Tara O’Brien is reflecting modern Irish femininity

By Emily Carson

You might have noticed Dublin-based illustrator Tara O’Brien‘s work pop up in places like the Repeal Project’s print store, with a piece depicting a diverse group of women wearing the now omnipresent black garb.


O’Brien’s work frequently concentrates on the female form and her characters are multi-ethnic, manifold in shape and size and multifaceted in their personalities and experiences. Not one to shy away from personal and political spheres, O’Brien’s work has covered Black Lives Matter and the March for Choice, addressing the status quo of artistic beauty standards and the concept of self-care. Her muted palettes and strong shapes feature lots of rich texture that gives the effect of her drawings a soft and almost tactile feel.

We wanted to find out what led Tara to focusing so closely on the female form in her work and how she navigates the world of freelancing and illustration:

Your work has a lot of diverse representation, as an Irish artist do you notice that a lot of Irish depictions of characters tend to be lacking in diversity?

‘I’ve certainly fallen into this trap myself and I think in Ireland where we have such a dominantly white population, it can be quite easy to forget to question if we are being inclusive enough.’

I think in regard to illustration, over the past five years or so there has been a prevalence of simplified, flat, vector based style that inherently has a more limited colour palette. This, in its early stages, may have led to a lack of racially diverse representation. That is not to say that this was ever an exclusionary choice made by anyone but more so a priority of style and aesthetic over everything else, which is a symptom of a new style being developed and refined. I’ve certainly fallen into this trap myself and I think in Ireland where we have such a dominantly white population, it can be quite easy to forget to question if we are being inclusive enough.

However, it would seem to me, that more recently, a conscious effort has been made by a lot of illustrators to ensure their work is more racially diverse. There is definitely still progress to be made in relation to body diversity which again, is limited by how people define their own style. I’d suggest this is perhaps a reflection of how the way we view bodies isn’t a high priority on the list of things to tackle in wider society.

Tara O'Brien

Tara O’Brien

Your work also tackles body image and frequently represents different body sizes and shapes. Did you get into illustration looking to combat work that lacked  a broader definition of beauty?

I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember and always wanted to be working within art in some shape or form. I ended up studying Visual Communication in DIT without really knowing what the outcome was going to be for me. My interest in graphic design grew significantly but I still struggled to picture myself doing anything other than drawing all the time and I was determined to figure out how to make that happen. My discovery of illustration being a viable career path and finding the world of body positivity pretty much ran in parallel. Around six or seven years ago I stumbled upon the latter online by chance and had my outlook on life altered quite dramatically.

‘It was fascinating and liberating to see people openly discussing different types of bodies, fat bodies, bodies like mine.’

It was fascinating and liberating to see people openly discussing different types of bodies, fat bodies, bodies like mine. I think up until that point, I had grown to expect all forms of media to exclude people that looked like me from positive representation but I definitely started allowing myself to question that more. I was becoming acquainted with a lot of people that were from a more academic background making great work and I wanted to find a way to contribute. This was really the first time I began making art that I felt had some form of purpose.

The community that I found myself a part of was so different to what I was seeing in all other media at the time. Not only were the people represented much more diverse, but the way in which they were represented also varied. The definition of what beautiful meant was wider and empowering people was a huge focus, but so was allowing those people to be represented in the same spectrum of ways that people that fit into standard definitions of beauty are. It allowed for people of all shapes and sizes to be depicted as beautiful but also neutral, vulnerable, strong and even ugly at times but never in a demeaning way and that is where the difference lay. Seeing people draw fat bodies and affording those characters the same level of depth as any other type of body was something that really highlighted how much that was really lacking in the illustration community that I was trying to navigate. Again, things do seem to be improving as this wave of feminism is starting to seep more and more into popular culture but there is definitely further to go.

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From Tara’s book ‘How We Get By’

‘How We Get By’ is filled with everyday approaches to self-care, do you participate in self-care yourself and what was jumping off point for the book? You mentioned that the quotes are from real people, can you elaborate on your research process for this and whether you drew from your own circle of friends or from further afield?

I do participate in self-care and make a point to fit it into my schedule. I think we all need to take better care of ourselves and self-care can really mean anything that helps us cope with the stresses of life a bit better. The original concept for the book was to make something that talked about mental health in a neutral, matter of fact way.

‘It was sort of a reaction to the way that the majority of the dialogue surrounding mental health talks about it on a very large scale. It’s spoken about in a way that largely ignores that most of us deal with it on a day to day basis.’

It also ignores the fact that there isn’t a catch all solution that works for everyone. For a lot of us, the way it is spoken about can feel alienating. Taking up running isn’t going to be the magical trick to everyone’s recovery. For ‘How We Get By’, I wanted to take seemingly normal, mundane things that people do as self-care, whether they are easy but comforting or challenging but rewarding, however healthy or detrimental they may be, and represent them in a way that was relatable and universal. The research process was incredibly simple and consisted of me just asking the question on social media. The comments and private messages I got in response formed the content and that was pretty much it. I made a selection of some that I thought would be nice to draw, but had some variety, and for the most part the quotes in the book appear how they were sent to me with some very minor adjustments made to allow it to flow naturally. It’s a really simple concept for a project but one that was extremely rewarding to do.

You work as a full-time illustrator, do you have the opportunity to work and collaborate with others or are you largely working on your own? If so, how do you find that and is it ever challenging?

