Kevin Durant in Mark Ulriksen's "Hoop Dreams in New York"
Image courtesy of Mark Ulriksen
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Artist Mark Ulriksen on Creating the Nets-Knicks New Yorker Magazine Cover

The prolific painter took Boardroom behind the scenes of his “Hoop Dreams in New York” cover project.

New York has always been a basketball town, but for the first time ever, it doesn’t just have two teams — it has two teams that know how to win and look good doing it.

To herald the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets both making the playoffs for just the second time ever and the first time since 2013, The New Yorker published a painting for the cover of its May 10 issue entitled “Hoop Dreams in New York,” which depicts Knick teammates Julius Randle and RJ Barrett chasing Nets trio Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, all rendered in the unmistakable style of longtime artist Mark Ulriksen.

(First published on the cover of The New Yorker, 10 May 2021, ©Mark Ulriksen & The New Yorker, used by permission)

Boardroom caught up with Ulriksen to discuss the process behind pitching the concept, his artistic process, the resurgence of NBA basketball in the Five Boroughs, and his lifelong love for sports-themed artwork.

The following is Boardroom’s phone interview with Mark Ulriksen, edited for clarity and brevity.

Alex Sheinman: What is it about basketball players that makes them especially fun to paint?

Mark Ulriksen: I always thought basketball players are probably the best overall athletes. Because of the uniforms they wear, you can tell who a basketball player is in the way that you can’t recognize football players and hockey players. You can actually see them. And they could have distinctive ways that they wear their hair and their facial hair, so they can be individuals in a team sport.

I love that notion in sports, that there’s a team aspect and individual aspects. And so they’re just fun to portray.

AS: Did you see what James Harden did on Twitter? He cropped the Knicks out of the cover and it went viral.

MU: Oh, yeah. The New Yorker was thrilled. And they sent me links to nine different news articles about the cover. They loved this. And so do I.

So that’s kind of fun, just to have added attention. What happens on social media is just a bunch of noise, but one thing that was funny is a friend who sent me some links to it sent a photo of him and his daughter: He said, “I cropped the Knicks out of this photo.” So that’s awesome.

AS: So, who runs New York basketball? Do you think this is a legit rivalry that we’re gonna see over the next few years? 

MU: If they stick around, it could be. You kind of want comparable teams to compete against each other, and geographically, it would be great.

AS: Even LeBron James tweeted that the NBA is better when the Knicks are good, which I think a lot of fans would agree with. It’s just fun that they’re competitive this season.

MU: I’ve always wanted the Yankees or Mets to be doing well because New York is a media market that’s so great when the local teams are really good.

Image courtesy of Mark Ulriksen

AS: In a newsletter that you put out, you described the meticulous level of detail that goes into each design. Whether Kyrie wears the same shoe or a different shoe every game, for instance. What’s your process for researching those aspects and making sure they’re reflected in the art?

MU: Well, the details always matter. When I first started out being an artist, everything is a decision. And so you have to decide, why am I doing this? Why am I not doing that?

With this, it’s like, okay, they’re wearing the black jerseys. So what shoes do they wear whenever they wear the black jersey? I had to find images of each guy, see what kind of sneakers they wore.

And it being The New Yorker, I had to, see, okay, where do they have tattoos? What does the bottom of their sneaker look like? So I had to find [a photo of] James Harden on the ground, and one shot of Durant on the sidelines when he was on the Warriors. Then, I can see at the bottom of their shoes. So all that stuff is important.

Mark Ulriksen's James Harden reference photos
Image courtesy of Mark Ulriksen

And yet, as the art director of the magazine said, we don’t want this to be about portraits of these players; we want it to be for non-basketball fans as well. And that’s why I just did little dots for their eyes, so it’s a little more cartoony, but you could still tell who they are because of their physique and their hair and facial hair.

I did get some criticism online. And I agree that with Julius Randle — his head is about the size of a dime in the painting — it was really hard to make it look like him. I didn’t accomplish that, and I wish I had. So I think any creative person only sees their mistakes or their problems and never acknowledges the good that comes with that. You just see what you wish you could have changed.

AS: How did you decide who was going to be front and center on the cover?

MU: The Nets have three household names. The fact that the Knicks are even decent for a change made them worthy of this competition on the cover, but I wanted them to be chasing. They’re chasing the team that’s ahead of them.

When we ready covers for The New Yorker, artists come up with the title and then [the magazine] decides whether to go forward or not. And I called this work “Fast Break to Brooklyn,” because they’re running towards Brooklyn with Manhattan in the background. And then they switched at first to “Renaissance in New York.” And then it became “Hoop Dreams in New York.”

Mark Ulriksen "Hoop Dreams in New York" magazine cover art
Image courtesy of Mark Ulriksen

The rationale for wanting five guys on the cover is because there’s five guys on a team. And with the Knicks, I wasn’t as familiar with their stars, so I basically looked at their roster and saw who their top scorers were and did a little more research. I said, okay, it’s got to be Barrett and Randle.

AS: If it was three-on-three, who would have been the third Knick?

MU: Might have been [Derrick] Rose.

AS: With players like these, what are the physical features that stand out to you? When you exaggerate the size or features of each player for a cover, what is it that you’re looking for?

MU: Typically, it starts with one idea, and the idea here specifically was showing action in motion, which then becomes a rough sketch that I do. They’re called thumbnails; I just do things really quickly and small until I get something that I like. Then, I typically will blow that up or redraw it bigger. And then that’s what I send to The New Yorker — the tighter sketch, so they can understand it. And they went for the running one that you see in the cover, not the rebound one.

“Running” sketch (left) and “Rebound” sketch (Image courtesy of Mark Ulriksen)

Once I get an idea, and I try to get as much visual material as I can that helps me decide where to go with it. So I keep files, and I have this one favorite photo of the Warriors on a fast break. I also don’t want to definitely use just one existing photograph because it’s a copyright issue, but each one of these players might be [based on] different photos.

You know, that’s Klay Thompson’s body that’s being used, or his arms [being used] for Harden. And for Barrett, those are Klay Thompson’s arms from a photograph. I can take a photograph of Klay Thompson and just put on a Knick uniform and edit. It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle I put together for myself.

AS: From beginning to end, how long did this piece take to create?

MU: Usually, it’s probably about five days. Initially, I didn’t have a background, but the art editor suggested, “Why don’t we have a skyline?” And so I just thought, oh, I know, a great shot I got from a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights. And I wanted to show something that is indicative of Manhattan without it being specific.

Reference photo for the Manhattan skyline (Image courtesy of Mark Ulriksen)

AS: Last question — over the course of your career, who have been the biggest artistic influences and inspirations for you?

MU:  I like everybody from contemporary New Yorker cover artists like Barry Blitt to fine artists like Ben Shahn. There’s movies I like that influenced me a lot — Hitchcock movies and the way he places the camera, or Francis Ford Coppola movies and how he uses color and light.

That’s a big, fun thing about being a visual artist, that your eyes are always open to inspiration. I’d say the biggest influences on my personality or sense of whimsy is Mad Magazine. I grew up on that magazine and “Rocky & Bullwinkle.”

I love doing sports paintings because I’m a sports nut. In fact, when I first became an artist, I had an exhibition and I had all these baseball paintings. “Can you do that? Can you paint sports? Is that okay?” I don’t know the art world, but I just know what I love — and you should paint what you love. I’ve just been a sports junkie all my life, so any chance to do sports paintings, I’m all over it.