Brian Cohen & the Artwork for Moonstrung Air

Many people have remarked on the artwork for the cover of Moonstrung Air. It seemed like a good idea, then, to talk to the artist responsible for the etchings that feature so prominently in the design. [Before we jump in, I would be remiss if I did not mention the design team at Parma — Brett Picknell and Ryan Harrison — who did an amazing job with layout and typesetting.]

I have known Brian D. Cohen since my time teaching at The Putney School in Putney, Vermont. He was a friend, ally, and inspiration during my year there. I asked Brian a few questions about his art:

What materials and equipment do you use?

I have a wonderful little French American Tool Company press made around 1970. The “technology” of the etching press hasn’t changed in 500 years save better materials (steel, etc.). I work exclusively on copper these days, but many older pieces were etched on zinc. The mordant I use, technically a salt, is ferric chloride.

[the artist in his workshop with cat Roscoe]


How do you create the positive/negative prints?

The “positive” prints are straight-ahead intaglio printing, e.g., the way etchings are meant to (and usually are) printed. The etched/incised/textured areas are filled with ink and the surface delicately wiped clean and printed under high pressure The “negative” plates are printed by rolling ink over the surface of the plate, exactly the way a woodblock (relief print) is made. They are close to relative reversals of light and dark, but each printing method picks up different information; the intaglio gets every subtlety of texture and depth; the relief is more clearly white or black (ink/no ink, picking out the high points without degrees of depth). They can be printed on the same press.


How do you create the mix of hard/clear lines and more mottled textures?

[Nostalgia Moon, detail]

The hard lines are etched or engraved; the mottled textures are arrived at with other more spontaneous techniques, such as softground, aquatint, etc. These latter techniques allow textured and tonal shapes and, practically speaking, are broader, quicker, and more improvisatory approaches. I also use an airbrush and air eraser to create light and dark areas, respectively, working with cut cardboard stencils to achieve strong shapes with varying edges. The chemistry of etching (grounds, mordants, sprays, etc.) also leaves its characteristic marks and textures, depending on how things, drip, melt, dry, and burn.


I know you have done various collections of etchings (birds, alphabet, Pierrot Lunaire, tarot, etc.); how do these astronomical etchings fit together? how do they fit in your body of work in general? are they intended as a set or artist’s book?

[You can explore the astronomical set here.]

I work in thematic groupings, generally conceiving of these prints as suites, compilations, or in book format. I am drawn to cosmographical imagery. I am fascinated by the attempt to embrace philosophical themes via visual images and by the historical conflation of physics and metaphysics. It is a heroic, sometimes naïve attempt.

Nostalgia Moon is one poem/song from Pierrot Lunaire —


Like the plaintive sigh of crystal,
The soul of the old commedia
Complains of the rigid pace
Of the slow, sentimental Pierrot.

In the wilderness of his mind
Echoing in muted tones
Like a plaintive sigh of crystal,
The soul of the commedia

Pierrot rejects his the tragic manner:
Through the pallid fires of the moon
In swelling waves,
His lament ascends to his native heaven,
Like a plaintive sigh of crystal.

I like the proximity of hard (“crystal,” “crystalline,” “rigid”) and soft (“soul,” “sigh,” “plaintive,” “fires,” “swelling,” “lament”) imagery in the poem. The character Pierrot vacillates between a kind of vicious, reductionist sadism and self-indulgent sentimentality, hence my choosing reversals of intaglio/relief, light/dark, hard/soft.


Do you see a connection between your landscape watercolors and pieces like Big Moon or Scimitar Moon?

[Sunset, Idyllwild, California, 2011, watercolor, 6″ x 11″]

They are essentially opposite approaches, two sides of the same coin. The watercolors have no visible mark – they are non-specific, immaterial color harmonies. The etchings are made up of marks of different sizes and textures. Watercolors are arrived at as generalities that suggest the specific; etchings are built from the particular up to a broader response.

[Scimitar Moon]


Is there anything from you musician side that shows up in your artwork? vice-versa?

I am a mediocre violist (like Pierrot) and don’t practice; I am a good artist and work hard at it. Had I been given a choice at birth I would have been a musician; I find music the more emotionally transporting medium.


Where can people find your work?

They can contact me at
or online at either

Brian also blogs for Huffington Post

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