Nine Inch Nails is the project of musician Trent Reznor. Occupying a liminal position in the evolution of industrial rock, the band is one of the most enduringly popular acts of the 21st century with a sound that has grown to incorporate a vast array of genres and conventions over its 26-year career. Few discographies have played such a pivotal role in popularizing an entire genre while presenting such a diverse a palette of emotions and sounds. Outside of song-crafting, Reznor has also been at the forefront of business and technology as seen by his past entanglements with the record industry leading up to his position as chief creative officer at Beats Music. His uncompromising attitude has inspired generations of like-minded musicians and thinkers to mimic his style and as such, Nine Inch Nails has been a staple of my listening life for as long as I can remember. Their music means a lot to me, so I was beyond ecstatic when I was asked to craft posters for the 2014 tour, which included a date in my hometown of Toronto, Canada.
There is usually some breathing room between releases, but I got this gig very soon after releasing the Queens Of The Stone Age set. Since I'd been hired for one illustration [instead of three], there was a compulsion to do something which felt classy, focused, and iconic. Something palpably different than the Queens posters which were a joy to draw but cramped and exploratory in essence. The time allotted was just a little over two weeks to take this from an idea to 400 prints, meaning there wasn't a ton of extra time, thereby necessitating working smarter instead of harder.
I started by free-associating words and phrases derived from Nine Inch Nails albums and lyrics, stewing up a big shitstorm of associations and ideas. It was important that the image feel like a thesis statement expressing meanings within the group's most recent studio effort Hesitation Marks . I knew I had already thoroughly digested almost everything Nine Inch Nails from a consumer perspective so although intimidated and on this time crunch, I knew things speed along once a direction emerged.
The rules still avoided me for a bit. In spite [or maybe because] of his music's scope, Trent's lyrics very rarely betray strictly literal interpretation, so for some visual inspiration, I binge-watched movies which personally reminded me of bits and pieces of Nine Inch Nails' atmosphere including Aliens, The Matrix, Robocop, and T2. Movies where the organic and inorganic collide in interesting and often violent ways.
I figured that if I couldn't lock down a totally original idea from free-verse sketching, I could mash-up visuals from fitting films and lace it all with my own personality as I'd done with Queens Of The Stone Age as well as The Dillinger Escape Plan. Things began to come together after perusing interviews and documentaries. One of the big points I took from them was that in the case of Nine Inch Nails, every album is a statement analogous with who Trent is at the time of its writing, an aural description of where his mind currently is. A featurette on the making of Hesitation Marks on Youtube lent me the creator's perspective and helped me to further understand some of the artistic choices unique to this record. Knowing that the process involved following scraps of ideas like breadcrumbs towards an unknown goal in a manner that was painterly and progressive seemed extremely creative and I found it very identifiable with my own process. Then I had my eureka moment.
There are few bands as singularly iconic as Nine Inch Nails, so the idea behind this poster needed to really resonate. Many of the lyrics in Hesitation Marks revolve around the theme of reflection. Many can be interpreted as meditations on who Trent used to be (particularly during the nihilistic 90's) and who he has become (a gracefully aging husband, father, and futurist/technologist amongst other things). The sonic structure of the record is a continuation of this idea, featuring spartan compositions which are defined more by minimalistically-considered space than maximally-gestural collages. The circular link between Hesitation Marks and The Downward Spiral is confirmed by the involvement of mixed media artist Russell Mills, who designed the covers and typography (the visual phonetic) for both.
Therefore, it became necessary to attach to something that could encapsulate both records [while keeping Hesitation Marks dominant]. I came very close to drawing a techno-organic Icarus falling from the sky inspired by the song "Somewhat Damaged," (which I thought I could stylize in a way that would reference both) but couldn't commit to the concept, as it felt too one-sided, and it failed to make enough satisfying connections to the rest of Nine Inch Nails' post-Fragile oeuvre.
The first track off of Hesitation Marks (after the eerie instrumental intro "The Eater Of Dreams") is "Copy Of A," which comments on the recycled nature of nearly all contemporary culture (amongst other things). The lyrics work on personal and sociological levels but from my point of view, I interpret it to be signifying that any artist in today's world that is past a certain threshold of self-awareness knows that there is really no such thing as truly absolute originality. Everything comes from something else. What may be marketed as innovation could also be seen as merely a novel assemblage of parts salvaged from the past, recomposed with fresh purpose. The song feels sort of like equal parts acknowledgement and indictment of that fact, so swiping the composition from Caravaggio felt fitting and totally justified since this artistic choice adhered so closely to the record's opening statement.
The sketch was more of a proof of concept for the band and management than an exploration of illustrative possibilities since I already knew what the armature had to look like. I used the same technique on the preliminary as I would for the final, just on a much smaller canvas (8"x10" clayboard). I knew I'd be putting a lot of emphasis into rendering later, so I worried most about concept, focal points, gesture, lighting, and mood. Skeleton before muscles and flesh.
Since the theme of looking back was so prevalent in Hesitation Marks, I looked back into The Downward Spiral and heard the beating scene from THX 1138, which helped personify the spectre below as Mr. Self Destruct (who I've also felt was analogous with Tomorowo Taguchi's tortured character inTetsuo: The Iron Man).
