This interview was originally written for Cherwell
New York-based Illustrator Daniel Nyari is an industrious man. His art has appeared in a plethora of respected publications – The New York Times, The Guardian, FourFourTwo and more – and he is the creative director of Futbol Artist Network, a leading football-only art boutique. Bearing in mind my intimidating international phone tariff, I am keen to ensure our transatlantic interview stays on track.
Born in Romania, Nyari grew up in continental Europe, before moving to America in the late nineties. He inherited a passion for football from his father, who played semi-professionally and from a young age, he approached the beautiful game from an artistic angle.
“When I wasn’t playing or watching, I was drawing players,” he tells me, his subtly lilting accent crackling down the line. “I copied posters, Panini stickers, and these old school cigarette cards we had. I’ve always drawn footballers and when I became an illustrator, I wanted to make some of that work public.”
The influence these early drawings had on Nyari’s later work is immediately obvious in perhaps his most well-known illustrations: his portraits. These framed head-and-shoulders are undeniably evocative of Panini stickers, but they are executed in Nyari’s own charmingly idiosyncratic style – a combination of block colours and precise shapes that captures the essence of the individual perfectly.
“I have an interest in reducing things to their bare elements,” he informs me, “which came from my time designing logos and websites. I always wanted to combine that with my traditional illustrations, so the football portraits are essentially exercises in thinking about faces in very reductive terms.”
“They look simple, but it can take up to fifteen hours for one portrait alone. The most difficult ones to get right are the objectively good-looking footballers, like Olivier Giroud, who have very symmetrical faces with standard features that, culturally, we consider appealing.”
“With someone like Pirlo, on the other hand, it’s very easy to isolate their key characteristics. He has the big nose, the beard, the long hair. Then it’s all about the juxtaposition of his facial features; how I can scale down the size of his chin to emphasise the length of his nose, for example.”
“I have this idea that you can have thirty face templates, with very distinctive features, from which any face in the world can be made, just by combining different elements. A cheek from here, an eye from there.”
It seems churlish to refute Nyari’s claims, given his evident knack of achieving uncanny likenesses with the simplest, most elegant of patterns. Clearly, this is a man who can see potency in the marriage of football and art.
“Soccer lends itself to being depicted in an iconic way”, he asserts. “A good artistic representation of football can be more engaging than a photograph. Everything that is inherently iconic about a moment, or a player, or a team, can be turned into a symbolic representation. It can be carved in stone.”
“I’m a football purist”, he tells me. “Because I’ve lived in so many places, I can’t pledge my allegiance to one team. I view football like I do art and movies. I can fall in love with different teams at different times. I was obsessed, like everyone, with Guardiola’s Barcelona. Right now, I’m invested in Borussia Dortmund because of their narrative.”
As our interview nears the half-hour mark, with my next phone bill soaring, it finally descends, somewhat predictably, into fervent chit-chat about the Premier League.
“The thing about Mesut Özil”, Nyari asserts, “is that it’s very easy to transpose blame onto him. His body language stands out, so when Arsenal play badly, he gets a lot of unwarranted criticism.”
“You’re totally right”, I agree, “and I think he has been playing really well since he returned from injury.”
My out-of-plan charges continue to rise.