulled from previous illustrations and re-colored them, light orange for the main texture, medium orange for an additional texture, and green for a texture that will relate to the line work.

The image below shows the inked line work on a layer above the textures.
I brought in additional textures to create the head shape, and additional textures for the body.
And below is the colorized line work followed by the final illustration.
Inflammation technique & process
This image was commissioned for a magazine article about inflammation. The idea for the piece was a pattern of abstracted cell shapes surrounding a helpless floating figure that also contained some of these cell shapes.

I sketched out a couple of options for the client to choose from. The first was a hand rather than a figure. The inflammation was also concentrated in one part of the hand as if stemming from an injury. The client felt the figure better fit the story and wanted the cell pattern to be within the figure.

I first painted the silhouette of the figure using white gouache on craft paper.
Then I used a variety of media to create some abstract cell shapes.
Using a Pentel brush pen, I created some line work for the head of the figure.
I used graphite on rough paper to create a shadow to insert within the figure, darkening its edges. I also made a hand and a foot along with additional shading marks.
I had originally sketched the figure as upside down but the client wanted the figure to be right-side up. I widened the pattern out a bit to better fit the format and then placed this sketch into Photoshop to use as a guide for the art.
To start the image, I used a number of textures to build up a dark blue background.
I then arranged the individual cell shapes into a pattern leaving a space for the figure, and colorized the cell shapes using a blue palette that was brighter, cooler, and more saturated than the background blues.
Next I placed the figure silhouette in the open area and colorized it with one light value and one medium value cool pink.
I then added line work and shading to the figure and created a pattern of cell shapes within it using a darker pink and red palette.
And here again is the final cropped image.
An Wang portrait

A couple of weeks ago, I was commissioned to do a portrait of An Wang, co-founder of Wang Laboratories and creator (along with Way Dong Woo) of the pulse transfer controlling device in 1949.
For this portrait, I focused on a close-up 3/4 view of Wang in a suit and bow tie with his patented circuitry as a background pattern.
A set of thumbnail sketches allowed me to explore translating his features into line and investigate composition and posture. I used this to create a sketch for the likeness.

Next, I sketched out some circuitry to use as the background pattern.

I combined this with the likeness sketch to create the final rough sketch to show to the client.

For the next step, I painted shapes with gouache for the head, suit, tie, and background. For this step, I was only concerned with the edge quality, the shape, and the texture within the shape from the brush strokes and subtle color value variations. I scanned these gouache shapes in grayscale.

Following the gouache step, I created the line work using a Pentel brush pen. I made an alternative line drawing for some of the facial features. In the first ink drawing, I made three left cheek edge lines intending to choose one of them, but then decided to leave all three.

I used the sketch in Photoshop as a guide for placing the gouache and ink elements.

In Photoshop, I converted the gouache elements to Index Color, limiting them to only two values; a medium gray and a dark gray. I then selected each of these grays and converted them each to a color that matched their value.

Next, I introduced a third value for the face texture and then began replacing the sketch with the scanned ink line work.

I decided to make the darker background and bow tie value match the face texture value.

Up until now, I had been working with a monochromatic red palette. For the final illustration though, I wanted the background to be a second color, and first tried a dull bluish hue…

…but then decided on an acid green…

…and finished by completing the final background circuitry pattern.

Water illustration for WellDone

I was asked by Kate Worum to create an illustration about water for a project she’s working on at WellDone.
I often use Adobe Illustrator to doodle, to make an image with no plan in mind, just play around with shapes and color and see what happens.
For this illustration, I set up a few simple rules for the doodle. The format was 6×6″ so I began with a blue square. Then, since I wanted it to be a face, I began with two circular eyes. After that, I made a drop shape to use as the only shape for the rest of the image. I could re-size this shape and rotate it, but I could not distort it, redraw it, or crop it (cropping could occur if the shape extend beyond the format edge). The palette was limited to three values, white, black, and blue as the middle value. My final rule was to create a left/right symmetry to reflect the symmetry of the eyes and the left/right symmetry of the drop shape (not counting the eyes, this rule was broken once, can you spot it?).
Again, I had no plan for this, other than a face. Would it be a human face? an animal?

a bear?

a lemur?

an odd-looking man with a mustache?

a butterfly?

a clown or masked wrestler?

But, eventually, what began to appear…

…was a tiger!

a decorative tiger!

with a winged one-eyed bug on its nose!