For this image, I knew I'd need to take reference shots. Simply tracing the Caravaggio would look terrible and I wanted a better understanding of the anatomy beneath all of that ill-fitting drapery. I'm way too skinny but that's fine. The reference is just to guess how to fake the way the more bare forms I wanted might play out.
Once the sketch was approved, I projected it onto a bigger board for the final polished drawing. I didn't think about composition much when moving onto this stage. All my effort went into details and rendering at this point.
General outlines with anatomy aids.
Building values cautiously using graphite (4H mechanical pencil) and Faber-Castell's India Ink grey pens.
Original sketch and reference photos strewn about for easy viewing.
The rendering style of the top character's face is inspired by Chris Cunningham's take on Bjork's in All Is Full of Love, and the dislocated ear tumbling down the rabbit hole symbolizes the act of listening as well as a peripheral reference to David Lynch (who recently directed a video for Nine Inch Nails' "Came Back Haunted"). Starting to bust out the etching tools for tight highlights.
Blocking in larger shapes with a brush loaded with India Ink (which is compatible with Faber-Castell's sets).
I researched a number of artists spiritually associated with the aforementioned films, coming up with some mood boards filled with illustrations by guys like Kilian Eng, Moebius, and Geof Darrow, and the recently-deceased H.R.Giger (whose biomechanoid style informed much of Mr. Self Destruct's nightmarish characterization). Laying down some washes to enhance the underwater feel.
Detailing some light approximations from above.
Facial damage and debris.
The whole drawing went by fairly quickly, clocking in at a little over four 14-hour work days (some might call that slow, I call it taking the time I know the work needs). Aside from the litany of little pop culture pieces thrown into the mix, I also kept the idea of tenebrism (chiaroscuro in which dark overtakes light) in mind. The flexibility of the clayboard also made it possible to get a little more subtle with the midtone gradation.
At some point during this process, I also started using an airbrush to lay down more even flats on top of the etched-out highlights. These two were pushed-and-pulled until a pleasing compromise between dry and wet and form and value became evident.
Original text block roughed in. For correcting later on the computer.
Detail of Mr. Self Destruct decaying in the pool of reflection. You can't see it well but the bubbles rising up are actually zeroes and ones.
With the black-and-white India ink linear drawing done, I scanned the 16"x20" clayboard into the computer one letter-sized piece at a time and stitched them together digitally, at times correcting misalignments and awkward pockets of texture where necessary.
In keeping with the minimal feel of the poster, I made sure colours were kept low-key.
Chroma would be more of an accent that a dominant visual element because of the heavy emphasis on form and value.
Using the quick-mask tool to brush in colour and save selections for mixing and matching with masks on various layers.
Quick blue block-in.
Detailing different tone layers. The effect I was going for was a cross between wet frog legs and Neo's skin as he first emerges from the Matrix pod with the Terminator's exoskeleton accenting the structure.
The band names needed to be tweaked a few times so Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden both took up the exact same amount of visual real estate. For the sake of accuracy and speed, these were done digitally. Another day of digitally applying colours and textures later and the image was approved and separated for screen-printing.
Printing these posters was a bit nerve-wracking. By the time the illustration was approved, there were 6 days left for the order of 400, meaning zero margin for error. For this run, each sheet was pre-coated to prevent excess expansion, owing to the unpredictably humid Toronto summer air.
Registering the first layer.
Taping up the sides of the screen. Rips tend to sprout if I don't because of how hard I tend to set the pressure to get a good pull as well as the way the rubber blade cuts across the screen so repetitively.
Metallic silver base layer down.
Trusty Filbur Auto-press with makeshift table of useful crap within easy reach.
Heavy pile of posters.
Transparent blue accent layer down.
Inspecting the print. Being both the designer and printer puts a lot more pressure on both processes, so my creations are always imperfect, which I like to think is part of the charm.
Glow in the dark silkscreen drying after exposure and washout.
Big key layer. Truly a bitch to print.
Registering the next midtone accent layer.
Transparent red down.
Registering the black layer.
Detail of the transparency laying on top of a poster.
Mr. Self Destruct.
Clamping down the final pile after drying overnight to make them nice and flat.
Quality control. Due to the speed I had to print at to meet the deadline, a number of the prints were ruined because something went wrong with one of the layers (usually the black, which often had dry spots and massive 'kiss marks,' and required frequent stops for refilling due to its size). That's fine because I always overprint at least a dozen extras in case of such difficulties and was able to just achieve the order without sacrificing the original quoted number.
Trimmings from immersive full-bleeds.
Large format card stock printer, perfect for machine-cutting piles of anything up to 24" long and up to 3" thick.
The trimming is the meticulous last step of the printing process. Fucking up here can have tragic consequences for the careless.
Laying all the prints out for signing and numbering.
Easiest and worst part of this job.
Dividing the posters up into convenient portions for packing.
Packaged posters, sealed for merch.
Clear labelling so the crews this will be tossed between don't get confused about contents.
The final pile of merch boxes. Phew!
These posters were hand-carted to the Molson Amphitheater the next day, where they were put up for sale at the NIN merch booth.
Thanks for reading. This print can be purchased online through BigCartel.