Illustration, in addition to being visually pleasing and provocative, is also reflective of a certain time and place, and people. It can be smart, cutting, witty and above all, real. 2017 is the year of the twenty-something millennial – a generation dealing with the effects of social media overload, anxiety, depression, or simply the feeling of being vulnerable in their own skin. The secret to dealing with all of this is to see the humour in the hardships – one Irish illustrator who uses humour, honesty, and artistry to showcase how young women navigate our fast-paced and shallow world is Tara O’Brien. She illustrates how we feel, how we actually look, what we care about and how we manage each day as it comes. Her focus is the female form – she is passionate about female empowerment, body positivity, mental health and reproductive rights. Despite the heavy subject matter, her work possesses a joy and lust for life that is infectious. Below, she discusses her fleeting childhood dream of becoming a fashion designer, her recent collaborations with Dublin Canvas and the Repeal Project, and how the majority of her work comes from a deeply personal place.
How did you start illustrating? What did you draw as a child?
Tara O'Brien: I actually wanted to be a fashion designer when I was a child – I went around everywhere with a huge orange folder filled with hundreds of drawings of women in my “designs”. There is probably a connection there with my work now which focuses a lot on women and their bodies! This was always a part of a larger interest in art and all things visual. I ended up studying Visual Communication in college which introduced me to the idea of illustration as a career path.
What materials do you use? Can you describe your process and a typical work day?
Tara O'Brien: I draw everything by hand first using pencils and pens, and then scan at a very high resolution. When I bring my drawings into Photoshop, it’s important to me that I maintain as much of the character of the original drawing as possible, so I’m really only applying colour in Photoshop in most instances rather than redrawing everything as vector.
I try my best to stick to an eight-hour work day, which doesn’t always work out when you’re working from home and inspiration can hit you at odd hours. I start off with some warm-up sketches or try to get some ideas down for future drawings. This is good to loosen up a bit for the rest of the day but can often lead to me getting distracted by morning sketches and getting none of the work done that I’m supposed to be doing. My week is split between commission work and personal work, and then dotted throughout the week I’m packing up orders from my store and making trips to the post office to get everything sent out.
You represent a diverse range of real women in all shapes and sizes with flaws and personality and style. Do you feel the way women are represented in Irish society needs to change?
Tara O'Brien: I think there is definitely work that needs to be done in terms of representation. There has been a very strong focus on health in Ireland recently. It’s something that doesn’t need to, but in an overwhelming number of cases, comes at the expense of fat bodies. The lack of portrayal of all body types in a positive light can make women especially feel like their bodies and therefore themselves, are not as worthy or valid as those that are deemed to be acceptably healthy in the eye of society. This obviously needs to change, yet it could be said that the mainstream view on the issue is becoming more and more problematic. Representation is such an incredibly important part of overcoming society’s hang-ups on bodies.
How do you choose your subjects – which women are you drawn to in particular?
Tara O'Brien: I can’t deny that I am drawn particularly to women of size. Women that live their lives in marginalised bodies and allow themselves to be multifaceted beings with their own strengths and vulnerabilities are the characters that wind their way into my work most often.
Where do you find inspiration?
Tara O'Brien: Visually, there’s a really amazing landscape in the illustration community right now that is a constant source of inspiration. I also find myself looking to fine art frequently as a way to refresh the ways I look at the human form. Other than that, ordinary things that happen every day. Things that I do or that happen to me, that I think people can relate to.
Your sense of humour comes across in your work– do you have fun drawing? Would you say you use humour to draw attention to certain issues?
Tara O'Brien: Yes! I do have a lot of fun drawing and I’m glad that it can come across in my work. I tend to use humour throughout my life as a means of processing things that might be difficult to deal with.
Dublin Canvas is injecting colour and life into the streets of Dublin. How did your involvement come about? How did you decide what to draw to fit the surroundings of Donnybrook?
Tara O'Brien: I was prompted to apply to the Dublin Canvas project by a community organiser in the Donnybrook area who was familiar with my work. The brief was non-specific to the area but I was aware of the suggested placement by the organiser and wanted to do something that related to the surroundings but also related to Dublin as a whole. The box I painted is located on the Anglesea Bridge which crosses the Dodder, which eventually ends up at the sea. I have quite an obsession with the sea and feel that it’s a love that I share with a large amount of fellow Dubliners. A lot of people I know have fond nostalgic memories that involve the sea and I liked the idea of using the box to possibly trigger those memories and remind passers-by that it’s never too far away.
Can you tell me about the following prints: Anxiety Queen, Beach Body Ready and Repeal Project – do certain drawings come from a more personal place than others? Are these issues you feel strongly about?
Tara O'Brien: Each one of those prints deals with things that I am incredibly passionate about; mental health, female empowerment, body positivity, reproductive rights. I don’t really cater my work to an audience so most of the projects I work on outside of commissioned work generally come from a pretty personal place to start. I try to make everything somewhat universal but there are definitely times where a piece is more reflective of my own world than others.
I love the idea behind 'How We Get By' – it seems incredibly relevant right now and important that we address the day to day struggles associated with mental illness – how important is honesty when it comes to your work?
Tara O'Brien: I’d say honesty is one of the most important things that I would like for my work to be characterised by. The subject matter I deal with, such as mental health, is something I feel we need to be more blunt and open about. The goal for my work dealing with subject matters like this is to resonate with people and I don’t think that is possible in any sort of genuine way if what I am presenting is at all false. That said, this doesn’t keep me from delving deep into my imagination when dealing with less complex issues and creating a new world to escape in.
What personal and commercial projects are you excited to be working on in the new year?
Tara O'Brien: I’m working on a few different projects at the moment, collaborating with some great people on some projects that I am very excited about. And then as far as personal work, I’m finally getting around to working on a story for a children’s book that has been living in my head for some time. And I’ll be adding lots more products to my site too over the next few weeks.
Shop Tara's work here and follow her on Instagram @taraobrienillustration