Artist Interview: Paul Rentler

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In this episode of Indieground Interviews we had a chat with Paul Rentler, a super talented collage artist from Columbus, Ohio. We talked about his personal history, his process and what it takes to be a successful digital artist.. keep reading and find out what Paul has to say!

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Paul Rentler is an artist, designer, screenprinter and musician in the band Surfer – have a look at their Bandcamp and you’ll immediately see what Paul’s art is about.

His collages are now known and appreciated by fellow digital artists and thousands of followers on his social media channels. With an unmistakable black and white aesthetic, Rentler’s collages have a strong personality: they mix comics imagery and punk rock culture in a gritty, textured aesthetic. 

Weather you are a young artist curious about Paul’s path and career, or a digital artist who wants to understand Paul’s creative process, keep reading – you’ll find out he has a lot of interesting thoughts to share!

Hello Paul, thanks for joining us! How are you and what are you currently working on?

Thanks for having me. I’m doing well. Lately, I’ve been working on album artwork for a couple of different releases on the “Three One G” label. I’m planning on doing a few live events this year, so I’ve been sorting out the details and getting some new work put together for those. On top of that I have my own personal projects, I’m going into my sixth year of running a monthly sticker pack subscription that keeps me busy, along with a half dozen projects/releases in different stages of completion.

What initially sparked your interest in collage and mixed media art?

I’ve always enjoyed making collage/mixed media artwork from a young age, but there was definitely a stand out moment when I was around 16 and discovered zines. 

A friend showed me a small art zine he had found or was given (I can’t remember) and it was the most curious thing I had ever seen. It was mostly abstract visuals, cut and paste collage stuff. Clearly homemade and weird in all the ways that made my brain race with excitement. That excitement also came with the realization that anyone could make whatever kind of zine they wanted. Zines can be weird and nonsensical and all you need is access to a photocopier and some basic supplies to get going. For a visual person like myself that wasn’t great expressing myself with words it really opened up a world of possibilities. I had to make my own immediately. I’m pretty sure I had made 2-3 little collage zines within a day or two after the discovery.  I’ve tried lots of different art styles and techniques in my creative explorations but collage was the one that stuck and still gets me as excited about creating as I was back then.

Reflecting on your childhood in Columbus, Ohio, during the 80s and 90s, how do you believe this environment contributed to shaping your artistic style and journey?

As I stated above, my teens were when art really took a hold of me. Columbus at that time was very exciting to me. I was getting into art, photography, music, films, and had great friends showing me all kinds of amazing things. This was pre easy access to the internet, so your friends were your world and the source of inspiration. I was fortunate to attend an arts High school for my junior and senior year. I was studying photography (another creative passion for me at that time) but the school was structured in a way that you had large blocks of time to work on projects each day. I would wander into different studios around the campus getting to know people and seeing lots of amazing work being made. I would often spend as much time painting and making collages as I would working on my photos. I learned Photoshop after school in the computer labs there. I pretty much would have stayed all day everyday If that was an option. It was the ideal environment for me, surrounded by creative people and access to tools and supplies I wouldn’t have had at home. I truly tried to get the most of it while I was there. I knew it was a special experience, in fact it was a real adjustment period when school was over and I no longer was part of a place like that. When I went off to college, I was a little let down that it wasn’t anything close to the experience I had at that school. So Columbus at that time was a great place for me to grow up and discover what I was passionate about in life. 

Are there any other particular artists, movements, or experiences that have significantly influenced your work?

My friends were the first and most important early influences on me, way before I had any real art knowledge. It seemed like everyone I knew was extremely talented. That pushes you to grow and feel inspired to contribute to your social group.

I studied photography in school so most of my art history education was in that world. The artwork I took notice of was what I saw my friends making. 

Comics were the art form I took notice of first. I knew the artists names, I would collect them just to look at the artwork, It was all about the art and the connection to characters. I’d have long conversations with friends about different artists and the books they were featured on. They were rockstars in our minds as kids.

