Illustrator Oliver Barrett Takes on ESPN

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by Chris Jalufka,

The act of athleticism is dynamic by nature. Run. Jump. Move. Hit. All are constants. When you stop the action and render it static, you find what keeps it all moving. The players, tired and worn down. Determined. Injured yet focused. Sport is one of mankind’s true acts of focused movement.

Illustrator Oliver Barrett has been tackling sports subjects on his own since the beginning of his career, and with this year’s NBA Finals ESPN has tapped him for some key visuals to tell the story of the Golden Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. As a Cleveland native and sports fan, Barrett often times finds himself creating work that displays the frustration and cynicism a sports fan feels when his team loses or makes a bad decision.

I reached out to Oliver to talk about his love of sports and his work with ESPN and creating imagery of hometown hero turned villain turned hero once again, Lebron James.


Reggie Miller by Oliver Barrett

Illustration of Reggie Miller for ESPN by Oliver Barrett

CJ: Sports illustrations are scattered throughout your portfolio – some are personal works and others are for clients. You’re one of the few artists I know that is also a sports fan, which I didn’t think was that rare of a combination. Did you seek out jobs like ESPN, or did they find you due to your previous sports work?

OB: Maybe it’s not that rare of a combination? Maybe I’m trying to convince myself that I haven’t pigeon-holed myself as ‘the sporty artist guy’? Anyway, I’ve been working with ESPN for a little over a year now. I think I might have been the one to get that relationship started with a little bit of research and a simple email. I’m not one of those people who has cool projects falling into their laps out of thin air all of the time, so I made the first move and just tried to see what would happen. It takes a little bit of pride-swallowing, but when it works, it’s beyond worth it.

They thought enough of what I had in my portfolio to shoot a feature my way and I just tried keeping the lines of communication open as best I could without being annoying. Easier said than done.

Is being the ‘sporty artist guy’ a bad thing?

No, not at all. I just want to make sure my work remains versatile. I’m still trying to shoehorn my way into doing a few gig posters again. It’s been too long.

You’re looking to get back into gig posters? What’s the attraction? How did that type of work get left behind?

I have been for a while and just haven’t created the opportunity for myself yet. The attraction is that it’s been tough for me to sell art prints that aren’t attached to any type of property. I’ve made a few, and for the most part they’re still sitting in my flat file. I’m not sure whether the artwork’s not as great as I think it is or I’m just not getting enough eyes on it.

Doing a concert poster would give me an opportunity to get a new set of eyes on a piece of artwork with the goal of selling both the gig poster and a art print version down the road. It’s a model that’s been successful for others, so I figure that it’s worth a shot for me.

Looking to get into gig poster design? Check out John Foster’s 10 Tips On Creating Killer Gig Posters.


Illustration of Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the ESPN coverage of the 2015 NBA finals by Oliver Barrett

Sports have a history of heightened dramatization when it comes to how they present themselves, thinking of the tone of those classic NFL Films. Your portraits of Lebron James and Stephen Curry have an intensity to them – they’re incredibly human, not your typical stylized heroes. What sort of conversation did you have with ESPN about finding the right look and tone for the portraits?

We had talked about portraying them as stoic leaders and wanted to avoid being overtly emotional in the presentation. It would have been a lot easier to draw them screaming at each other, but this was the right call.

These pieces aired before the Finals started, so I also had intended on somehow portraying a sense of anticipation in the pieces. It was a pretty cool challenge because while there are billions of photos of these two guys, there wasn’t anything that perfectly fit what we were trying to do, so the illustrations each felt like a unique portrayal.

The Lebron James and Stephen Curry portraits are incredible and far better than a simple photograph. The fact that ESPN bothers to incorporate compelling illustrations is such a great thing. How much time to did you get to finish the NBA Finals job? I’d imagine with the Finals it was a bit of, ‘Game 1 starts in a few days so we need these now.’

Yeah, it was super short notice, 48 hour turnaround that included rough sketches and revisions. I certainly wasn’t complaining about it though. I had finished working for the day and was sitting on my porch when the email came in. My face looked a bit like this: O_O.

