Creative collection Meet Gemma O’Brien, a Sydney-based designer who knows how to paint a picture with words
SYDNEY-BASED DESIGNER GEMMA O’BRIEN KNOWS HOW TO PAINT A PICTURE WITH WORDS
AT A GLANCE
Who: Gemma O’Brien What she does: Illustrative typography and calligraphy. Where she’s based: A studio in the attic of her inner-Sydney home. Why she does it: “Making a living from being creative forces you to constantly look at the world around you and reinterpret it in a different way – and then express it visually.” Visit: gemmaobrien.com.
“I LOVE THE IDEA OF CREATING SOMETHING THAT IS REALLY BOLD BUT ALSO HAS AN EXPRESSIVE QUALITY” ~ Gemma O’Brien, artist
NO TWO DAYS are ever the same for artist, designer and calligrapher Gemma O’Brien, who works out of the attic of her inner-Sydney home, which is a source of constant inspiration. “My studio is filled with lots of natural light during the day and you can often see fireworks at Darling Harbour on weekend nights,” she says.
Gemma’s first spark of interest in lettering and typography came back when she was a student at UNSW’s then College of Fine Arts, where she became an apprentice typesetter at a letterpress on campus. “Then I started my blog and posted my own experiments and explorations, and that’s when I realised I actually loved drawing,” she says. “Over the course of my degree, my approach to letters became more illustrative and artistic.”
Today, she balances commercial commissions for big-name clients such as Adobe and Google with her personal artwork, but if it wasn’t for a daring change in direction, Gemma’s beautiful work and successful career may never have been.
“I actually started out studying law,” explains the talented artist, who decided to change her course over to art a year and a half into her studies. “I feel very lucky to be in a creative job now, and I probably appreciate it even more, because I almost went down the legal path.”
It’s the uniquely human element of the craft that initially drew Gemma in. “When I first got into typography, I started to notice it in the environment around me and how much it’s taken for granted,” she says. “If you see fonts, you just assume they were made by a computer – there is a misunderstanding about how much craftsmanship goes into creating these letters.”
After working for a handful of large design firms post-graduation, Gemma stepped out on her own almost six years ago and attributes her growth as an artist to social media. “It’s not something I knew would have such an impact, but Instagram, in particular, became a place where I could experiment with different ideas and techniques, throw them out there and get a response from a community,” she says.
From large-scale, hand-painted murals to shoe design collaborations (with US label Rollie Nation), Gemma’s work boasts a distinctive style, most often inspired by words or phrases she’s collected over time. “Bold and beautiful is what comes to mind if I had to describe it,” she says. “As an artist, whatever you create always has your own mark on it.” As for what’s next, the sky is literally the limit. “I would love to paint a giant rocket for NASA or Elon Musk that goes into space, but that’s more of a pipe dream,” she laughs. For now, she’s quite content with where she is. “Each time I do a wall that’s a little bit bigger or a mural that’s a little more intricate, there is an internal sense of satisfaction,” she says. “There is always a new goal to reach.”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Once crisp white, Gemma’s shoes are now a colourful reflection of her work; the artist is perfectly at home at the main drawing desk in her studio; the creative’s trusty tools; calligraphy for a title card shown in the SBS documentary K’gari adorns a studio wall behind hanging plants. OPPOSITE PAGE: Gemma puts brush to paper to create a watercolour cockatoo illustration for a client.
TOP LEFT & RIGHT: “I finally found the brands and tools I like to work with the most,” says Gemma, who has spent years fine-tuning her collection; The ‘Good Vibes’ piece is part of a print series based on a mural she created for Officeworks. BOTTOM LEFT: Gemma working on a commissioned watercolour illustration.