Barry Hannah

I have three illustrations in the March 2011 issue of The Oxford American. This issue is about the author Barry Hannah who died one year ago this month.

Here’s some of the process, ink and gouache, assembled in Photoshop.

Here’s a repeating pattern tile I made from the drops.

Lucky Funds cereal
Here’s some process from a piece I did last December, an exec reading the back of a box of Lucky Funds cereal.

NYTimes illo in today's Home section

Above is an illo, from today’s NYTimes Home section. Below is the sketch. The story is about universal remote controls, how they don’t necessarily work that well. I arranged the letter buttons to suggest the shape of the remote, and to allow some of the letter buttons to overlap the thumb and finger to imply that it wasn’t working. The floating letters suggest a flimsy, rickety construction, as if pushing a button causes it to move and move around the other buttons.

Mr. Ted

I created this piece for the University of Minnesota’s Alumni magazine’s summer issue for a short story about the manager of a fast-food restaurant, Mr. Ted.
I started out thumbnailing quick concepts about grease and the deep-fryer and grill, and since the story was also about two of Mr. Ted’s workers, I worked up some ideas about them. My first thoughts were about the environment, the grease and heat, along with character studies of the workers and Mr. Ted. The story was a mix of humor and melancholy; Mr. Ted was trapped in his career choice and his two young workers at first saw Mr. Ted’s life as humorous and made light of it but eventually gained respect for him.
The client wanted the image to focus on Mr. Ted rather than the two workers so I sketched some variations of him at the grill with drops and flames (top two rows of thumbnails). The drops pattern serves as a symbol of the environment and the mood; grease, rain, tears, sweat.
The final direction was to combine the background of drops with patty shapes at the bottom, no smoke or flames, so a combination of the third and fourth sketches in the top row. Another request was to change the “RB” (the name of the restaurant) to Mr. Ted.

When I begin to work on the final art in Photoshop, my first step is to combine the sketch with a ground color along with a second color and texture. This gives me an initial impression of the value design, how the figure elements and ground elements relate, and how the texture is working with the design.
I cleaned up the rough sketch with some simple pencil line. I then used this pencil line as a reference for the final line work.

I used two methods for the final line work; the first was with a Pentel Brush Pen (top) and the second was with a Wacom tablet using the Blob Brush tool in Illustrator (bottom). I preferred the cleaner quality of the digital line in some areas and the thicker rougher quality of the brush pen line in other areas, sometimes combining the two styles of line and then adding and subtracting with the Pencil and Eraser tools.

I knew the hand was a mess so I took some quick reference photos and used them to correct it and then made the additional line work with my brush pen (I redrew this later for one of my sketchbook exchange images).

On a top layer, I make a white frame that I use for cropping. This white frame layer allows me to see the image against white rather than against the window edges and allows me to include bleed if needed.

I had initially set the darkest value as the background with the drops pattern being one of two middle values, but I decided to make the background a middle value so that the drops could be both lighter (the lighter middle value) and darker (the darkest value) than the background to create a back-and-forth visual movement. I also varied the sizes of the drops to further emphasize this effect.