Lebron James

‘The King is Dead’ by Oliver Barrett

This is your second portrait of Lebron, your first being ‘The King is Dead,’ a print you did when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers. A pretty brutal depiction, but then again, he did leave your home team and I know you’re a fan. I’m a bit surprised you didn’t attempt a response print for when he returned, but now that he’s back in Cleveland and in the Finals, a positive portrayal of him feels sort of redeeming. Do you stress more over illustrations you may be more invested in on a personal basis?  

It’s actually the 9th or 10th time I’ve drawn him, but I’m not allowed to show drawings #2-8 yet or I’ll get in trouble. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

There were a few reasons why a follow up print didn’t happen.

  1. I didn’t want to spend the money on another print run. It might make me sound cheap, but it wasn’t 100% for certain that he was coming back. I did toss around the idea of printing a smiley face sticker that you could put over the original print, but it just didn’t happen.
  2. There is a rat race of local clothing companies coming up with tons of Lebron /Cavs-centric merchandise and I didn’t want to throw my hat in the ring.

Now, I wish I had tried harder to come up with something, but hindsight’s 20-20. I still think it’s a pretty cool story about how one of my first pushes to make it on my own was this angry, vilifying portrait of Lebron and then 5 years later, I’m working on some high-profile stuff with him as the subject in a positive light.

Sepp Blatter by Oliver Barrett for ESPN

Illustration of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter for ESPN by Oliver Barrett

Your illustration for ESPN of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter came quickly after he was in the news. What’s the turnaround time on these editorial illustrations? Is there much time for revisions or notes from the client?  

That was actually a bizarre coincidence. They had commissioned a portrait of Sepp Blatter for a vilifying article on the corruption in FIFA that ran in the magazine. Blatter resigned a few days after the magazine showed up at my house. I am responsible.

Curry & James Illo on ESPN

Oliver Barrett’s illustration ESPN’s coverage of the 2015 NBA Finals on air.

A bit of a technical question, but what file types did ESPN request from you? It looks like your NBA illustrations were used for TV spots as well as stage backdrops. Did you hand over the Photoshop file or did you have to create the images at various sizes?

They had just asked for flattened high res files. Because the backgrounds were flat, ESPN was able to just add in more background space as they needed.


Baseball Players for ESPN

Illustrations by Oliver Barrett for ESPN Magazine

Giancarlo Stanton in ESPN Magazine

Illustrations of the Florida Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton by Oliver Barrett in an issue of ESPN Magazine

For small illustrations like your portrait of Giancarlo Stanton from the Florida Marlins, are you given a list of players to do and that’s it? Is there a stock pile of unused Oliver Barrett portraits in the ESPN vault?

Yeah pretty much. For projects like that, I’ll get a list of athletes that usually gets trimmed down before I even get started.

Thankfully, there aren’t any unused illustrations in the archives over there. Wait, that’s not true. There’s actually a feature that I worked on back in December that’s been shelved due to outside parties, which is a shame because I’m really happy with how the work turned out. That’s how it goes sometimes though.

Randy Johnson 'Baseball Jerks' print

‘Randy Johnson’ from Oliver Barrett’s series of ‘Baseball Jerks’ prints

Your series of baseball portraits ‘Baseball Jerks’ are some of my absolute favorite prints. I’ve heard that sports themed art is a tough sell, since most sports fans have their allegiances to their own teams. I hate to think that’s true, but I understand the argument. It’s similar to gig posters, where if you’re not a fan of the band chances are you won’t pick up the poster. Have you found an audience outside of sports fans for the ‘Baseball Jerks’?

Hey thanks! I’m glad somebody digs them. I’m not sure if I have or not. The true lure of those prints aren’t that they are sports or baseball prints. It’s because they are pretty specifically nostalgic. At least to me they are. They remind me of being 12 years old and watching Randy Johnson murder a pigeon with a fastball. Or spiking my controller with little kid rage after with my brother beat me in Ken Griffey Baseball on Super Nintendo.


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