I think the next bump in my art education was based on album art. I would study the covers of my favorite records and CDs I was listening to. I had a lot of punk and 90s rock stuff and the covers were very inspirational, although I had no idea who the artists that made them were at first.

Radiohead’s Ok computer artwork really spoke to me. I actually took the time to learn who made it. Learning that Thom York and Stanley Donwood made it together in the studio as the record was being recorded. I like everything about it, and loved the idea of collaboration. I imagined one of them was collaging old text book images and the other would go in right behind them whiting out half of it. I think this was the first style I tried to imitate consciously, although not very well. 

As I leaned into collage and printmaking, artists doing similar work would be pointed out to me by others, as I was still mostly doing my own thing in a bubble, and not really that informed on the art world outside of my friends group. I knew Andy Warhol’s work, and friends pointed me to artists I connected to like Faile, Bast, Shepard Fairey, PaperRad to name a few. I slowly got to know the art world outside of my friends and local scene, and then my new peer I discovered over social media became my friends and inspiration. And I got a hint of that feeling I had back in the arts high school.

You are also a musician. Does your music inspire your visual art, and vice versa?

I think so. I learned to screen print to make Band shirts and posters. I would make all the art for the bands I was in. And that’s when comic book collaging became a big focus of my work. They xeroxed well and were easy to turn into screen prints. I liked making weird music and weird art, they felt like they came from the same place creatively. I would jump from one to the other. When I had finished a creative burst making music and out of ideas there, I would jump to making art to fill that need to create. 

Your art often blends iconic pop culture imagery with a gritty, lo-fi aesthetic. Where do you usually find inspiration for your artworks and how do you decide which elements to combine in your collages? Could you take us through a typical process from concept to completion?

A lot of it comes down to “I know it when I see it” with the images I use. I like older stuff, images from the 50s through the early 90s are my sweet spot. Although there’s an exception to all that. I try to mostly use materials that were made in bulk for advertisements, comics, newspapers, magazines, and packaging. Stuff almost anybody could find with a little digging. That’s the fun, these things are everywhere. It’s what you do with them that matters. Collage is the art of decision making, seeing things and putting them together in interesting ways. My early days of making collage work leaned heavily on Xerox machines and whatever cheap books/ comics I could get in thrift stores. At that time the lo-fi artifacts were not a choice. You were stuck with the quality the machines had to offer. When you have no choice about the quality of the images it was something I was working against. But when computers and modern Copy machines became more part of my work and everything was so clean looking, I started to miss all the stuff the old machines would add to a finish piece.

It became fun to find ways to bring that stuff back into the work. These days I make an exaggerated version of that look, dialing those elements way up to see how far I can go with it. It’s fun to research and think about what was causing the old machines to get so textured and degraded and how to incorporate that into my work.

As for the process. I don’t have one set way of doing everything, but let’s say I was making a piece for myself that wasn’t for a design job. I like to go into new work without much of an idea at first, it’s fun to discover the work as it’s being made. I spend a lot of time clipping images. I used to photocopy a bunch of stuff, cut it out and keep it in shoe boxes, but that got overwhelming to manage and was really wasteful. Now I scan images I’ve collected and clip them out digitally. Small clips of anything I find might be useful. They go into folders unsorted, I’ll start a new folder every couple of months. Being unsorted is important (not so much when trying to find a specific image but because it’s so random). When I start a piece I just look through the folders skimming through whatever is in there at that moment. It’s the act of seeing random things grouped together for no particular reason that gets my mind firing. Things will start to connect, I’ll see something that I think will fit with something else and boom the seed of an idea forms. I’ll explore that idea and my mind kicks in fitting more pieces into the puzzle. It tends to be this balance of seeing it come together in my head while having it still be a mystery until the last bit is in place. When I’m in the right mental zone it just flows, and I do my best to not overthink what I’m doing. Within this process it can go many ways. I might keep it all digital, or I might print out elements collage them by hand, draw on them, scuff them up, then rescan it back into the computer. Whatever I think will get me the results and artifacts I’m looking for. I’m not a purest for any one approach, I’ll use whatever tool is at hand. All the finished work goes into the computer for detailing and textures if needed. I rarely have a 100% physical original. But the idea is these pieces can be turned into screen prints, paintings, stickers, zines, whatever I can think of. But I make the work first and figure out what to do with it later. It helps keep the creative process separate from the “will this make money” thoughts in my brain. That way I can enjoy making everything and just sell the stuff that connects to others. 

