Homage to Ray Johnson and Kurt Cobain with Self-Portrait, Etc.

Finished 4-color print

Finished 4-color print. 19×25 inches as shown, to be trimmed to 18×24.

This past Saturday I finished up this experimental print. I’m pleased that this took two weeks instead of two months like The Silo, but it still caused a bit of a struggle. Today I’m going to share some of the artistic considerations and the technical process.

Artistic Considerations

It’s a self-portait autobiographical stream of consciousness and homage to Ray Johnson and Kurt Cobain with a pretty picture of a guitar. Here’s how it came to be.

On the evening of my 34th birthday, my sister gifted me the Nirvana Unplugged in New York DVD which I had never seen (and had been on my wish list for some time). I’m not the world’s biggest Nirvana fan or anything, but do quite enjoy the live album that resulted from that MTV performance. She also gifted me a copy of The Paper Snake by Ray Johnson, an artist that I’ve come to enjoy quite a bit. The book was only reprinted in recent years.

When I was in college I used to buy these small wooden boxes from the local craft store and adorn each side with a stream of consciousness entry. If you are a follower of my Instagram account, you might remember that I’ve done a few of these this year on robots. (Ex. 1 and Ex. 2) in the form of hand embellished prints. In each of those examples the robot is printed and the words written by hand. Each is unique with a different passage. But the idea to print a stream of consciousness kind of stuck with me. And while enjoying my new birthday gifts, I grabbed up a Sharpie marker and scrawled this out:

It was summer and I was sitting on my ratty leather sofa watching Nirvana Unplugged in New York for the first time and sort of kind of reading The Paper Snake my Ray Johnson. “How old was Kurt Cobain when this was recorded?” I wondered. 26? 27? What was I doing at that age? Living with my parents and working third shift in a factory. I should have dropped out of college to start a band that one time I sort of kind of really considered it. It’s probably too late for me to be a popular musician like Kurt Cobain but maybe I can still make some respectable art like Ray Johnson? How am I doing?

Okay, I lied a bit. That is what is on the print now, but it was edited slightly to fit the print. You might not be able to make out the whole passage from the screen of your computer, mobile device, or even in person from twenty feet away. However, you can make out the whole thing up close and personal.

Here are some facts about Ray Johnson and Kurt Cobain as they pertain to each other and this piece:

  • Kurt Cobain was a rock musician for the band Nirvana. He killed himself on April 5, 1994 (though there are several conspiracy theories that say otherwise)
  • Ray Johnson was a multi-disciplinary artist was died January 13, 1995 having jumped from a bridge into Sag Harbor in New York.
  • Though Johnson’s death was officially ruled a suicide, many wonder if it was some sort of performance art piece. Many attributes of his death incorporate the number 13. The day of his death, the numbers of his age (67) added together, the numbers of his hotel room (247) added together. Coincidentally, there were 283 days between Johnson’s and Cobain’s death, which also adds up to 13.
  • In a series of mail art pieces, Johnson featured the Lucky Strike logo prominently. During the Nirvana Unplugged in New York performance, Kurt Cobain can be seen smoking nearly constantly between songs (though he was likely smoking Camels; I had to look that up because it would be too perfect if he was smoking Lucky Strikes).
  • The guitar featured in the print is a Martin D-16E that was made by the Marin Guitar Company for only one or two years around 1953. It is the model Cobain played during the Unplugged performance.  It’s the primary visual homage to Cobain in this piece, but also I just like guitars and especially funky looking guitars like that.
  • The Lucky Strike logo is what I chose for the Ray Johnson visual homage. On the red layer I reversed the logo because Kurt Cobain (a left handed guitar player) was playing a right handed guitar strung left (or backward). On the yellow/orange layer I kept the logo in the original orientation so as to partially mask the red layer and make it more difficult to discern. I’d considered implementing one of Johnson’s famous bunny heads, but felt that was too on the nose.
  • As the author of the stream of consciousness, I decided to throw in my own self-portrait as well. The eye in the guitar soundhole helps to further obscure the Lucky Strike logo.

