When I think of colourful portraiture, the first person who comes to mind is Sean Jun. Better known under his artist name Uniquelab, the Korean artist has developed quite a following with his fresh illustrations. Like being caught off guard with a camera, his portraits often capture fleeting moments within everyday scenes. Mid-sip of a coffee in the early morning beams, a half-glance at the viewer – perhaps it is this low-level posing from his characters which makes them so easy to connect to.
Born and raised in Korea, Uniquelab’s experience with art could have been very different. “My parents are a little concerned that I chose this path for a living because this field is uncertain and unstable. At least I could earn a stable income if I were working in the IT field!” he laughs. Luckily, however, worries aside, his parents allowed him to follow his artistic nature. Creation started young as Sean displayed a natural gift for drawing well from an early age. He delved deeper, working with plaster figure drawing in high school, before later going to DS University in Busan, Korea where he majored in multimedia design.
The competition for college admission is notoriously stiff in Korea. I learned much more stuff before I even entered the university.Uniquelab
Like many artists, it took more than a few years of education for Uniquelab to reach the current point in his career as an artist so far. He muses over the journey. “There are a lot of steps to take in order to become a successful artist, so I worked as a web designer for a few years. I would say [all of those] those experiences were helpful to build up my basis, but most of the composition of my current artwork is more self-taught.”
Capturing the inner self
It may be surprising to learn that Uniquelab’s earlier illustrations were in a more cartoon style. For me, the evolution of an artist is still one of the most interesting things to explore about a creator. In fact, Uniquelab’s current and most well-known style of portrait painting is only a few years in the making.
Nevertheless, it feels as if his current style is perhaps the most intimate. As humans, we respond to depictions of experiences we can connect to personally, and there is something so open about Uniquelab’s illustrations that we are invited to input ourselves into that space. It may be a simple ink or coloured pencil drawing of a female we do not know. Yet we can still connect to the look in her eyes and be reminded of someone we know. There is true beauty in the simplicity.
However, I don’t want you to presume that these illustrations don’t take talent or thought. Simplicity in style, for example the clean lines and white backgrounds, is done with meticulous purpose. Just watch one of his real-time videos creating a new work, and you will see there is no room for error once pen touches paper. “I do love inking straight to paper. Of course, I fail sometimes, but I savour the moment when I try it. I’ve been drawing directly onto paper for about 5 years.”
As time went by, I became interested in depicting a person’s inner self through painting, so I worked hard and created my current drawing style. The reason why my drawings [often] don’t have backgrounds is because I believe the blank space is also part of the artwork.
This might sound bad to the people who like my current drawing style, but I also want to keep developing and changing my style.
Being a full-time artist doesn’t mean that you can draw whatever you want
Uniquelab currently resides in Seoul, the capital of Korea. While he’s found that the city provides quite a few opportunities for artists such as himself, he has still enjoyed commissions from all over the world. Among the commissions, he has worked with advertising agencies, musicians and music video directors from Korea, America, France, Spain and Italy, to name a few.
“I had a conversation with the artist Kim Jung-gi who allowed me to share his studio. A key topic of the conversation was: “Being a full-time artist doesn’t mean that you can draw whatever you want”. Since I’ve drawn many portraits, my work offers have mostly been portraits. I’m trying to cater to the customer’s needs but also, I’m always trying to not lose my own drawing identity. So when the customer doesn’t have specific needs, I sometimes just draw whatever I want.”
One particular commission project which sticks in his mind was the time he created the album cover for Korean rock band 2 Overs’ album Drive. He smiles as he recalls the event:
I just received their music without any explanation and drew while I listened to that music over and over. Later, I had a conversation with the band’s leader. He told me that my album cover art captured the feeling that he wanted to express 200%. It was a very fun and surprising experience for me.
The impact of social media
Interestingly, Uniquelab only recently began to post artwork in Instagram after noticing people from various countries were liking his photos. “After seeing that […] and seeing that my artwork has spread out to various other social media platforms, I decided to become a full-time artist.” He shares.
Since his social media presence has heightened, so have the number of queries coming in about how he works. One of the things I love most about Uniquelab’s artwork is how he utilises so many mediums, providing multiple textures and effects to his portraits. Pencils, coloured pencils, Gouache and inks are among the utensils used. “When I feel like I’m having a [creative] slump, I change the medium and try a new style of drawing. This is how I overcome ‘artist block’.”
Uniquelab has set up his own Youtube channel to share more information, which already has almost 2,000 subscribers.
The power of social media is amazing. I can meet people who recognize my art in any country, anywhere, and those experiences are really precious to me. It gives me the energy to continue drawing.
Even though I’m an artist, I’m also a fan of many other artists. But what inspires me to most are the drawings made by people who are new to drawing. There’s a rawness to it. I often gain inspiration by looking through the drawings that my Instagram followers send me or by looking through my followers’ profiles.
The Superani crew and future ambitions
These days, Uniquelab enjoys the company of other artists as part of his daily routine. He has joined the ‘Superani’ art crew, something which has definitely livened things up! He smiles: “I used to draw alone in a very quiet studio. Now, I’m working in a very chatty environment with great artists like Kim Jung-gi, Miss Jisu and others, who give me a lot of inspiration.”
As we chat about his experiences and future aspirations, I ask him where he’d like to go next. “I’ve participated in group shows, but I’ve never done real “collaboration work” before. So I would always be open to it!
I want to draw a masterpiece that once you see it, you’ll never forget it.
“Also, I want to draw a masterpiece that once you see it, you’ll never forget it. I think, so far, I haven’t drawn any artwork that fits this condition. I also want to hold exhibitions in North America and Europe, have the opening party that I’ve always wanted, and meet the people who I’ve wanted to meet but couldn’t meet so far.
Even though COVID-19 stopped all of this and is still blocking it, I believe it is possible.”