Patrick Reid O'Brien

Patrick Reid O'Brien, a nationally known artist who lives in Lutherville, looks through some of his work his home-based studio. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / June 24, 2011)

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.