Guitar Hero
I’ve never played Guitar Hero and this image wasn’t for Activision. It was for a legal trade magazine for a story about patent law; so something dull and something exciting (if you’re into that sort of thing, I’m perfectly content with my New York Times Crossword Puzzle app and maybe a little Brave Man now and then).
I wanted the image to be about both situations, the real and the imagined, so I combined patent writing with guitar playing. The patent attorney is writing while he imagines himself playing guitar.
For process, first I scan my sketch and convert it to bitmap to get rid of the gray pixels. Then I move it to a new layer and delete all of the white pixels. I lock the transparent pixels so that I can quickly change the color of the sketch using the Fill Command shortcut (Option-Delete to fill with the foreground color, Command-Delete to fill with the background color). Below is the sketch with some reference photos taken by my daughter Emma.
Next I introduce a background color and then additional colors, working at separating the foreground elements from the background. I use the Pencil and Eraser tools on Layer Masks to isolate the color areas, working quickly trying not to be to accurate or neat. I make sure all anti-aliasing is turned off (uncheck anti-alias for the Lasso and Magic Wand tools, set the Eraser to Pencil, avoid the Paintbrush, set Interpolation to Nearest Neighbor). This limits the color areas to hard edges which allows me to do quick color edits when I lock the transparent pixels on each layer. I work fairly large, 11×13″ at 300ppi so no jagged edges will be visible on curved and angled edges.
After these initial steps, I spend a bulk of the time cutting and pasting in textures and adjusting the color palette as needed. I often add additional line work as well.
When I have the image design complete, as a final step I convert it from RGB Color to Indexed Color, limiting the palette to just a few colors, and then tweak that version a bit to fall somewhere between the RGB version and the Indexed Color version. Below is the final image design followed by the Indexed Color version. The first image in this post is the tweaked version of the Indexed Color image. It’s the final image, the one sent to the client.
Financial services illo
I made this image last week for an FISVoice newsletter article about financial advisors dealing with stressed-out clients. The big hand represents the advisor and has arrived just after its client has jumped up and clung to the chandelier. The client is welcoming this helping hand by placing his hand in it and mimicking its orientation. The client has a subtle smile.
This was an opportunity to reuse my chandelier drawing from House of Hope, also used in my Kal Penn portrait as a background pattern.
The final went through a few revisions, ending up in a slightly better spot. I actually prefer the one above, which was the third version. The client (my client, the AD) opted for the white chandelier with dark blue line work.
Below are the six versions of the final along with the sketch.
Final couch illustration
I did this image a few weeks ago for a story about genetic markers and second-hand smoke. I first sketched out a tattoo cloud on the figure's chest. The client asked for more clouds to suggest a larger number of genetic markers (below: sketch with alternate sketches).
Incorporating reference drawings
I think, after slogging through two graduate programs searching for a way to use reference in my process, I’ve finally successfully intergrated line drawing from reference into a finished piece, actually two. These were for a job I worked on this week. The sketches were done in my normal stylized method without considering the use of the reference drawings. But in the middle of making the devil image, I dropped in the bus drawing and then cut and pasted other bus drawing elements to fill it out. The top image is for a story called “Unknown Quanitity,” playing off the phrase “the devil you know,” this person representing “the devil you don’t know.” The bottom image was done just after the top one and is a standard gear-head concept for a story about re-educating or re-setting clients.
Catholic charities piece
This piece was commissioned by Notre Dame Business magazine for an article about Catholic charities. The designer asked for two images. I designed the left side to be cropped in a cross shape and the right side to be within an oval shape. While creating the image, I worked on them together in one large rectangular space, turning a mask layer on and off to check on how they were fitting within the cross and oval shapes. But as is often the case, I prefer the uncropped version.
Texture with graphite
Here's a piece I made last week for the LA Times using a slightly different method inspired by a graduate student at one of the schools where I teach. Her method is similar to my usual technique however she makes custom-made texture areas for each piece. She uses graphite to sketch the texture areas on vellum and then uses them to make screens for screen printing.
So, for me, rather than collaging a pre-existing texture, for this piece I pencil-filled in the large color areas using a 3B graphite pencil, scanned them in, and then converted them to the individual color areas. I like the fact that I am hand-making each color area as well which results in unique textures for each image area.
The LA Times article this piece accompanied was written by a chef discussing his profession.
Above are the pencil-filled areas (along with some of the line work) drawn on tracing paper with a 3B pencil and then set to high contrast using the Threshold command in Photoshop (Image>Adjustments>Threshold). The background was built using the face element.
Sleep illustration
This is me, still struggling through "Moby Dick." Actually, I'm currently finishing Frank Herbert's "Dune" and have Paul Bowles' "The Spider House" on deck (although I would rather read his "Let It Come Down" but can't find a copy).

I just finished this illustration for Johns Hopkins for a story about a sleep study procedure that can be done in the comfort of your home. The client wanted a "homey" feel with the addition of a graph that represented the procedure. To keep the image more general, I designed it without the graph, just an image about sleep, and then worked in the graph for the client. So above is the non-graph version.

The cat is a combination of my daughter's two cats, Misty and Lue. Misty likes to sleep in this position next to me; Lue modeled for the ears and paws. And even though I'm moving toward the use of more reference, the figure and the rest of the scene were drawn from my imagination.
Above is the version with the graph.
And here is the sketch.
Cubist city
Here is a piece I did recently for Convene Magazine (via Shostak Studios) for a story about Convention and Visitors Bureaus. I was off an a Paul Klee/Cubist Picasso slant, using abstract color shapes to suggest a shifting cityscape that the hands have arranged and constructed.

