AICN ON THE MAT: The Dean talks with wrestler portrait artist Rob Schamberger in prep for AXXESS in New Orleans this week!
@’s by Rob Schamberger!!!
If you’re lucky enough to be in attendance at AXXESS in New Orleans this week, Rob will be honoring WRESTLEMANIA with a live painting celebrating its 30 year legacy. If you can’t make it but would still like to spend all your money, head on over to www.RobSchamberger.com, where he sells both originals and prints that will help make that stupid non-wrestling themed room in your home look ten times better. Check out the interview below for more about Rob, and don’t forget to watch WRESTLEMANIA XXX this Sunday to see what new iconic moments will Rob will be painting next!
THE DEAN: So how are things going for you? Pretty hectic time I imagine, right?
ROB SCHAMBERGER (RS): Yeah, yeah. Busy, busy.
DEAN: Is this going to be your first WRESTLEMANIA? Have you ever been there before?
RS: Ummm, just as a fan. This is the first I’ll actually be working at, which is very exciting.
DEAN: Very cool! So which one were you at as a fan then?
RS: I was at 24.
DEAN: 24…24 was…
RS: Well, the main event was Edge and Undertaker, but we were there for Flair’s “retirement” match.
DEAN: Oh, yeah! The mi- 20s are a blur to me; I always forget what was when.
RS: Yeah, that was a good show!
DEAN: So AXXESS, then – that’s going to be a Friday, Saturday, Sunday before the show thing right?
RS: It’ll actually start on Thursday.
DEAN: Cool. Are you going to be there the whole time?
RS: Yeah, I’ll be doing a live, large painting that’s like eight foot by five foot celebrating the 30 years of WRESTLEMANIA.
DEAN: That’s going to be incredible. So that’ll all be live; fans will watch you progress throughout the weekend?
RS: Yep, that’s all going to be live, and then I’ll be exhibiting somewhere over a hundred paintings there that people are able to purchase. Hopefully I should have a good amount of prints there, too, for people that don’t want to spend a lot on the originals.
DEAN: How’s live painting? Are you used to that, or is that still kind of a weird thing to be doing in front of so many people?
RS: It’s a different environment, you know, like the studio, I’ve got it set up with everything I need for, like, my creative needs or whatever. But there’s a fun energy to painting in front of a crowd as well; you get to hear live from people as you’re working, and that’s exciting.
DEAN: I imagine people are generally pretty polite, right? Nobody’s critiquing you while you’re working?
RS: (laughs) Well, it’s a mixed bag.
DEAN: (laughs) That’d be a pretty ballsy thing to do, but you’re pretty talented so I imagine it doesn’t happen that much (both laugh). But anyway, what is your relationship with the WWE right now? Are you under contract with them, or what’s the story there?
RS: Yeah, we are officially working together now. I even have my own page there with the auction on WWE.com. But you know, we’re uhh…selling the originals, selling reproductions and doing the live art and everything at AXXESS, but we’re talking about lots of other ways that we can work together down the line as well. Pretty exciting times.
DEAN: Yeah, yeah, that’s gotta be! So I know you’ve been working with the WWE a little bit for a few years, but how long has it been an official thing?
RS: Well, we started officially talking about halfway through last year, and it started being official towards the end of the year. We actually held our first auction around the time of Black Friday.
DEAN: I think I’d read that it was JR (Jim Ross) that got in contact with you first, right?
RS: Well, Jim and I had become friendly a couple years earlier through the National Wrestling Hall of Fame museum induction thing in Waterloo (IA). We had met there, and he enjoyed my work quite a bit, and I had reached out to him for a charity event I was doing to see if he could pass my information along to the WWE for their involvement, and he, just out of his good nature, put me in touch over there with the people at WWE.com and that sort of got the ball rolling.
DEAN: That had to be so cool; what was your first experience with JR like?
RS: Well, he’s (laughs)…ummm, hard to read? You know, I mean because of the Bells Palsy, too, a lot of the things I would normally pick up on from someone just through interactions, I mean, he’s just a hard one to read in person. (laughs) I remember I actually thought I had done something wrong, but he emails me a few days later saying, “It was great meeting you, whatever I can do to help you out let me know” and I was like, “Oh! Wow! Okay…” (laughs). And, you know, he’s got a few of my paintings now, and actually at his one man shows that he’s doing he sells prints and paintings that I’ve done, and hopefully I’ll be involved at his shows he’s doing in New Orleans as well.
