Warmth, art and survival in Ben O'Brien's illustrations

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Love for nature, capturing the moment and finding the beauty in how things look. This is the drive that guides Ben O'Brien, freelancer in Somerset, former animator and now a hardened 15-year illustrator.

Though it may not seem like it, Ben's colourful and graphic style starts with pencil and paper, often in cafés here and there, before landing in Illustrator for the vector process. A fascinating journey for his craft, just like the trips he so enjoys making around the world.

For this Member Spotlight, we are getting to know an incredible artist and lover of all things creative, part of the very restricted elite of people on this planet who can say they love their job.


How did you get into the industry?

I started off working in animation, firstly music videos and then all sorts of tv and web animation, but I only really loved working on how things looked, not so much the animation production process. So I started offering myself for illustration work and absolutely loved it.

I had some contacts from my work in animation, but I had to learn a lot about how to find my way in the illustration industry as it was completely new to me. I'm happy to say I've been illustrating for over 15 years now.


Where are you based now and who do you work for?

I'm based in Somerset, UK. Most of my clients are actually in the US, whom I work with through my illustration agents Mendola Artists. I do a lot of editorial work, publishing and some corporate projects. Recently I've enjoyed working for Fast Company, Macmillan and the Girl Scouts of America.

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

I would love to work outdoors. As a teenager I lived in a rural area and worked with the local forest rangers, I loved it. Learning about tree preservation, building benches on hilltops, it was really great.

I'm also a keen gardener. That would be an amazing job, although I would have a lot to learn!


Can you explain your creative process?

I pretty much always start with pencil drawing. I've tried drawing on tablets but it doesn't suit me, I think better on paper. Then I will scan my drawing and go into Adobe Illustrator. My work is very graphic so it suits Illustrator a lot, and I love getting everything nice and tidy. I find the vector process to be very therapeutic. It's relaxing to me, almost zen. My favourite parts of the process are the original pencil drawing and then working on colour palettes in the digital artwork. I love getting a fairly minimal colour scheme to really pop.


What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

I'm always inspired by the outside world, either nature and travel, or interiors and architecture. I absolutely love drawing in cafes, capturing moments of people passing through and also noting the interior design features. I think it's key to have a balance between client work and personal work. When I'm busy with work I have a real itch to run away and draw; at the same time, when work is quiet I will try and fill my time with plenty of personal work, putting it out there to catch the eyes of potential commissioners and collaborators.



What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

I think my biggest achievement is simply surviving. My career has seen quite a lot of ups and downs over the years, highs and lows, but thankfully in 2020 I'm still working. I never quite feel like I've 'made it' as I've never had a year where I've been super busy all year long. Sometimes I enjoy the thrill but at the same time I'll always have the worry about how to pay next month's bills!  I know I'm very lucky to do a job I love, I'm proud to be an illustrator.


How do you recharge away from the office?

I spend a lot of time with my wife and son. Luckily they like going out into nature or sitting in cafes as much as I do!  We love to travel when we can, but also probably the most enriching thing is to nurture our little garden, just to feel the earth and the plants.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives looking for work?

There are so many tips. You need to ensure your work is commercially viable, put together a solid portfolio and share it whenever and however you can, but also you need to concentrate on the business side, plan how to get your work in front of commissioners, manage your promotion, keep your accounts in order, connect with fellow creatives but also those with more experience, and those with less experience. There's a huge wealth of creative people in the world and we can all learn and support each other.


What’s your one big hope for the future of the creative industries?

We need more diversity to come through. We need less straight white men running the show, we need people from all backgrounds to find a path into the industry and then be able to build a sustainable career. We need to be open about prejudice at every level, in the colleges and universities, in small design studios and major creative agencies. We need to confront the agencies or studios that treat male and female employees differently and we need to know that commissioners are seeking out and commissioning talents from diverse cultures (and not just talking about it). We need more diverse voices telling more diverse stories and bringing more diverse ideas.  


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