Filip Peraić was in a rut. A freelance illustrator bored of his contract work, he had hoped to reignite his love of art through a long-term personal project.
It made sense that Peraić, 30, who is from the basketball-obsessed city of Zadar, Croatia, would come up with a project related to the N.B.A. But instead of taking a broad look at his favorite players, or honoring his country’s many N.B.A. stars, Peraić decided to do something more specific — remarkably so. His project would consist entirely of portraits of James Harden’s head in profile, from the right side of the Houston Rockets star’s face.
Suddenly Harden, who is known for his distinctive beard, existed in portrait form — as a tribute to Jackson Pollock in one of Peraić’s works and as a tribute to Wassily Kandinsky in another. There was one in the style of a medical illustration, and another that was a map of the fictional country of Hardenia. His beard became a giant whale, and it took on the distinctive curls of a Greek philosopher. In one particularly disturbing image, Harden’s face was replicated with human hair.
In all, Peraić’s project, which came to be known as James Harden Illustrated, had 26 images, each one seemingly more bizarre than the previous one.
“The best portraits are when I surprise myself,” Peraić said in a telephone interview. “I’m thinking about James Harden’s head constantly — it’s my passion project.”
With Harden in the middle of a remarkable season, in which he is almost certain to finish with the highest scoring average of any player in N.B.A. history besides Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan, Peraić is set to release another batch of the illustrations. The first will be posted Thursday, and there will be one released each week for the next seven weeks, thus carrying Peraić’s followers into the playoffs.
On Tuesday, in hopes of showcasing the existing work in advance of the new batch, Peraić tweeted out a thread of the 26 original images, which were completed from 2013 to 2017. The thread caught fire and was shared and favorited thousands of times.
Peraić said the attention the posts received was gratifying, but he was especially excited by certain people who noticed them.
He referred to a few journalists who shared the post, then mentioned two people who favorited the thread: Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets, and Kirk Goldsberry, a former San Antonio Spurs executive. “That’s really cool because as an N.B.A. geek, I follow these people constantly,” Peraić said. “To see them reacting to my work is really rewarding.”
Then there was Harden. He was once interviewed on TNT with a poster of Peraić’s portraits behind him. But other than that, Peraić did not know how Harden felt about the work. That changed Wednesday afternoon.
Harden tweeted six of the images, reacting to each with emoji. “Yo @filiperaic,” Harden wrote in the first of the series of tweets, “these are dope!”
Beyond rubbing elbows online with his N.B.A. heroes, Peraić has experienced tangible career benefits from the project. Recently, he worked on a series of images for the singer-songwriter Leon Bridges, and while the images may not have Harden’s beard in them, they are clearly in the same vein as the Harden project.
The rut he had found himself in career-wise, it seemed, had created an opportunity.
“I started this project just for my own pleasure and to try something else because I wasn’t satisfied with the kind of work I was getting,” Peraić said. “Now art directors come up to me and say, ‘We want this kind of James Harden portrait.’”
Amusingly enough, considering how much time Peraić spends thinking about Harden, the Rockets guard is not, and has never been, the illustrator’s favorite player. He mentioned living near the city in Croatia where Drazen Petrovic, the Hall of Famer, grew up, and said he had always preferred Manu Ginobili and Kobe Bryant over Harden.
“People think that I’m obsessed with James Harden, and that’s really not the case,” he said. “I just wanted to pick someone that had an interesting face that was easily recognizable.”
Of the original batch of portraits, Peraić said his favorites were one comprising a single line and another in which Harden’s profile had morphed into a thermal image of an approaching hurricane.
“I like repetition, and I’m a bit stubborn,” he said when asked how he could keep coming back to the same image. “When I made a couple of them I thought, ‘This is really interesting.’ It’s a challenge for me.”
The images can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to complete, with one in which Harden’s profile was recreated using only flowers and other vegetation representing the high-water mark for effort so far. The project requires enough time that it has regularly run up against Peraić’s contract work, which forced the recent pause in his output. He acknowledged that of the eight works planned for the new batch, only six are complete so far.
When he finishes the final two, that will bring the project to 34 portraits. Until the next one.
“I feel that this is a never-ending project,” Peraić said. “Maybe if James Harden shaves his beard, that would be the end.”