Making art on toilet paper from an art museum

Detail of art printed onto toilet paper

What is the toilet paper like from various art museums? In 2018, I wrote a draft about making art with toilet paper. I never published it, because, well, this is a weird project.

Now that toilet paper has surfaced as a valuable material, I am reconsidering this art project.

Here’s the original draft as I explore:

  • Transporting the toilet paper from the museum’s bathroom
  • Using art from one section of the museum
  • Printing on the toilet paper
  • How does the print look?
  • Displaying a toilet paper print

My goal: I’d like to amass a collection of the toilet paper from various art museums.

Here’s what the toilet paper from the Art Institute of Chicago looks like when scanned on a black sheet of paper.

Points of curiosity:

  • The notion of toilet paper as actual paper that you can make art on.
  • The museum is full of valuable paper hanging on their walls. (aka real artwork)
  • The museum has rolls and rolls of free paper hanging on their bathroom stalls. (aka toilet paper)
  • What type of toilet paper does the museum provide? Is it thick? Thin? Patterned? One-ply, two-ply?

The Art Institute of Chicago offers pretty standard toilet paper. Pretty thin, no pattern. No Monet flowers.

What would I do with this toilet paper?

What if I tried printing an inkjet on it? I could use one of the artworks from the museum’s collection.

The print would be made with one of my photos taken at the museum. A sort of memento. Certainly the ink would bleed, making the image more blurry. This would match up with one’s memory of the artwork.

Our digital photography these days is so immensely sharp and permanent. The print on the toilet paper would be more fading and temporal. This softer image is fitting for a medium so personal as toilet paper.

Transporting the toilet paper

If you acquire this toilet paper, you’d have to take great care of it. The paper is so thin, it could tear or crease. The amount of care you demonstrate for this sheet of paper would be like the same level of care that a museum has for its authentic works. (well, I exaggerate that point, but you get the point)

In my first acquisition mission of October 2018, I tried gently folding the paper, but then hard creases were created in the paper.

For my second attempt at safe transport, I brought a M&Ms metal tin; and a paper towel tube cut down to fit perfectly inside the tin.

Keep your precious toilet paper safe! Transport it inside a M&Ms tin.
Although, you won’t get many sheets to fit in here, because the cardboard tube already fits pretty snug.

I rolled about 12 feet of toilet onto the tube, and snuggly fit the toilet paper inside the M&Ms tin.

[Update: I thought I had thrown out this toilet paper since October 2018. But I still had it stored in my basement inside the M&Ms tin!]

12 feet of toilet paper from the Art Institute of Chicago
12 feet of toilet paper from the Art Institute of Chicago

Using art from one section of the museum

Now that I got the toilet paper, what should I print on it? So many artworks in the Art Institute’s collection. What to pick?

It would be funny if I made toilet paper prints of ALL the paintings in a particular section of the Art Institute of Chicago. 660 artworks on display in the “European Painting and Sculpture” Yipes, that’s a bit much. Maybe I could pick one gallery/room. That way I can say that all these paintings in one gallery have been recreated on toilet paper. I could have my own little toilet paper show.

I’d have to pick a gallery that doesn’t have religious figures in it. Because we don’t want to draw comparisons with Mapplethorpe’s work. (This project may be a bit dramatic, but I don’t need it to be that controversial. But if people want to draw comparisons with Mapplethorpe, anyone can interpret art as they like).

I went to the Art Institute during lunch and got the toilet paper, and took photos of the Gallery 213, consisting mostly of 17th century Dutch painters.

Collage of photos in Gallery 213 of the Art Institute of Chicago
Collage of photos in Gallery 213 of the Art Institute of Chicago

The 18th century French and Italian works in Gallery 216 is especially tempting.

Collage of photos from Gallery 216 in Art Institute of Chicago
Collage of photos from Gallery 216

Gallery 216 features work like a Goya painting for a tapestry.

"Boy on a Ram" by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, 1786/87
“Boy on a Ram” by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, 1786/87

What a completely bizarre painting—so fitting to be printed upon a bizarre medium like toilet paper! Also in 216 is one of my favorites, the “Still Life with Monkey, Fruits, and Flowers“, 1724, by French artist Jean Baptiste Oudry.

"Still Life with Monkey Fruits and Flowers" by Jean Baptiste Oudry, 1724
“Still Life with Monkey Fruits and Flowers” by Jean Baptiste Oudry, 1724

It would be funny to make toilet paper prints of all these paintings from one gallery, and hang them up in a room in your house—all in the same order. A virtual museum gallery, all printed on smaller sheets of paper.

Rationale for printing art on toilet paper

People might think I’m speaking meanly about art if these artworks are represented on toilet paper.

This paper is so not valued that it literally gets flushed down the toilet. You wipe your unmentionables onto this paper. This paper is considered completely worthless. But here I am printing famous works of art onto this paper. I’m imbuing this medium with a treasured subject.

I like it from a modern perspective. So what if it’s toilet paper? I like that it’s toilet paper only, because it’s the most economical form of paper we have readily available.

