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Pretty Pictures: A chat with Filip Peraić, creator of 'James Harden Illustrated'

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A very different look at James Harden. (Images via Filip Peraić)

Pretty Pictures occasionally spotlights cool pieces of art created by basketball fans for basketball fans that'd look great in your living room. Seen something worth sharing? Let us know.

Over the years, people have seen all sorts of things when they've looked at James Harden's beard — promotional items, desserts, decorating inspirations for structures and skin and skulls, and so on. But when Filip Peraić looks at the Houston Rockets guard's facial hair, he sees ... well, everything.

Peraić, a 25-year-old illustrator and designer from Zadar, Croatia, has done design and illustration work for companies like IBM, Mercedes Benz and Fly Emirates, as well as media entities like ESPN and Wired magazine. But like many of us, he found himself looking for something to do off the clock that would both challenge and excite him.

"After graduating from School of Design in Zagreb last year, I decided to devote my spare time between commissioned work to producing passion work," Peraić told Ball Don't Lie via email. "Something that relaxed me while developing my skills."

That something wound up being James Harden Illustrated, an experiment in finding artistic freedom through self-imposed restriction. Peraić set three hard-and-fast rules for himself — use a white background, use the format of Harden's side profile, and be creative — and got to work making his own unique brand of art. The results have been remarkable, making Peraić something of a viral hit on the basketball Internet and earning praise from several art and design sites. "What sunflowers were to Van Gogh, Harden's leonine profile is to Peraić," wrote John Brownlee of Fast Company.

Peraić spoke with BDL via email this week about the project's beginnings, where he sees it going, Croatian basketball fandom, design as problem-solving and more; what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our email chat. For more on Peraić and his project, check out James Harden Illustrated's website and Facebook page, and keep tabs on his forthcoming work via Twitter.

When did you first think up James Harden Illustrated, and when did you start working on it?

In the summer of 2013, I created the first profile with no intention of making it a series. It was just an experiment where I tried to draw a human head (a bearded one, indeed) in a way I never had before. Since I love repetition — I created at least couple of hundred self portraits — I wanted to do another one, but to do it differently. I liked the idea of creating a project out of it. As a designer, and not a typical illustrator, I want to avoid the enslavement of an expression to one style, so I created my own place, named it, bought a domain and started playing.

James Harden Illustrated is a training ground for creativity and developing skills where I can do whatever I want, respecting the manifesto I created that includes three simple rules: use space inside of James Harden’s profile form, [use a] white background and [find an] innovative, creative solution. I will continue to create Harden’s illustrations; I enjoy challenging myself to create another one.

The funny thing is, this started as a small personal project I do for my own pleasure and ended up grabbing immense attention, being featured in some of the most relevant media on the planet. ESPN shared it with more than 20 million people on social media, features in Sports Illustrated, USA Today, Fast Company and many more, which is a nice motivation. Eventually, I hope to create a brand out of it, develop some collaborations, do exhibitions, maybe [put together] a book that sums up this project one day. We’ll see.

When did you first become a basketball fan? What sparked your interest in the game? Were you drawn to it by Croatian stars like Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc, or did something/someone else draw you in?

Dražen is a god-like figure in Croatia; I idolized him while growing up. But the strongest influence on me was the city I grew up in. Zadar is the so-called “city of basketball.” We have our own Hall of Fame player in Krešimir Ćosić. (EDITOR'S NOTE: While Ćosić never played in the NBA, he starred at BYU in the early 1970s, becoming the first foreign-born player ever to earn All-American honors, and had a distinguished pro career overseas that featured two EuroBasket MVP awards and three Olympic medals, including gold at the 1980 games, as part of the Yugoslavian national team.) Folks over here are nuts about basketball — each rotation is discussed for days after the game. So I grew up around basketball, watching and playing it since I was a tiny dude, like 7 years old. To this day, I have never stopped.

You say that you've embarked on this project to "sharpen [your] creativity," aiming to stretch yourself to create interesting and varied designs within the defined context of Harden's "unique, awesome bearded profile." But there are a lot of NBA players — and athletes in other sports, and just people in general — with beards, Mohawks and other fun stuff to draw. What about Harden specifically inspired you?