And there you have it. I could elaborate, but I feel like I’ve talked about it too much already. Let’s look at that technical process.

The Technical Process

The composition of this print was derived as a means of experimenting with my inks. I’ve never printed with straight process inks, but didn’t want to do it for the first time with a true 4-color process print. While I know how the colors are supposed to interact with each other, I wanted to see how the inks I was using actually looked when printed together.

4-color process ink test

4-color process ink test

In true 4-color process prints, cyan, magenta, yellow, and ink are printed in gradients to try to simulate the entire color spectrum. These are the same ink colors most inkjet printers use, but whereas the droplets of ink from an inkjet printer are very fine, the dots from hand pulled screen prints are much larger. Cyan and magenta make purple. Magenta and yellow make red. Cyan and yellow make green. Together the three make a close approximation of black. Usually black is printed last, but I wanted to see how the process inks would look overprinted on the black.

For the final print I knew the process yellow wasn’t going to be what I wanted, so after a few tests, I switched and tinted it with non-process yellow, non-process red, and process magenta to get the orange color shown in the final print. And that last color is the one that gave me the most headaches.

Orange printed alone on a blank sheet

Orange printed alone on a blank sheet

The final color covered a ton of real estate. We’re probably looking at 85% coverage here. It stuck awfully to the screen and I never found a way to resolve it while printing. After I finished I did get some suggestions from the fine folks at Gigposters.com.  Of course one of the things many of them said was that they don’t usually (or ever) try to print a screen with that much coverage. A better alternative might have been to print on a yellow or orange paper and print white highlights where needed. Refer to the final image at the top of this page and observe how very little white there is to be found.

Of course that is just the nature of experimental prints I guess. Originally I’d not planned to have so much ink coverage on the final screen, but when I printed magenta (the third color) I realized I wanted to town it down. So the ink coverage of yellow/orange expanded well beyond the guitar body.

A print that was stuck to the screen while flooded

A print that was stuck to the screen while flooded

What I ended up doing was pulling the color, lifting the screen to peel the print from it and hang the print, and then flooding the screen. It was pretty tedious. Shown above is an example of a print that I think I failed to remove before flooding the screen. This resulted in massive ink blotches on the page. However, I have to say that it kind of looks cool and at some point I might investigate purposefully textured inks in screen printing.

I also found a new tool to be used in making hand drawn films. Montana Refillable Paint markers. On The Silo I used a technical pen and sumi brush with a highly pigmented ink on Duralar Wet Media film. And I like those tools, but the Duralar Wet Media is pricey at over $3 a sheet. So I tried some less expensive Duralar that isn’t for wet media at less than $1 a sheet. The only problem is that it doesn’t seem to take the Daler-Rowney ink I was using. Enter the Montana Refillable Paint Markers.

Montana Refillable Paint Markers

Montana Refillable Paint Markers. 2mm and 15mm.

Throwing away disposable markers sucks. Not knowing how much paint is left in them is worse. These are clear and I’m using Montana’s Acrylic Black ink. It sticks just fine to the non-wet media Duralar. (I bought both at the same time not knowing my Daler Rowney ink wasn’t going to work). I’ll still use the wet media film for films that require the finer detail of the technical pen.

These prints aren’t signed or trimmed yet. Originally I thought it would be a signed and numbered edition of 67 (Ray Johnson’s age at the time of his death), but I may not have that many that turned out. And instead of numbering them I might just call them all “egocentric test prints” or something. We’ll see. In the meantime I’m already working on some sketches for my next print. My non-art work schedule is really cramping my style, but what are you going to do?

Update: The more I look at the messed up print with excess ink, the more I like it than the rest of the prints. Maybe I’ll have to print a fifth color on top of these before I call them done. Maybe that’s why I’ve delayed trimming and signing them. Often it is best to take a step back and wait before declaring a thing done.



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