Most of the time, I am working by myself, which I am perfectly OK with and it’s inherent to the nature of the majority of work I do. Occasionally I get to be involved in projects of a more collaborative nature which can be a welcome break from my usual solitude. I have had positive and rewarding experiences with this but have certainly had some projects that have been very challenging too. A lot of what I do is me working directly with a singular person as the client. The work is turned around pretty fast and its success is determined by both of us being satisfied with the outcome. Commercial or editorial illustration work pretty much always involves more people, is more iterative, has more to communicate and needs to appeal to more people. This can lead to additional challenges as there are more moving parts but it’s a challenge that I welcome and I’m looking forward to taking on more work of this nature.

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Some of Tara’s commissioned portraits

Some of your earlier work features more detailed, line-based work.  I wondered if you could take me through your process a little bit and how it has developed since you started illustrating?

My process has, in essence, remained pretty similar to when I started out. Looking back at older work, I think the most apparent thing people would notice is a shift in style. I’d more so consider this an effort to broaden the range of styles that I can work within. I still occasionally find myself going back to the heavily detailed line work that most of my older work made use of. Detail has long been something I love and my early work is a lot more overt in showcasing this while I use a lot more restraint lately. I’ve always appreciated when an illustrator has a very distinct personal style but for myself, I don’t want to be limited in what I allow myself to do. I draw everything by hand using pencils and pens and then scan at a very high resolution. Maintaining as much of the character of something drawn by hand is really important to me so I apply colour in Photoshop in most instances rather than redrawing everything as vector. This allows me to work relatively quickly and because of that I can afford to spend more time on the drawing itself. For some projects, it’s more appropriate to have everything in vector for ease of manipulation and scalability which just means I’m bringing my scans into Illustrator instead of Photoshop and tracing them there. Earlier in my career, I made a point of doing everything by hand when I could, and the shift away from that towards making more use of the computer has been the biggest development. I constantly try to find new ways of doing things to keep things fresh and explore new techniques. I’ve been experimenting with inks again lately and am excited to see where that can fit into projects in the future.

What normally acts as a jumping off point for your illustrations? You draw women a lot, do you have someone in mind or are they purely fictional entities from your mind?

Women have been a major focal point of my work for a long time. I guess that goes back to my interest in creating more diverse representation for women, which comes from me not having that for myself growing up. I find women to be more inspiring than pretty much anything else and have the most fun drawing the human form.

I have a network of women surrounding me that constantly amaze and inspire me with their courage, strength, vulnerability, empathy and general outpouring of beauty in all forms that fill me with so much pride to be a woman.

My pool of reference material is endless in that regard and I find myself drawing inspiration from real people I know incredibly often. Other times there are figures in popular culture that might be of relevance in some way at the time or maybe are just important to me personally. Aside from that, a very common occurrence is for me to start with an experience or feeling that I think might be interesting to draw, and then I build a character around that. I think to a lot of people, this type of work may seem simple and not full of depth, especially when combined with a style like mine that has a kind of naive crudeness to it, but what is important to me is that what I do resonates in some way with the people it is representing and makes them feel that their experience as women is shared. I make most of my living drawing portraits of women and it’s not something that’s gotten old for me yet.

Is there anyone in the illustration community that you look up to or are inspired by? What do you make of the Irish community versus the international one?

My favourite illustrator of the past few years is Lieke van der Vorst. Her work is a constant inspiration to me and I find myself finding new things to fall in love with in her work all the time. Jon Klassen, Barbara Dziadosz and Sally Nixon are other current favourites. I think we have a really strong illustration community here in Ireland. There are a lot of people making really great and varied work. There seems to be a general sense of support and encouragement and I would say it benefits from its small scale. I think we are certainly managing to hold our own amongst the international landscape.

Tara's city landmark prints

Tara’s city landmark prints

What does your working day look like? How much time do you spend on commissions etc?

I work from home at the moment which I’m enjoying, mostly because it means I get to hang out with my dog all day. He spends most of the time at my desk cuddled up underneath it warming my feet. I try to stick to an eight hour day when I can. Most of the time that doesn’t go so well but that is to be expected in this line of work. I usually try to clear a batch of commissions between Monday and Wednesday so I can move onto personal work later in the week. I tend to start my day with some warm up sketches which I occasionally get too distracted by. I’m usually doing at least one portrait per day when I’m focusing on commissions, which i’ll try to start and finish in one go when I can as it helps me feed my addiction of ticking things off my task list. Commercial work with more back and forth is typically sprinkled throughout those days too. I attempt to dedicate Thursday and Friday to longer term personal work where I’ll work on ideas for picture books or prints. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position where I’ve been able to mostly make a living from drawing portraits for people which is my favourite thing to do. I get to draw cool women and work directly with the people themselves. It’s a highly rewarding process. I am aware that the sustainability of that is dependant on an ever growing audience so I try to make sure I’m still progressing and developing different ideas at all times. Dotted throughout my work week is packing up orders from my store and making trips to the post office to get everything sent out.

Is there anything that you’re working on in the future that we should look out for?

I’m working on a few different projects at the moment that I hope will see the light of day in the next year. It’s a challenge for me to have to adapt to much longer timelines as I struggle to keep things under wraps. I am collaborating on a some projects with some great people that I am very excited about. I’m also finally getting around to working on a children’s book that has been a concept living in my head for a few years now and I think there will be some progress made on that in the coming months. I have a piece in the upcoming Damn Fine Print exhibition, ‘The Big Screen Print’ which launches on December 1st. In the new year, I’ll be expanding the range of products on my website and some of those may be appearing in some brick and mortar shops around Ireland and elsewhere too.