DEAN: Oh, that’s right; I forgot he’s on the road with that now. But okay, so you’re working officially with the WWE now, so how much freedom do you get in what you paint, because you obviously did a lot of TNA guys and other stuff too, so can you still do that?
RS: Yeah, I’m not exclusive. However, you know, they’re my bread and butter, and have been for a while. They definitely have a more energetic fan base, and you know, especially with painting originals, that’s all my thing, that’s my thing to do. But, yeah, WWE is definitely the priority.
DEAN: Oh, sure, and with everyone you paint you obviously have a pretty extensive knowledge of the pro wrestling world outside the WWE, so how did you start applying your artistic talents to the wrestling world?
RS: Yeah, so, art came first. I was probably like eight years old and my brother bought me a copy of my first comic book, an issue of THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and we spent the whole weekend just redrawing every panel from the book. I just knew right then: this is what I want to do, you know, and especially at that time I wanted to be a comic book artist. My whole life formed for me right then in that weekend.
Then it wasn’t until I was like eighteen that I actually got into wrestling. My stepfather was up here in the 60s and 70s here in Kansas City, and he’d go up to Memorial Hall every Thursday night and watch Bob Geigel, and Bulldog Bob Brown, and Harley Race, and, uhh, all those guys. So he was just flipping through the channels and landed on NITRO, which would have been in about ’98, and Ric Flair was in there doing a promo and I was just bam, hooked. Right there. I get it, you know? I was just in it then.
But then, I mean, I didn’t really know much about wrestling. So the next week, I wanted to find wrestling, like, I didn’t know the difference between WCW and WWF then, and luckily I landed on RAW, because they were killing it in ’98, right? Then yeah, I’ve just watched and been a fan ever since.
DEAN: I think anyone who questions the validity of wrestling as entertainment should see a Ric Flair promo, from any era, and see how they feel then. Try not being hooked after that.
RS: Right?! (both laugh)
DEAN: I just can’t imagine not being drawn in. But then so with the art, when did you start drawing or painting the wrestlers or thinking you could make a career of that?
RS: It was about three years ago. I had been working professionally as a comic book artist and writer, and it just never took off. Like, in a wrestling equivalent I was always in the indies, you know? I was never going to be the guy that was going to draw BATMAN, or the X-MEN, or anything. So I was looking for something different to do. I, concurrently, had been having pretty good success with larger paintings and gallery work, and I had just stopped working on a wrestling graphic novel that just didn’t, you know, quite come together.
So I had done all this research on it, and then just sort of put two and two together and started to really focus fine art on wrestling, because I realized no one else had done it, especially at the scope I had intended to do it with the initial project that I’m still working on, THE CHAMPIONS COLLECTION. What this is, is I’m painting every one of wrestling’s World Champions going all the way back to George Hackensmidt. That’s for all the major American promotions. That’s going to be about 250 large scale portraits when it’s all done, like minimum size is two foot by two foot. So I’ve done about 105 so far out of the 250. Of course, with WRESTLEMANIA weekend coming up between WWE, Ring of Honor, and TNA, or NWA, there could be new world champions crowned who’ve never held it before for me to paint.
But that’s where everything took off. I did the Kickstarter to fund it and raised like twenty grand in a month, which I later found out was a pretty big accomplishment, especially in the fine art category. So I got great buy-in from the wrestlers themselves and from the fans for the spirit of the project. Like Adam Pearce was in the middle of his third NWA World Title run, and he was adamantly promoting the project, and like, he really brought a lot of prestige back to that title, so having someone like him promoting it was awesome and, you know, Colt Cabana did at the time and David Arquette even, he has his portrait hanging up in his living room! (laughs)
DEAN: That’s cool! So yeah, the wrestling community definitely loves what you’re doing, but do you get much condescension within the art community with you using your talent to paint wrestlers?
RS: Ummm, yeah, until they see how well I’m doing (both laugh). Like, what’s the difference between me and those artists? I do it full time (both laugh). I feel like a jerk saying that, but it’s one of those subjects or that subject matter that people turn their nose up at and for me, it’s something to embrace. Like, maybe it’s because I’m a lifetime comic book and sci fi fan, like, I went through all the condescension as a kid for being a fan of that, and I also think wrestling is about to the same sort of zeitgeist that superheroes and fantasy and the like have in the last few years. I think that’s about to happen with wrestling again, too, and that’s something I’m kind of tapping into with my art.
DEAN: Absolutely. I’m happy to hear you say that, I totally agree, but what is it that you see right now that you feel it’s on the cusp of another sort of boom period?
