He made it through high school and college without ever taking an art class, yet retained a deep interest in drawing and was a voracious reader of comics. "Finally, it got to the point where I loved it so much I finally said, 'Damnit, I'm going to do it.' I had a lot of catching up to do. I didn't start drawing really well until a couple of years ago."
O'Brien taught himself how to draw by copying anatomy books from front to back. He immersed himself in the work of book illustrators from the 1800s, such as Gustave Dore, and studied early cartoonists, especially the work of Carl Barks, who drew the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics. He enrolled in art classes at VCU, where he says his instructors "tried to fit me into the painter mold, but it wasn't very satisfying. To this day, they don't really pay much attention to cartooning."
O'Brien is a big believer that drawing is a skill that can be learned and is not an inborn talent. His own fluid, seemingly effortless cartoons make a good case for this belief. O'Brien's years of practice have turned him into a talented and skilled draftsman. Today, he teaches cartooning and animation to children at VCU and the Hand Workshop.
Where he gets his ideas: O'Brien quotes one of his favorite cartoonists, "Calvin and Hobbes" creator Bill Watterson, when he says his ideas come "from a blank sheet of paper."
Many of his characters appeared on his drawing board one day as he was doodling. On his wall hangs a cartoon of President George W. Bush as a gangsta rapper. "I got a job after the election drawing a T-shirt of Bush for a guy in Chicago," he explains. "I started studying Bush, drawing him, playing with him a little bit. I did him in hip-hop clothes, and it eventually grew into this rapper character. I decided Ken Lay would manage him. Your ideas just start flowing form a point like that."
His "Spikey and Einstien" comic strip, which he hopes to publish as a book by the end of the summer, grew out of a little boy character he drew while teaching at an elementary school. One of the students named the character Spikey, and O'Brien then drew a science-loving dog companion, Einstien, for the boy. "Once I had the characters figured out, then I started thinking about the stories," he says.
He says his latest strip, "Corporate Tool and Finance Boy," in which Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is a superhero, was inspired by reading publications such as The Atlantic, Harper's and The Economist. "I try to get a lot of information in here because when you're cartooning, you're sort of making fun of the world."
On the art of cartooning: Though some fine artists don't consider cartoons to be art, O'Brien disagrees. "Fine artists are providing art for a very small class or elite people, " he says, " but anybody can afford a newspaper this is populist art."
How he works: O'Brien sits down at his drawing board by 6 a.m. every day and draws for a few hours. "Before I even walk the dogs. I doodle for about an hour. I don't come in and do finished work. Most of [the drawings] get thrown out. I do a lot of stuff to get my brain in gear."
He draws with a mechanical pencil on Bristol board then uses India ink and a sable brush to ink in the lines. "All I'm using is lines," he explains. "It has no tone. Any tone is created by hatching or crosshatching." A full-length mirror rests against the wall next to his drawing table. He often looks into it to study various facial expressions.
What makes a successful cartoon: Good drawings combined with a funny concept, O'Brien says. "You are telling a story with the pictures. The words shouldn't stand on their own without the pictures. You should be able to grasp the story from the pictures. The words just flesh it out. You can have a comic strip with no words you can't have one with no pictures."
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