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March 22, 2010

Heads Up! Blockhead

                                         The book cover
One of my favorite perks as a Book Illustrator is meeting other Illustrators whose work
I admire. It can be comforting, reassuring and often entertaining to share what I call "war stories", our experiences as artists. Here's John O'Brien, the illustrator of a wonderful new book by Joseph D’Agnese, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci (Holt), about the life of the Italian mathematician who popularized the famous number pattern known as the Fibonacci Sequence, found in art and natureBlockhead is out this week. You can find out more about the book and the weeklong blog at tour at
            John O'Brien, Illustrator of Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci
CC:  John, you and I are both alumni of the same art school. Did you major in Illustration?

JO'B: Absolutely! We probably had the same teachers in school. It 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.

CC: I knew them both very well. How did you become an artist? Did you like to draw and paint as a child?

JO'B: 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.
                 Leonardo at the court of Emperor Frederick II
CC: How is the transition from New Yorker cartoons and covers to illustrating children's books?

JO'B: 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.
                                             Young Leonardo sails to Algeria

CC: Please tell us about your books. They cover so many different topics, dinosaurs, musicians, and lifeguards. Are these all interests of yours?

JO'B: 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.
                            He writes the Liber Abaci --- "The Calculation Book"
CC: Can you tell us how you work from sketches to finished ink work? Do you draw and paint by hand or on a computer?

JO'B: 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.
                                                         Fibonacci with pinecone
CC: Did you enjoy working on the Fibonacci book?

JO'B: 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?
               Leonardo travels the mediterranean in search of math

CC: 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? 

JO'B: 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.
 East meets west: Leonardo learns about Hindu-Arabic numerals
CC:  You are a man of many talents. When do you have the time to do your artwork?

JO'B: 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 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.

Thanks, Carolyn, I think your work is great.

CC: Thank you John and wishing you and author, Joe D'Agnese great success with BLOCKHEAD: The life of Fibonacci. 

                                                       Alfredo and young Leonardo
(click on images to enlarge)


  1. Great interview,thanks. Yes I pick up my paintbrush when I should be working, and go running when I should be painting...nice to know that others procrastinate...and yet produce such beautiful work!

  2. Thanks for the interview with John O'Brien. I've always loved his work in the New Yorker. This is a beauty of a book. And it's a treat to see his personality in the telling of the story—like seeing right into his mind.