RS: Ummm, and it’s not just because I’m working with the WWE, but I think the network is going to be huge; it’ll continue to grow, especially with having all the older content on there and available for everyone so that you get a grander sense of the scope of the power of wrestling. I think that’s really going to create the foundation for the groundswell. And then also, there’s a lot of really cool people that like wrestling who are pacemakers, and I think that more and more of them are not going to be ashamed to say as much, and I think that’ll slowly change the general public’s perception of wrestling.
DEAN: Oh totally, and that second point especially is what I think is prepping us for another big new era, because when you hear stories in the past of wrestlers on their downtime, they’re partying, drinking, taking pills, whatever. Now, you have guys actively pursuing other creative interests, like writing, acting, a lot of comic book fans and stuff like that. There are more creative types who grew up loving it that are now attracting more people to it because of their being involved. It’s the same with comics! It used to be full of “real” artists or “real” writers killing time and collecting a paycheck, but now obviously that’s changed drastically--not just a means to an end anymore. But anyway, back to your art: what kinds of stuff are you getting requests for most often?
RS: Yeah, yeah, so especially with when I started, three years ago, CM Punk’s been the most requested guy, although now it’s definitely shifting toward Bryan, and The Shield, and the Wyatts. What I find interesting, though, is that lately a lot of the elitist wrestling fans, you know, the internet fans are showing a lot more interest in Cena than in the last few years. I think more people are starting to come back around and realize how good that guy is and how good he is at what he does. And of course some of the classics, too, like Macho Man, he’s just so fun to draw and paint and he works so well with my style. And then recently, also, especially with the HALL OF FAME, a lot of Ultimate Warrior who actually I learned recently has like a pretty good size painting of mine, which was definitely pretty cool to find out.
DEAN: Oh, man, that is cool! That face paint is just awesome, that’s fun for anyone to draw or paint, so that’s got to be a really fun one for you to do.
RS: Oh yeah, there’s just so many things that I can do with that; every painting I try to push in a different direction.
DEAN: So what’s the process like for you? How do you choose what you’re going to paint, and then from start to finish, what’s the timeline like for that?
RS: Yeah, it’s a mix of whether WWE’s requested something from me, or, ummm, just whatever interests me at that point, or obviously with the CHAMPIONS COLLECTION, you know, like each of those guys, finding the best moment for them. But yeah, once I’ve got what I’m going to do, I’ll look through a lot of photographs and watch a lot of footage on each of those guys to find that moment I know I’ll really be able to capture. Then it depends on the complexity of the piece and the medium I’m working with. It can go from me being able to do six paintings in a day, that are smaller water colors, or a piece taking a week, like the really complex painting that I did of the big gold belt, you know that one took a week ‘cause it was also like four feet wide (laughs).
DEAN: That’s such a cool piece, though! And everything you do is for sale though, right? Either originals, or the prints if the originals get sold?
RS: Yeah, either at RobSchamberger.com or through auction.WWE.com, and then there’s going to be stuff going up on the Shop soon, too.
DEAN: Have you talked much, like obviously whatever you can say at this point, but about other projects you can do with them? Like promotional art for pay-per-views or something?
RS: Yeah, we’re exploring every avenue that we can to see what works best. This week is definitely sort of my debut or, like, my coming out with them, so getting that in-person firsthand response from the crowd and just seeing what can grow from that at this point.
DEAN: Well, you talked about comics, and that’s how I got started with this site, so who are some of your influences there?
RS: Oh man, we could talk for hours about that! (both laugh) But initially, definitely a lot of the superhero stuff, then luckily at a younger age I had some older influences in my life who sort of showed me, like, “this was drawn by this artist, and you like this book so here’s some other things that this artist did.” So guys like Alex Toth and Will Eisner and their ilk I actually got into at a much younger age than most people would. And then, like, right around the time Vertigo launched, it was all guys like Dave McKean and Sean Phillips. They were big influences on me, and then looking at who their influences were, both in and outside of comics, learning how they brought those influences back to their approach. Jim Mahfood actually went to the Kansas City Art Institute, and we became friends while he was here in town. But to essentially watch the progression of his whole career and how his style developed…I’ve learned a lot of lessons from that, and how I can bring that back to my art style as well.
DEAN: So what’s the approach like, or how does it compare when you’re painting a wrestler who has kind of a constant point of reference, you know, there’s only one way they look in real life, compared to creating a comic book character from the ground up, purely from your imagination?