Do you have a signature piece or a project that represents a significant turning point in your career? What is its importance to you personally and professionally?

I do and I don’t. My work has been a slow evolution, you can see seeds of what I do now in my early work. Like most artists I’d slowly try new things, get bolder with my choices, cut out approaches I didn’t think were working, and sharpened craft with every new piece I worked on. A turning point that comes to mind happened around 2015. I used to be very focused on color and multilayered work. 5-10 layered screen prints/ paintings. At some point the work felt way too busy, and if I messed up a layer I’d have to start over. One day I was looking at a piece I was struggling with, I believe I’d tried two or three times to make it work, but the color combos were not good, and I had too many layers that just muddied up the image. Part of preparing artwork for screen printing is breaking down your color separations. You make each layer solid black and white to be printed on the transparencies that you use to burn your screens. I was looking at the separations for this piece and thought I only like this top layer. The black and white line work that goes on top of everything else. Although I’ve done lots of black and white zines in the past, I thought the layers and lots of colors were important to the work I was doing. But I realized the bold black and white top layer was much stronger on its own. I started to simplify things down to strictly black and white, in fact I stuck to mostly black and white work for a few years. I focused on interesting imagery, textures, and composition. That’s how my style now slowly emerged. I’ve returned to working with color but the black and white work has become a core element, and for a time helped me stand out from other collage artists. I didn’t reinvent the wheel moving in this direction but it was a fresh approach for me at that time, and I really got to hone my skills by keeping things simple.

How has your technique evolved from your early days of creating zines and screen printing to your current mixed media and collage work? Has technology influenced your artistic process or the way you approach your art?

I covered some of this in my previous answers, but I can speak to the influence of technology in my work directly. I started making work long before I ever had a computer. I’d haul a stack of books to the local copy shop and be there for hours making loads of copies. I’d easily spend half a paycheck on photocopies regularly and wasted tons of materials trying out different techniques. This was all valuable experience, but when I did get my own computer and could afford a scanner and printer things boomed. I could work so much quicker trying out new ideas as they came. The biggest shift was when I went all in with my home setup. Modern copy machines are pretty much computers with a scanner and printer. Gone were most of the charm of the older analog machines that imparted their stamp on your work if you wanted it or not. There was no reason to drag a stack of books across town anymore. I started to approach Photoshop like I would paper and scissors. Intentionally roughly cutting things out and layering images the way I would on paper, not cleaning things up too much. With the advantage of the tools to resize, flip, duplicate, and make many iterations not destructively. I’m as comfortable with a computer as I am with paper and scissors. And the two together open up the best of both worlds. 

How do you maintain your artistic identity while working on commercial projects like comic book covers?

I’ve been lucky that most of the commercial work I’m offered is because of my style. The style is a feature of the artwork I’m hired to do. I can’t say I ever thought I’d work in comics as a collage artist, but when I was given the chance I jumped in and didn’t hold back. I had a great team that believed in my work and helped push it forward eventually getting to do things like covers and the overall visual tone of the imprint I was working on.

Recently, you created The Cryptic Event, a pop art concept show, with a very unique feature. Can you tell us about it and also how you came up with this idea?

