Interview: Meet Illustrator John O'Brien

John O’Brien

John O’Brien

When I talk to kids about my children’s picture book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. I like the questions kids come up with. What’s your favorite color? Do you have pets? What’s your favorite food? But there’s one question kids always ask that deserves a more thoughtful answer. That question is: Did you draw the pictures in Blockhead? The answer, as most grown-ups have no doubt figured out, is absolutely not! The credit for the beautiful illustrations goes to a gentleman from New Jersey named John O’Brien. 

I’m frankly in awe of John’s professional career. On one hand, he draws cartoons and covers for one of the world’s most distinguished magazines, The New Yorker. On the other hand, he has authored and illustrated many popular children’s books, including Did Dinosaurs Eat Pizza?, The Beach Patrol, and This Is Baseball. 

At the same time, he has managed to build a life for himself that allows him to indulge in his lifelong passions. For example, at least once a week he plays with a band in downtown Philadelphia. 

Though he lives in New Jersey not far from Philadelphia, he spends three months each year in Miami, Florida, and his summer months at the New Jersey Shore, where he is a lieutenant lifeguard. His love of the sea greatly inspired the beach scenes in Blockhead. Thanks to John’s illustrations, numerous librarians nominated our book for their “Mock Caldecott” awards. 

John and I have only met once, at a New York signing. But we later got to hang out at one of the classic old New York pubs. I asked him to tell us about himself. Our August 2011 interview follows.

Sailing ship from Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci | Illustrated by John O'Brien

John, did you major in Illustration?

Absolutely! My school was called the Philadelphia College of Art back then but today it’s the University of the Arts. It was an artsy, fun environment with a lot of colorful teachers who taught illustration. I remember guys like Ben Eisenstadt and Al Gold, who were older gentlemen who took us under their wings. For a 19- or 20-year-old, it was an experience to hang out with these men. Ben was a collector of old illustrations, and I used to love going over his house to see what kind of images he’d picked up at flea markets over the weekend. Al was a WWII artist who drew images of things he’d witnessed during the war.

How did you become an artist? Did you like to draw and paint as a child?

Oh yes. I was probably drawing when I should have been studying. I’d have to say that half the notes I took in school were drawings.

Leaning Tower of Pisa. Illustration by John O'Brien for children's book Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci

How is the transition from New Yorker cartoons and covers to illustrating children's books?

My style is the same for both, but the books call for a more sophisticated technique. Sometimes the illustrations for children lead me to a cartoon that I later use in The New Yorker. If I do a book on Mother Goose, inevitably that leads to a couple of cartoons using Mother Goose clichés. I’m sure that Fibonacci will come out sooner or later.

Spiral-shaped image of Pisa by illustrator John O'Brien for children's book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci

Your children’s books cover so many different topics, dinosaurs, musicians, and lifeguards. Are these all interests of yours?

Not all, but a lot of them are. I’ve been a lifeguard at the Jersey Shore since I was 16 years old. The book I did about beach safety, The Beach Patrol, was very close to what we do every summer. And I play the banjo and concertina, a little bass and piano, most Thursday nights at an Irish club in Philadelphia. I also play a little Dixieland and that inspired my book on musicians. 

Can you tell us how you work from sketches to finished ink work? Do you draw and paint by hand or on a computer?

Computer? No! I’m a little old-fashioned. I like playing with paper and ink and watercolors. I’m a 19th century or 20th century guy, I guess. I don’t even have a computer and I only got email last year. The work all starts with a series of pencil sketches that I do in actual size. When the sketches are approved, I draw on Strathmore Bristol Board 500 series paper, which is good for watercolors. I go over the drawings with waterproof ink. When that’s dry, I erase the pencil. Next, I apply Dr. Ph. Martin’s Hydrus watercolors, mixing the paints with a medicine dropper. That’s it. I apply layers of watercolors until I get the effect I want.

Did you enjoy working on our Fibonacci book?

The sketches are the fun part. I enjoyed playing with ideas and trying to fit in as many Fibonacci objects as possible. Once the sketches are approved, then you start the busywork. It’s like building a house from that point on. Laying it down, brick by brick, you know?

Reviewers have praised your illustrations for Blockhead: The Life Of Fibonacci, especially how you incorporated spirals and other Fibonacci objects into your scenes. Since Medieval artists often added symbolic objects to their artwork, did this inspire you? 

Well, it’s a medieval subject, but I was really inspired by the art of master engravers of the 18th and 19th centuries. I still enjoy looking at their beautiful line work. The Fibonacci book just seemed to call for an element of fine art. I tried to insert as many spirals as possible because it’s important for the story. There’s a spiral on the first page, before kids even learn that Fibonacci numbers can form a spiral. But later, when they learn how the numbers are related to spirals, they will enjoy going back and finding them.

You are a man of many talents. When do you have the time to do your artwork?

Work takes a lot of time, and like most artists, I’m happy when I have the work. I think the main thing I’ve learned is that art is like music or exercise. I run four miles a day to keep in shape for the shore. It’s harder to do in your fifties than in your twenties, but you have to do it.

It’s the same with music: I pick up the banjo and play when I should be working, just to stay in shape musically. Art’s the same way. I always carry a sketchbook with me and I’m always jotting down cartoon ideas. I’d say nine out of ten ideas don’t work out. Every idea sounds great after two beers. 

Also, to make more time, I get up earlier these days than I used to. I get more work done between 6 a.m. and noon than most people do in a single day. I love the early morning hours. No one’s calling you on the phone, and you can work without interruptions. Illustration isn’t a 9-to-5 thing. You have to find the time, and when you do, it’s worth it.

I used to live down in Key West, which is Hemingway’s old town. People used to wonder how he could hang out in the bars all day. They figured he wasn’t writing. But they didn’t know that he was up writing when they were still asleep. That’s the secret. Get up early. Then play.

Algerian market scene, illustrated by John O'Brien, from children's book Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci

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