Below is a  closer view of the right side of the spread.
Holiday card image
This image was for a real estate brochure in Florida. I decided to use it for my holiday card, seemed to fit in a color manner, in some ways (I reddened the orange a bit), a positive new year image. The end process took a slight bend from my normal method, slightly less chaotic then a previous image, but still some messiness about. Below is some process, separated layers. Not sure if it explains the method much, basically one texture, recolored and masked on multiple layers (that's the secret folks!). Additional textures add some blips and blops here and there.
This image was commissioned by Business Week for a story about iPhones in China. As I waited (and waited) for sketch approval, assuming the story must have been killed, I decided to go ahead and finish the image as a little exercise using a new texture. The next morning, I sent a quick note to the AD to check in and included a screenshot of this finished image. His reply acknowledged that the story had in fact been killed, no comment on the image. Then the following week, he decided they wanted to use this piece and asked for a hi-res version. But unfortunately, they went with a photo in the end rather than this image. Illustration can be a fickle business.
This image was for an article discussing an impending shortage of skilled welders, an interesting story for me since my father was a welder. I remember showing him with pride a bead weld from shop class in college. He was proud since I was the artist rather than the mechanic/hunter/fisherman, that was my brother's path. But my father was really an artist at heart, just a generation too early. Or maybe it was the small town expectations.
I struggled a bit with this image. Lately I've been less interested in concept, thinking more about portraits and subtle emotion. So it was a challenge to show a need for something, in this case welders. The concept I arrived at was the dashed outline suggesting "you could be here" or "missing."
By the way, I still have my father's welding mask which look much like this one.
NPR calendar and 3x3
I had a busy summer, started the MFA program at Hartford and had a number of projects (not to mention a bit of teaching). Back in August, I received two big boxes of the NPR calendar I contributed to, above (top) is the image. The copy on my page (February) reads:
"As I write this, I am listening to the classical music stream from my local station, KSJN 995.FM in St. Paul Minnesota. I enjoy listening to a wide variety of music and programming NPR has to offer. The music becomes a part of my work, flows through it, as it is doing with this woman's knitting. The music is interwoven with the work, in this image, literally becoming a part of her project."
I also had two images selected for 3x3 (middle and bottom images), nice surprise. I'd forgotten about entering that one and had resigned myself to being snubbed by the competitions this year.
Portrait study
Portrait study
This is a study from a sketch for a killed story, thought I would carry it through as a little portrait exercise.
From top left clockwise: household, business, jobs, crime
I haven't done any spots for quite some time so this project was a refresher for me. Here are four of them, for Forbes Magazine.
two companion images
Genome (top) and medical research (bottom)
These were two recent congruent assignments. Both arrived at a similar conceptual device. The top image was for an story about genome research, big projects vs. little ones. The bottom was for a story about funding medical research.

I was experimenting last week with one of my students using Stonehenge white drawing paper in an Epson 4800. He'd had good results but mine were turning out kind of odd, the ink wasn't settling on the paper properly. Anyone have any experience with that type of paper or a similar type of drawing paper. We were using it mainly for its scale (17" width) but then realized we had access to some Epson paper at the same width. The Enhanced Matte paper accepted the ink much more cleanly and evenly.

Also, any thoughts on Color Profiles. I've been using Apple RGB (with my fancy new 23" Cinema!) because it gives me a better web image. But Adobe RGB supposedly works better when converting to CMYK. Any opinions?
sf chronicle piece
A far country
This image ran in the March 4 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. It was for a review of Daniel Mason's "A Far Country," about a girl searching for her lost brother. Here is a link to the story online.
oscar night benefit
oscar night benefit illustration
This is for a local benefit for the Minnesota AIDS project, an Oscar night benefit at the State Theater in Minneapolis. Attendees enjoy appetizers and desserts from local restaurants while watching the awards ceremony live on the big screen.
adoption piece study
color study for a story about adoption
This is a color study for a story I'm working on about adoption. The sketch didn't fit the space or the story but I did a color study anyway. In Photoshop, I usually create a number of paths that I use for masks and selections but with this piece I just worked with the pencil and eraser tools, collaging and painting texture. Without a net, less control.
Another white guy
putting together a budget
Here's another in the previous mode, white silhouette on color. For this one, I've included a background color field to tone down the texture a bit. It's about putting together a budget. This is actually the rough-edge version, with all the bleed showing. I designed it to bleed left, right, and bottom but not at the top. I think this version looks more interesting than the cropped version where the left/right/bottom edges are cleaner.
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