I’ve always liked creating profiles, I remember as a kid I liked the "Kobe with a ‘fro" profile logo on the heels of the old Adidas Kobe Twos. Harden has just a different charisma than other guys, which is probably emphasized because of the fact that he’s such a hell of a player. Considering the profile angle, Harden is a perfect choice. So it’s actually a bit of coincidence that it ended up being a project; as I mentioned, it all started with a single drawing, but then I challenged myself if I could do that motif again, differently. Creativity is best noticed when there are constraints.

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Hardenia. (Image via Filip Peraić)

Several of the pieces tie Harden to nature — his profile becomes an ocean inhabited by a whale, a lush green wilderness, and even an island land mass unto himself dotted by mountains, forests and lakes. Is there something particular about Harden — his appearance, his game, whatever — that makes you start thinking about the natural world?

That speaks more about the author than the subject. Harden’s profile form is a sort of a frame, a medium which I set and decided to express myself through it. I’m trying to create unexpected connections and that’s why people find this project interesting. Obvious is what I want to avoid. They don’t expect to find an illustration of a whale in the beard of a basketball player, or a bizarre medical anatomy drawing of an NBA star.

Some profiles are a stylistic and aesthetic experiment. Others [are more about] concepts or metaphors. I look at his profile from a designer’s standpoint. I see his profile form as a problem to solve, rather than from the fan’s perspective.

I can understand focusing on Harden mostly because he looks cool, but are you also a Rockets fan? Houston's been fantastic since the start of 2014, but the West is brutal. What do you think their chances are in this coming postseason?

They’ve been playing good, especially the bearded one lately, but I’m not sure how they could reach the conference finals. The Spurs and Thunder are better teams, and it’s gonna take some really inspired nights to take out the Clippers or Blazers. If Patrick Beverley comes back [from his meniscus tear] on time, they could surprise some teams — he’s a lunatic, such an important piece to that puzzle. I’m not sure if you can depend on [Jeremy] Lin alone to go after [Chris] Paul, [Damian] Lillard, [Russell] Westbrook and [Stephen] Curry come playoff time.

Your work has been featured on a number of different sports and design sites. Has anyone from the Rockets reached out to you? "James Harden Illustrated Night" seems like it would be a pretty cool home-game promotional idea that could also make this side project pretty lucrative for you.

Nobody has reached out. The project has been one of the most popular topics on nba.com for days, so you couldn’t really miss it, but no feedback for now. Collaborating with an NBA franchise sounds incredible — there are tons of exciting ways they could use this project. We’ll see. Stay tuned and you’ll know if it happens. I’m sure it will open some doors.

Speaking of "pretty lucrative," you've been selling prints of the Harden illustrations. How many have you sold so far? You offer free worldwide shipping — have you had a lot of orders from one particular (non-Houston) place? Put another way: Where's the real-life "Hardenia?"

I’ve shipped out more than 50 prints, I think, mostly to Texas. But I noticed a repeating pattern — Hardenia is around San Francisco and in Australia. People ask me all the time to sell T-shirts, so I may have to print them, too.

Which of the illustrations you've produced thus far is your personal favorite? Why?

That’s a tough one. They’re my kids. It’s probably portrait number nine, the swarm of pointillistic dots. It’s abstract, minimal and modern, and the form is not obvious. I like the bizarreness of the medical drawing, too. That’s my goal — portray Harden in a way that neither you nor I expected. Sometimes I start creating with no clear vision what will it become. It’s all about experimenting, from the start of James Harden Illustrated.

A hypothetical: An immensely wealthy basketball fan sees your work, loves it and decides he/she must commission a similar line of NBA-inspired illustrations. You can name your price, you can have as much time as you want to create them, you can use whatever programs/tools you'd like, etc. — the world is your oyster. There is only one rule: The subject CANNOT be James Harden. What other player, past or present, would you choose? Why?

Wow, you gave me something to think about. I wouldn’t choose a superstar — someone a bit less known with an interesting persona, combined with unique looks. Charles Oakley comes to my mind. Oak is like an icon, one of a kind. Whether with the high-top fade or his dreads period, that would be nice food for a designer’s thought.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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