Rob Lee is a graphic artist and muralist from Sheffield. Starting out in graphic design, the last few years Rob has taken his work to interior and exterior walls, creating bold, modern murals that have a strong design aesthetic. You may have seen his big technicolor piece in the courtyard of CADS or his newest commission on the side of Cupola Gallery in Hillsborough, marking the Tour De France’s journey through the city last month. As well as decorating this month’s online issue, a selection of Rob’s work can be browsed in the gallery below. We chatted to him about graphic design, commission work and plans for the future.
What got you interested in art and how did you get started as an artist?
I’ve always had a keen interest in art and I guess I inherited my creativity from my granddad, who created all these amazing little sculptures out of wood. My dad was also very artistic and I treasure the times we spent together drawing portraits of each other. He was also a structural engineer, so that’s where I’d say the more technical elements of my work come from.
At school I became interested in Cubism and Futurism and other such movements. I was inspired by the sculpture of Umberto Boccioni, and Piet Mondrian’s use of lines and abstract shapes made me see art in a more graphic form. Around that time I was also heavily inspired by The Designers Republic. I fell in love with their style, mainly represented in the flyers they designed for [legendary Sheffield club night] NY Sushi. They were really bold, with a bright typographical play on shapes. Many of them I’ve kept over the years as a reference. It’s only the last few years that I’d consider myself as an artist, but all those past inspirations have formed and influenced the style I have now.
What’s your working process when starting a new piece?
Over the last two years I’ve moved from commission to commission, so each one has been a different process and a different brief. I enjoy working with a client – the back and forth collaborative process is really satisfying as it’s nice to know you are getting it right.
Most of my time is spent in vectors on Illustrator, trying to get the ideas out of my head and into something tangible. I generally have a vision in my head that I sometimes scribble down on paper. Usually though I’ll just take it straight to Illustrator and build from there. I sometimes do a few different designs but my first idea is most often the one I go with.
You’ve got a wall in your studio for practising on. Is it hard to find space to practise big pieces beforehand? How do you plan them out?
I’ve never had the space to practise anything big, so each commission is practice, but I’ll never try something I’m not confident I can achieve. I like to challenge myself on each new piece. The planning element is in the pre-design. I measure the wall and plan the idea to scale in Illustrator, so the finished piece is usually an exact replica. Now I have my studio I can practice more and use it as part of my design process.
With something that’s so bold, based on so many straight lines, it can be quite unforgiving.
Really unforgiving! Originally it was my interest in stencilling that helped me achieve the straight lines and sharp edges. As I’ve continued with this style I’ve done a lot of repeat pattern work. It takes some working out but I’ve found it really interesting trying to replicate the perfection of the shapes. The human eye picks out differences and imperfections, so I can’t really make any errors or the entire image would be spoilt.
How did you get into the perspective pieces?
One of my biggest inspirations at the moment is Felice Varini and his perspective anamorphosis work. I discovered it a few years ago and was immediately drawn to it. It’s essentially an optical illusion. He projects simple shapes onto very complex perspectives at a ridiculous scale. His work is a great example of using the technique as a true art form, but I’m interested in its typographical potential. You can hide a message that can only be seen from one viewpoint. This controls when the viewer sees the message, so you’re challenging them to work to get the result and therefore, hopefully having more of an impact.
The Tour De France piece on the side of Cupola Gallery seems to have gone down really well. How did that come about?
Cupola Gallery put a post up on Facebook about a wall they wanted someone to paint. I got in touch and found out they were planning a street party for the Grand Depart so we hatched a plan to do something related to that. It’s the first publicly viewable piece I’ve done, and the response from the public and on social media has been amazing.
Is your plan to move towards more large-scale work?
Yeah, definitely. I think the style lends itself really well to large scales and it has the potential to just keep getting bigger. When I’ve had chance to properly explore some other ideas, I’d like to create pieces that fuse the all techniques to create abstract imagery that challenges the viewer to interpret in their own way.
How has your work changed since you started out?
At the moment I still have a similar style to paintings I created at school, so I’m essentially picking up from where I left off way back. I feel like I’m still very much at the start and have all these ideas of how to progress. It’s exciting exploring this style piece by piece and seeing how far I can take this strict horizontal, vertical and 45 degree line work.
What have you got coming up in the next few months?
I’ve moved into a studio in the AVEC Building run by CADS and have permission to paint a few walls there that I’m dying to get started on. I’ve just put a proposal in for Festival of the Mind at Castle House which would be my most ambitious perspective piece yet. Other than that, I’m itching to get started on some screen print runs to make my work more accessible to people.
Good advice you wish you’d been told earlier?
My dad once told me, “Do what makes you happy.” I don’t wish I’d been told it earlier but I wish I’d acted on it sooner. My dad died five years ago and is my inspiration for all this. He never got to see me take this route, but it’s his influence that has inspired me to follow this path.