Patrick Reid O'Brien knew at the age of 6 that he wanted to be an artist — art flows through his family tree — but everybody warned him he'd never be able to pay his bills with his art. And for a long time, everybody was right.
After graduating with an art degree from St. Mary's College, O'Brien designed insurance forms and then sold hoses and couplings for a while to support his family. He got close to making a living at his art when he was doing graphics for a marketing company.
"But nothing I was doing was at all fulfilling," said O'Brien in the studio of his Lutherville home.
A former lacrosse player for McDonogh and Gilman and St. Mary's, he spent much of his summers at lacrosse tournaments with his children.
To kill time, he started painting players as he watched.
For $75, he'd customize the painting with a player's number and team colors, and the lacrosse mothers couldn't buy them fast enough.
In his studio, there is a dynamic acrylic study of his stepdaughter, Mary Heneberry, who graduated from Loyola University Maryland this spring, goggles on, stick high. But the other lacrosse paintings he was doing were missing something. For him, anyway.
"It was just lacrosse art," O'Brien said.
He started to do some coastal studies while on family vacations. And then it hit him. Actually, it hit his wife, Valerie Heneberry, first.
"Where do you want to be?" he asks rhetorically. "Everybody gets two weeks a year to be with family. Everyone has their favorite place. Their lake or their beach or their river or the town they go to. The place where all the memories are."
So O'Brien began creating artwork of those places, adapting the style of the old Eastern Airlines travel posters. The first ones were of beaches, done with the encouragement of the owner of the Ocean Gallery. But then he created ones for Rehoboth, Cape May, and Bethany Beach, and he was off and running.
Each featured an iconic image of that place: the Rehoboth lifeguards in their signature red suits; the pier and gazebo at Silver Lake in Rehoboth; kites, boardwalk scenes, children on the beach. He labeled each piece with the town's name.
O'Brien developed a technique to weather his artwork and "crackle" the surface and produced affordable lithographs — they are 12 inches by 16 inches and sell for about $36 — that have a pop art feel to them and are several grades better than souvenir shop posters.
"These are towns that are key parts of people's lives," he says. "I wanted to capture the vignettes and memories of people's favorite places. After all, you only have so many great memories in life."
The posters are from a series called "Where you want to be." They emerge from the thousands of pictures O'Brien takes — and now receives from people who want him to capture their own town or favorite vacation spot. ("Do you do dogs?" a woman asked. So now he does dogs, too.)
But instead of the time-consuming process of doing each with acrylic paint, he uses a pressure-sensitive glass tablet and a digital stylus that does everything from airbrush to fine detail. And he can choose his colors with a simple tap on a color wheel open in a window on his PC. As he "paints," the image appears on the computer screen in front of him.
"Once you let go of the feel of the brush on canvas and once you get used to looking up at the screen while your hand works the stylus, it is twice as fast," said O'Brien, "because you aren't cleaning brushes all the time.
"It is painting in a digital environment," he said. "But this is art recorded by the computer, not made by the computer."
O'Brien has an archive of about 1,400 posters from places such as the Mediterranean, Anguilla, Mexico, Long Island, the Atlantic seashore and Chesapeake Bay. And he ships about 10,000 posters a year.
His work has been noticed by the White House, and he is creating a series of posters to be sold in its gift shop to benefit the White House Historical Society. Coincidentally, O'Brien is a descendant of Thomas Ustick Walter, architect of the U.S. Capitol.
"They wanted the look I have created," he said. "Old. Weathered. More like Americana."
He also has a series of posters that celebrate the military, for which he has a deep regard.
"They do the real jobs," he said. "What I do is fluff."
When it comes to achieving the weathered-wood look of his pieces, O'Brien doesn't give details, but he calls it his "voice."
"It has become my signature style," he says. "An artist works a whole life to find that voice."
O'Brien has created a small empire that consumes his time, not only painting, but traveling to shows and filling orders. Valerie quit her job to help him, and she also looks for ways they can "give back," by creating artwork for charitable causes. The kids help sleeve the prints for shipping.
He says his wife helped him see what mattered, both in life and in his art.
"A lot of the success has to do with what these images evoke. It is a celebration of people's lives and their kids' lives," he said. "If it was up to me, I'd probably be making pictures of cars. But she helps me see the things that are important in life, and that's what I make my art.
"And I get to pay my bills doing it."
Patrick Reid O'Brien
Education: McDonogh School, St. Mary's College
Personal: Married to Valerie Heneberry. They have four children, including some local lacrosse standouts. Two daughters, Mary Heneberry, who starred at Dulaney High School and Loyola University, and Ana Heneberry, who was named All-America at Loyola this year. Son Jon Heneberry is a junior varsity captain at Calvert Hall. Daughter Erin O'Brien broke from the pack and plays field hockey for Dulaney.
Career: O'Brien worked in marketing before starting his own business in 2005. He has created art and posters for a range of clients that includes Jimmy Buffett and the White House Historical Society. He was the 2011 winner of the Hampton Classic poster competition, three-time winner of the Maryland Governor's Cup race poster competition and 2008 Artist of the Year for Ocean Gallery in http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/.