RS: Comics are tough. They might be one of the most difficult art forms. I haven’t worked in animation, so animation might be tougher, but I’ve been in comics for over a decade and they’re just really tough. Not to take anything away from the portrait work—I’m working harder than I ever have—but it’s a different kind of work, you know? The comic book stuff: you’re building the appearance of those characters and then having to stay on model from panel to panel. And I always try to match the schedule of Marvel or DC, who are doing 20 or 22 pages with each page having, you know, five to twelve panels on them at a time. So a lot of people are amazed that I’m able to do a painting a day, though some days I’ll do a lot more, but they’re like, “man, how do you keep on schedule?” I’m like, man you should have seen how hard I was working in comics (both laugh).
DEAN: Well, yeah, especially, like, at least you always have that reference point with the portraits. With creating something from the ground up, that’s got to drive you crazy wanting to get the character as you imagine them just right!
RS: Oh, it’s tough! It’s extremely tough. I would love to get back to comics at some point. No immediate plans, but still have a few stories that I’d like to tell. But yeah, it’s incredibly hard work.
DEAN: Are you reading a lot right now? Are you more of a trades guy? I think you said you’re not as into superheroes anymore…
RS: I still enjoy superheroes quite a bit, but yeah, I’ll wait for the trade. I’m a little bit behind on, like, what’s going on with SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN, but I think that’s an incredibly fun book. I like the Valiant stuff right now; I’m enjoying that whole line quite a bit. But also, I’ll follow just a lot of creators, like anything Ed Brubaker writes, I’ll buy. I mean, for one because he’s just a really great writer, but also because he works with some amazing artists. Like, I just read the latest volume of FATALE and that just blew me away. Fantastic stuff.
DEAN: Have you checked out VELVET yet? Or, well, I guess not--nothing collected yet.
RS: Yeah, not yet, but definitely looking forward to it--he and Epting are just an amazing combination. Oh, and I just finished – it’s not by him, but LOCKE & KEY. That’s one of the best things I’ve read in maybe twenty years…
DEAN: Oh, yeah, I actually just got around to starting that last weekend!
RS: Oh, dude, it’s so good!
DEAN: Yeah, the first volume really blew me away, I’m mad that it took me so long to get around to reading it!
RS: Me too, but I’ll tell you, they stick the ending on that. It’s like BREAKING BAD level, fantastic stuff.
DEAN: Man, I’m going to buy the other five or however many volumes there are as soon as we wrap now (both laugh). But before I do let you go, let’s get some WRESTLEMANIA predictions from you! What are your thoughts leading up to the show?
RS: I think there’s a possibility here to have one of those great classic moments here with Daniel Bryan. I think that if everything goes in the way where it’s looking like things are going to go, it’s going to be an amazing moment, especially to be there in person for; I’m really excited.
DEAN: Absolutely, and then you mentioned Cena earlier and how fans are slowly appreciating him more. I think this Wyatts feud is huge--just exactly what he needed. It’s hard not to root for him when he’s coming off as tortured as he is now by them. Everyone, all four of them – the Wyatts and Cena – are doing such a great job with this.
RS: Yeah, what I kind of feel like is happening there is they’re showing a little bit more of Cena the man and less of John Cena the character, and then, like, that’s an interesting progression for the character.
DEAN: Yeah, he needed that.. and you’ve done a few Wyatt portraits now, right?
RS: Yeah, I’ve done solos of each of the guys and also a couple group pieces, and a new request that just went up. But yeah, they’re super fun to paint. My all-time favorite guy is Bruiser Brody, mainly with his appearance, so yeah with Luke Harper and his look, I really enjoy painting him. But I love that spider walk that Bray does, too; that’s probably one of my favorite paintings I’ve done that was so fun to do.
DEAN: I’m so glad you mentioned Bruiser Brody, because we actually just got a dog recently and when we were thinking of names I was going through your website and the portrait of him biting the ropes just stuck in my head, so now our dog’s name is Brody! So, I guess, thanks for that!
RS: (laughs) That’s awesome!
DEAN: Well I’ll let you go, man, but I wish you all the best at AXXESS! Really looking forward to more people finding your stuff there and enjoying all your contributions that way.
RS: Thanks, Marty! I appreciate it.
DEAN: Head over to RobSchamberger.com or auction.WWE.com to check out more of Rob’s work, and be sure to watch WRESTLEMANIA XXX live this Sunday on the WWE Network!
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G
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