For Vogue China's March 2020 cover story, Nick Knight captured singer and actress Chris Lee as she posed in a perspex box peppered with the artist Rob Unett's illustrations. Working live on set, Unett's paintings framed Lee as she modelled Spring/Summer 2020 fashion, his illustrations exaggerating and abstracting Gucci to Loewe. In one shot, the cuffs on a Nina Ricci shirt are extended with graphic white paint marks, the look accessorised by Unett with a tangerine orange top hat.
A close friend of SHOWstudio, Unett has been creating fashion illustrations for us since 2018. Previously the resident Milan collections' illustrator, Unett also exhibited in the #DRAWFASHION Think Pink and 100 Women exhibitions. In this interview, Unett lifts the lid on the process behind the shoot, and tells us about the nine one-off prints he has created in the spirit of the shoot, available to buy in the SHOWstudio shop.
Hetty Mahlich: Could you talk me through the concept of the Vogue China shoot?
Rob Unett: Conceptually, this was a journey into how photography, illustration, light design, fashion, beauty, styling and set design all amalgamate to create moments of visual art. The idea was to collaborate, orchestrating all our expertise together on this live project. We used transparencies, and in this case perspex, to layer all of our work together. My illustrations worked to complement, contrast and ultimately enrich the overall image. I wanted my marks to react to everything on set, from Chris Lee, her poses and the fashion, to the lighting.
HM: How did you prepare for the shoot?
RU: Working with the scale and format of a printed publication rules out particularly faint or delicate features, unless they're shot up close. My studio work is typically very large scale, so I’m used to creating vivid marks, which I planned to translate for the Vogue China shoot. On seeing the proposed looks, lighting and set design, I prepared colours that both featured in the clothes and that would compliment them, selecting tools that would make a variety of significant marks.
HM: Tell me a little about the illustrations you created.
RU: I knew that doing a full artwork or installation would have only covered up Chris Lee and the clothes, so a sense of balance and composition were at the forefront for me. I also had to be creatively and strategically decisive. The paintings were everywhere, but thick colour-blocking, transparent smears and erased areas mixed with sharp, fast lines were all purposefully placed.
HM: How did working live on set impact upon your process?
RU: In my work, I use my body and its rhythms to create impressions and channel the effects of my techniques. I moved around the whole box reacting to Chris Lee's poses, Nick Knight's camera angles and the light and shadows. I had three huge walls and their inner and outer surfaces to discover and cover - probably the biggest surface area I’ve covered in my work to date. It was great to have people around offering thoughts, discussing all the components that holistically make an image. As an artist I mainly work alone, so seeing Nick's perspective, and collaboratively discussing the imagery with the whole team, allowed me to work more rapidly and fearlessly. Time was a new challenge for me here. You don’t have the time to stand back, go for a cigarette break, mark, edit and amend like you do when working in your own studio. You must react to the vision, the moment and keep the project's objectives in mind whilst staying creative, confidently making your marks and complimenting the model and ultimately enhancing the photos.
HM: Could you explain the process behind working directly onto the perspex?
RU: Perspex reacts differently to traditional surfaces, so you have to use materials that adhere to it and that can be worked and reworked on the surface. Oils, watercolours and pencils simply don't work on a vertical surface. Plastic-based media were key, such as markers, chalk paints, and acrylic paint, with thinned and regular acrylic being my preferred option. There are still numerous challenges to working on vertical perspex screens, with time being the biggest. If you are not fast enough, the medium dries up and you cannot work the paint; its ability to change becomes temperamental. When I work with perspex, I work with it in numerous layers. It’s that depth of layers that gives the artwork a unique materiality. It’s the depth beyond painting that I enjoy working with.
HM: How did you create the nine perspex artworks for the SHOWstudio shop, and how do they relate to the Vogue China shoot?
RU: In this set of artworks I have created for SHOWstudio, I created perspex works and made them into prints. Reality becomes hyperreal and somehow the flatness feels wonderfully three-dimensional, as traditional techniques meet technology. I chose to depict clothes from the shoot that we didn’t use. I wanted to react to the lighting, pose, feel and mood of the overall shoot, so rather than working to depict a defined form or spending more hours on each piece than I did on set for Vogue China, I worked in the same way that we did on the day. Preparing all my colours and tools beforehand, I worked super-fast, compositionally, abstractly and visually using an array of techniques that included fine line, etched and collage elements. They are mini versions of the shoot that I hope complement Nick's amazing photographs.