When Paul Kobriger was approached to illustrate a portrait of the late and beloved Dylan Rieder for the recent January cover of TransWorld, he was struck with two polarizing feelings; one of immense honor that he even be considered, and also of unworthiness. At the time, Paul had only created three drawings — a series of insanely intricate ballpoint pen portraits of three of his skateboarding idols, Gonz, Ray Barbee, and Lance Mountain. Kobriger wasn’t some seasoned artist, unfazed by deadlines and overtly confident in his skills, but rather had just picked up the pen in the year prior and began drawing when he found the energy after work, and after he put his kids to bed.
Four hours, every night, for four weeks, Paul repetitively laid down each pixel of the tremendous (not in size, but in significance) portrait by hand. It was undoubtedly his most grueling artistic endeavor, but also one of his most rewarding. In fact, it’s as if the opportunity has opened up the creative floodgates for Paul, who now can barely keep up with the amount of commissions he receives to draw anyone from Trent Reznor and Mark Mothersbaugh, to Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Whether it’s one of his hyper-realistic ballpoint stipple drawings or his more loosely sketched, but still extremely lifelike, “scribble” drawings, Paul has an innate ability to capture the essence and feel of each of his subjects. We had a chance to talk with Paul about what’s it been like to go from reading TransWorld to gracing the magazine’s cover with his artwork, and how his newfound creativity plays an integral role in his life.
Have you been creating artwork all your life, or was there a time where you weren’t?
Not at all actually. I loved drawing when I was a kid and up through 8th or 9th grade. I think the passion for it started waning in high school, probably around the time when skateboarding took over everything else. I was still taking art classes and doing some decent pieces for assignments, but didn't really draw in my free time anymore. After high school in 1994, and up until 2015, I didn't complete a single piece. Maybe a little bit of doodling, but just never made the time to finish anything. All those years I always knew I could still do it, but for whatever reason I just never made the time. You get busy and life gets in the way and it’s easy to make excuses.
When did you re-pick up the pen? What was the impetus for drawing?
I've said this before but I really credit working at TransWorld with inspiring me to draw again. When I started working there in 2014, I was seriously just amazed (and totally jealous) by how talented everyone was in his or her respective areas. From photography, to graphic design, to videography, writing; they were all doing cool shit in their free time outside of work. That, and just seeing rad stuff on Instagram everyday really made me want to take up a creative hobby. I tried to learn tattooing, but the learning curve was more than I was ready for. I didn't want all the set up and clean up, there's just no time for all that. I also didn't really want to just do pencil drawings like everyone else so I started a test drawing with a pen one day that inevitably took me almost 200 hours to finish. I hadn't intended that at all when I started it.
What was the first piece you drew after starting up again?
It was a replica of a TransWorld cover of my friend Wes Kremer shot by Mike Blabac. It was a perfect black and white photo for a black ballpoint pen drawing. It’s pretty funny when I look at it now. The left half is pretty amateur looking and full of mistakes while I was learning the technique, but by the time I got to the right side I started to figure it out. The secret was to slow way down and literally take it pixel by pixel.
What was it like to create that portrait of Dylan Rieder for the cover of Transworld?
I really can't even describe how surreal that was for me. I've been reading TransWorld since 1988 when I was 12-years-old. Growing up skateboarding in a small town in Wisconsin, you never even think something like that could ever happen. It was obviously a huge moment for me, but the stoke was also mixed with a bunch of other emotions. Dylan had just passed the week before so it felt very strange to feel excited about an opportunity that resulted from such a tragedy. It took me a while to process that. Also I definitely felt that I wasn't worthy of the honor since I didn't really know Dylan, and also since I had only just started drawing again, with only three pieces under my belt at that point. All that, plus I was super nervous about being able to pull it off in such a quick timeframe. I had less than four weeks and these stipple drawings usually take me 3-4 months at my pace.
I was drawing for four hours or more, every night, and being super careful not to mess up. It’s ink so you can’t go back. I got it done just in time and fortunately it all worked and I'm forever grateful to Jaime Owens and Keegan Callahan for the opportunity, and also Ryan Allan for giving his blessing to replicate his photo. We were able to sell some prints and raise money for City of Hope where Dylan was treated. I also got to know Dylan's mom, Dana, a little bit and we gave her a framed print that she has displayed at her house. Ironically a week after the Dylan cover came out, my son was diagnosed with brain cancer so Dana and I formed a bit of a bond over that and she has been very supportive.
Your materials are simple, yet you create such a magnificent end result. Tell me about your process?
The stipple drawings are literally just one dot at a time. I spend maybe twenty minutes lightly drawing out the main features with pencil and getting the proportions right. Then I lay a print of the photo over the top of the drawing and flip it upside down while dotting it out with the pen. It takes around an hour or two per square inch depending on the detail. I have a busy day job and busy home life, so I usually don't start drawing until 8 or 9pm when the kids go to bed. Lately I've been doing these scribble drawings which only take a couple of days per piece. It’s so great to be able to complete a piece every few days instead of every few months, but I'm not sure I'm totally happy with the results. I'm still figuring out the technique. I don't like how long the realism drawings take, but I like the challenge of making a drawing look like a photograph and I'm definitely happier with the end results. The paradox is that the scribble drawings seem to sell better. Maybe it’s the subject matter.
How do you choose the portraits or imagery you draw?
The stipple drawings so far are all legendary skateboarders that I grew up idolizing. Lance, Gonz, and Ray are pretty much my three favorites. I thought I was done with that series, but I really want to do Hensley, Cardiel, and a couple others. The scribble drawings have so far all been some of my favorite musicians, as well as some commissions of other people's favorite musicians. I just finished a commission of four singers for Tony Hawk's birthday, which was pretty cool. Commissions can be hard because you can’t always find the right reference photo that fits the style of the drawing.
On average how long do you spend on a piece?
150 hours for the stipple drawings, and maybe two or three hours on the scribbles depending on the detail.
Your work is so precise and time-consuming, how do you keep yourself entertained with what seems like such a monotonous creation process?
Oh, it’s great for just getting lost in a podcast or the news or catching up on Howard Stern. For the musician drawings, I'm in the habit of listening to their music while I draw them. I feel like that actually contributes to the tone of the piece. The Tom Waits portrait looks to me just like he sounds, raspy and rough. Maybe it’s just me, but yeah I've made it part of the process. Or sometimes I'll just work in silence, which is also wonderful. There's so much noise in my life that a couple hours of silence at night is pretty therapeutic.
How has drawing become an integral part of your life?
It’s really been a labor of love. Sometimes the last thing I feel like doing at the end of a long day is sitting down and drawing. I'm trying to treat it like a second job where I just have to make myself do it. I'm tripping that people are actually buying my art, and I'm actually getting more commission requests than I can currently process. It's definitely a hustle, but maybe one day I'll be able to do it full-time and it won't feel like such a chore. I do love it, and I have all these ambitions to do more with it, but it’s definitely a chore trying to squeeze it into the day.
What is your 9-5 job?
Days are Marketing Director at TransWorld Skateboarding. Evenings and weekends are father to a teenage son and two little girls, and husband to an incredible wife. It’s a busy and full life.
What are you working on right now?
I have to catch up on a few commission scribbles, but then I think I'll get back to the realism stipples. I'm also anxious to experiment with different mediums and styles. I want to paint; I want to try graphite and charcoal. I even want to sculpt. So much to do so little time.
For more from Paul follow him on Instagram: @paulkobriger.