Well this could be a long answer but I’ll try to boil it down as best I can. It came about for a couple reasons. In 2019-2020 I was working on my first solo show. literally the day after I packed all my work and shipped it across the country the lockdowns started to take effect. Everything was so uncertain, the gallery canceled the opening and the work sat in boxes, never even hitting the walls. When making the work I was most excited to see it all together as a coherent body of work displayed as a collection, and that was completely lost when the showing was canceled. In the end we did an online opening just using the photos I took before they shipped off to the gallery. The show did well, and there wasn’t really any other option at that time, but it was a real deflating experience to not see it come together as envisioned. 

In mid 2022 after a very productive week of making new work. I looked at what I had and started thinking I may have a good start to a new show. I had no real plan at first. I just started going all in on making a new body of work, thinking I’d figure it out what to do with it at some point. This work felt like it was telling a story and needed to be presented in a more creative way. At some point the idea formed that I would have the show in an empty warehouse. Hang all the work, photograph it, and take it all down before telling anyone I was having a show at all. That’s exactly what I did, the show happened in a nearby makerspace that was only half occupied, the rest of the space was raw and perfect for the work I was making. From start to finish the show was 5 hours, most of that was set up time. I got my moment to see the work all together, with only two other people who helped me with the install seeing it in person. We took tons of photos, and then packed it all back up. I was completely drained after the 7 weeks of putting it all together, and went on vacation with my family. It was only once I was home and had time to edit the photos and put together a presentation on my website that I announced the show. I had no idea if anyone would even understand what I was trying to do, but was blown away by the positive response to show. I recommend reading my way more in-depth explanation on my website for a better description of the concept. It was fun, more than a bit self indulgent, and really satisfying to have people respond so positively to it.

Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to young artists and illustrators trying to carve out their niche in the industry?

Don’t wait for dream projects to come along. If you want to design comic book covers, (or any other type of project you wish you could do) go for it. By putting out the type of work you want to be doing you’re showing people what they would get if they hired you. 

Make work often, and share what you’re doing.  You have to put yourself out there, and posting it on apps like Instagram, TikTok, X, Threads is a way of getting eyes on what you’re doing, and possibly finding an audience that will help support your work.

Remember it takes time, I don’t know any shortcuts. Be creative first, make the work that excites you. Be inspired, but find your own voice. If you want to stand out, find a way to be a sum of your influences, not a rehash of what’s already out there.

Take time to reach out and talk to people that enjoy your work, personal connections lead to bigger things.

In the next five years, what direction do you envision for yourself and your art, and are there any new techniques, technologies, or collaborations you’re looking forward to exploring?

I’m alway looking into new ways to approach my work, I’m excited about trying new techniques, and technologies when they speak to me. I get very inspired when something new finds its way into my work, it usually yields a creative burst and a body of work based on it

My goals lately have been to put myself out there more. Do more in person events or shows. I work alone in my studio most of the time. It’s something I really enjoy, but it keeps me a bit removed from the outside world. I alway enjoy meeting my peers in person, I know most people from Instagram or email. I’d like to venture out more, and feel more connected to my community.

Get to know Paul Rentler better and get inspired by other episodes in the series!

Here at Indieground Design we are so happy we are having the chance of connecting with amazing contemporary artists whose work we love! If you want to get to know Paul Rentler’s work better go and check out his website paulrentler.com and his Instagram profile @prentler – you will find a bigger selection of his work and some fantastic merch you can get for yourself!

And if you are looking for inspiration, we can point you to previous episodes of our series of interviews, were we got to chat with some of our favorite artists, like Trey Trimble, Roberlan Paresqui aka This is Blasé, Florian Schommer or Alessandro Strickner aka the Overglow.. check them out!

Indieground Design

Indieground Design

We are a team of designers, developers & photographers from Italy and we love to create striking graphic resources! Have a look around our website to discover more about what we do and the services we offer!

Indieground Design

Indieground Design

We are a team of designers, developers & photographers from Italy and we love to create striking graphic resources! Have a look around our website to discover more about what we do and the services we offer!

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