Gemma

O'Brien

My name is Gemma O’Brien.

I create lettering and illustrations and I paint murals around the world. I’m most known for my hand-painted typographic murals and illustrative lettering.

My work is all about elevating type to art and combining lettering and illustration in beautiful ways. What interests me most about working with the written word is that it is versatile and can be explored in all sorts of styles and mediums.

I studied at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. This is still one of my favourite stages of my career—I felt free to experiment! I fell in love with typography in the letterpress studio. I originally studied law but later came to my senses and switched to design. I guess I am an artist because law school didn’t work out!

The three things currently inspiring me the most are colour, pattern and new cities. If I’m not doing client work, you can probably find me exploring, running or trying new tropical fruit. When I’m not in my studio in Sydney (I love being near the beach), I’m likely working on a plane, in a hotel room or in another makeshift space around the world. Here are some of my transient offices from the past year.

Illustrations are life—when I got my first iPhone I started saving everyone as an emoji rather than their name. Seven years later I’m still going strong. For example, Jeremy Wortsman is saved as the snowman emoji (’cause Jacky Winter, duh), Frankie Ratford from The Design Kids is the sunshine emoji, and my boyfriend is the rabbit (cute, big teeth).

The key to creating good work is making time to experiment.

It’s really important to dedicate time to personal work because it’s a chance to experiment freely and explore styles and materials beyond what you might see in my folio. Lately in my personal work I’ve been using phrases that are a little more conceptual and meaningful to me. They’ve been waiting in my sketchbook to be turned into art for a while!

Here are some pages from my sketchbook. Last year I printed out all of my saved images from Instagram to see if there were connections between the disparate visual things I was drawn to.

Most of my work starts with pencil sketches or calligraphy. This could be analogue or digital depending on if I’m in my home studio or working on the go. Then I colour—sometimes by hand, but mostly digitally. If the final art is to be painted on a wall I will then use the coloured digital sketch as the guide for the large-scale piece.

I’m really excited to experiment more with pushing the boundaries of legibility. I believe that’s one area that can blur the line between commercial lettering and art. Recently I’ve been playing around to see how fast I can paint my signature brush script on a large scale. This piece, Pure Feeling, took about an hour.

The best thing about working on working on commercial projects is that having constraints often frees you up to be more creative. I also love working with art directors and creative directors, it’s more collaborative than being a lone wolf in the studio.

Here’s a recent piece of lettering I created for Google. I loved checking ‘Google Doodle project’ off my bucket list,; better yet it was for International Women’s Day so I got to share the stage with a host of other super-talented female letterers.

Not long ago I painted a permanent mural for the Tiffany & Co. flagship store in Sydney. It was inspired by both archival and contemporary pieces in Tiffany’s range along with native Australian flora. It took a few weeks to create the illustrated lettering and a fortnight to install on site. You can view this piece IRL should you find yourself on Pitt Street in Sydney.

One of my favourite projects recently was creating illustrations for Annaka Harris’ book Conscious. It’s all about consciousness: how it comes to be, and the questions it raises regarding our experience in the world. I love projects that have a thought-provoking starting point and ideas I can sink my teeth into before starting illustrations. The final elements of this piece were a combination of neurons, plant and animal life, and a mystical starry expanse ...

One of my all-time favourite projects was created for 72andSunny. It was a cheeky and optimistic mural, inspired by their office locations around the world and hand-painted in their Sydney space.

Here’s another piece I’m really proud of. It was a wall-hanging tapestry created for the Urban Outfitters homewares range.

I love to see my name on stuff! Here’s a collaboration I did with Glasshouse Candles that looks and smells good.

One of my favourite collaborations was with Lizzo and Itsaliving. We created a live mural for Dropbox and Superfly at the Outside Lands, based on the ‘Good as Hell’ song lyrics. I’ve been a Lizzo superfan ever since.

I was lucky enough to create work for the first Rare global event in Sydney. Rare is a community that aims to celebrate difference and diversity in the creative industries. I created this One of a Kind mural for their masterclass and two-day workshop in Sydney.

Professional recognition was a game-changer in getting my work seen across the world. Some awards lining my trophy room include ADC Young Guns, PRINT magazine New Visual Artist and a handful of Type Directors Club awards. I also won the grand finale on a kids' game show called Download when I was ten. The prize was a trip to the Gold Coast and a Billabong pack.

If you want to find out even more about me, here are some recent articles about my practice: Huffington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, PRINT magazine, Daily Pilot, ADC Global, The Great Discontent, Campaign Brief, The Canberra Times, Collective Hub, Monster Children, New American Paintings, Desktop, Junkee, No Cure, Almost Real, Semi-Permanent, Frankie, and Vogue.

In recent years I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited to speak at some amazing events and conferences, such as: Forward Festival, Latin American Design Festival, Adobe MAX, OFFF Barcelona, Typo San Francisco and Berlin, Brief Festival, ING Creative, Smashing Conference, Design Thinkers, Semi-Permanent, Graphika Manila, Adobe Symposium, Promax ANZ and Beyond Tellerrand.

That’s me! If you want more, check out my full folio and Instagram. Got a brief? Contact me and the good folks at Jacky Winter.

With Jacky Winter you work directly with the artist alongside a hands-on producer—it’s a power-up for your artwork commission.

With Jacky Winter you work directly with the artist alongside a hands-on producer—it’s a power-up for your artwork commission.

With Jacky Winter you work directly with the artist alongside a hands-on producer—it’s a power-up for your artwork commission.