An interview with the artist – Winnie O’Brien

21st May 2017

Maxine Lennon met with award-winning artist, Winnie O’Brien to discuss her creative process, her relationship with Essential Audiobooks, and of course, her loyal and loving assistant; Paddie the dog.

The illustrator behind Essential Audiobooks’ distinctive covers, Winnie brings her unique style and innovative techniques, honed over the years (“To be honest, I’ve hardly stopped drawing since I could hold a pencil!”) to create the beautiful designs that have helped make the company what it is today.

During her remarkable career, Winnie has received a number of awards including a Broadcast Designers Association Silver Award and an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Design and Animation, so we are honoured to have her as a member of the Essential Audiobooks team.

Winnie O’Brien

Winnie has been involved with Essential Audiobooks since its early days. As an experienced animator, illustrator, and typographer, having worked with the BBC before branching out on her own, Winnie’s expertise extends well beyond the cover art, designing the company logo, the layout for the website, and producing the animations.

So how did this partnership come into being?

“I first heard from Catherine [O’Brien] when she was narrating an audiobook for an author whose books I have illustrated. She liked my work and contacted me. That was about 30 books and many projects ago!”

“It’s very funny that as we both have the O’Brien surname people tend to assume we must be sisters. We’re asked about this constantly. Stranger still is that we have the same middle name too! Not saying what it is though…”

“Catherine has a gift for discovering voices and skills that really work for each project.” says Winnie, when asked why she loves working for Essential Audiobooks, “She has put together a wonderful team of talented contributors from narrators to music composers and lots of other brilliant people that behind the scenes help get each project to the marketplace.”

“I don’t have a formula, I react to each book.”

And when each product is put online, one of the first things you’ll notice is the cover art. Each audiobook is accompanied by a distinctive, exquisitely designed cover. The love and attention to detail that goes into each design is clear.

For Winnie, research is key: “My process in designing a book cover is initially to find a quiet space with my dog Paddie, to read and make notes. That is a very special and focused time. I write little post it notes to mark ideas I have come across and stick them into the book. I use my own shorthand, putting arrows to the words that have resonated in some way with me. These are the building blocks of what will then become the cover.”

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

Each piece of artwork is as unique as the tale it illustrates. “I don’t have a formula, I react to each book. Some books are complicated, and some take a fair bit of research, especially the period pieces.”

“I’ve gathered a bank of reference materials over the years including lots of photographs and sketches I’ve made. It’s very interesting and I find out all sorts of things that I didn’t know, or never would know, had I not read a particular book.”

“As I read the book I’m constantly looking for visual information, that is, I’m looking for words that might translate into interesting images. In doing that, I’m not trying to tell the story – I’m looking to hint at it without giving anything away – to draw someone in. It’s the same with animation, film and television, for example, the equivalent with TV would be in producing the opening titles sequence –  you want to capture the attention of the viewer. In the case of a book you want to get them to be curious about it, open it or pick it off the shelf or website.”

Next, Winnie sets about making the gathered ideas work as a design. “I use whatever media is going to work best for that title, eventually making a piece of artwork. I always collect a lot more visual information than I need.”

“For example, The Invisible Man. I made a big note on page one, the first paragraph; I thought it contained a fabulous image. When I’d finished reading the book, which had lots of interesting imagery in it, I went back and chose to illustrate the first paragraph of the book, it still resonated to me as the strongest image. I had a similar situation with White Fang.”

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man

“Every piece of artwork I produce has a story attached to it. When I was designing The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, I wanted a paw print of the hound. So, on a very wet day in a local park, I got Paddie to run through a pile of mud. He raced towards me running through puddles and mud and then I slapped his paw down on a piece of paper. We did this about six times until I got a good print. As he loves being involved in everything, he was delighted; however, I’m sure the people in the park thought I’d gone nuts! There were a lot of other images produced for the final cover – all with little stories attached to them.”

Using a combination of hand-drawn illustrations, typography, and layering on the computer, she creates the final piece.

White Fang cover

White Fang

So what does the future hold for Winnie? “I’d really like to always stay hugely inspired by the works of others and always keep a fresh approach to my own work.” she says, “I have an idea for a cover I’m currently working on which I’m excited about – a bit different. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to do the work I love to do.”

You can view more of Winnie’s work for Essential Audiobooks on our website as well as our Facebook page and Instagram. We can’t wait to see her next beautiful creations.

Written by Bryony Robertson

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