Interesting parallels with Instagram and toilet paper

  • Both toilet paper sheets and Instagram photos are square.
  • Toilet paper comes in a long stream. Instagram is continuous stream.
  • By printing artwork of all various sizes onto the same consistent 4-inch by 4-inch square, you lose the sense of scale from the original artwork. Instagram does the same effect. Every photo is the same sized square in the Instagram app. Everything is simplified down to one standard size.
  • Toilet paper is short-term. Images on Instagram are consumed very short-term.
  • Toilet paper is for crap. Instagram has a lot of crappy images.

Printing on the toilet paper

Using monkey painting, “Still Life with Monkey, Fruits, and Flowers“, I cropped the image down to just the monkey.

Monkey painting cropped in Adobe Indesign
Monkey painting cropped in Adobe Indesign

I printed it on a square of the toilet paper from the museum. It prints pretty well.

How does the print look?

The toilet paper absorbs a lot of the ink, so you get a bit softer of an image—which isn’t all that bad. It isn’t razor sharp, but this is toilet paper we are talking about. In the printing industry this is called “dot gain.” Each dot printed on the paper gets absorbed into the paper, and spreads out. Your image actually ends up appearing a bit darker because of the ink dots spreading out and mixing with the nearby ink dots.

High-resolution scan of the front

Monkey art printed on square of toilet paper: front view
Front view: Monkey art printed on square of toilet paper

High-resolution scan of the back

Monkey art printed on square of toilet paper: rear view (behind the print)
Rear view (as viewed from the behind) Monkey art printed on square of toilet paper

Interestingly enough, the back shows up really nice. The paper is so thin, and the ink absorbs into the paper, you could easily display this artwork from the backside.

Lighting up the toilet paper print from the back

Viewing inkjet print on toilet paper with back lighting
Ok, so no intentional jokes about lighting up toilet paper from the rear.

Hold up the print against a light, and then you can really see the paper texture.

Toilet paper as photo film negatives

This sort of translucency is a bit like a photo transparency. Someday I’d love to use this toilet paper prints in the darkroom as negatives. Place the toilet paper print directly against a piece of photo paper, and then expose the light through the toilet paper. The toilet paper acts as a filter or a film negative. And then the photo paper will have the image exposed onto it. I did stuff like this with xerox printouts, using the xerox as a film negative.

How does the print look when light up from the side?

Viewing inkjet print on toilet paper with side lighting

Since the toilet paper is mostly pulp, the paper has a nice texture to it. Plus, this paper has little vertical markings. Although, you don’t really notice that. Instead, you just see how wrinkle the toilet paper really is.

How to print on toilet paper using an inket printer

  1. Measure the size of the toilet paper square. The Art Institute’ toilet paper square measures 3-7/8-inch wide by 4-inch high. Not exactly square. Go figure
  2. Using a layout application like InDesign (or sigh, Word), use a 8.5×11 layout. Make a square with this size smack in the middle of the layout.
  3. Print the square on your inkjet printer (but not using the toilet paper yet!)
  4. Take your toilet paper, and rip off a section of three connected squares.
  5. Tape the top and bottom of your strip to the 8.5×11 sheet of paper with the square. Try to align your center toilet paper square with the square on the paper.
  6. In your layout application, place the JPG of the artwork directly onto the square. Make your JPG slightly larger than the square, so the color bleeds off the edges.
  7. Print your layout onto the 8.5×11 sheet with the toilet paper taped on.
  8. Voila. A print on toilet paper!

Why do I tape three squares onto the 8.5×11 paper? Why not one square? A couple reasons.

  • I want the ink to full cover the the top and bottom of the square. If I used only one square, then the ink won’t necessarily print as nicely on those perforated edges.
  • The toilet paper has to be taped to the sheet of paper. You can’t easily peel off the tape from a sheet of toilet paper, so I use an excess of a square on top and a square on the bottom. Those are like my “burn” squares. They get sacrificed to produce one quality print–on a single square of toilet paper.

Displaying a toilet paper print

Now that we have this delicate print, how do we display it? This paper is specifically designed so that if any water touches the surface, it will dissolve. It’s also extremely lightweight and thin.

A shadow box might be cool. Pin the artwork up inside a shadow box, so it retains its physical nature of being a light sheet of paper.

But those qualities of the paper are so impressive when displayed with light behind the paper. The print would look fantastic displayed sealed between two sheet of glass—with no backing. Allow the light from behind to come through and illuminate the paper.

I bought a 28mm thick acrylic frame. The front and back connect together with magnets.

The print looks rather handsome suspended in mid-air inside the acrylic. Yes, handsome toilet paper. What a phrase.

Toilet paper art print inside acrylic frame
Toilet paper art print inside acrylic frame
Toilet paper art print inside acrylic frame, displayed on window sill
Toilet paper art print inside acrylic frame, displayed on window sill

Next steps

Thanks to toilet paper’s demand lately, I became inspired to publish this 2018 draft in 2020. But now all of our cultural institutions are closed due to social distancing against coronavirus (COVID-19). I can’t just walk up to an art museum and snag some toilet paper. But alas! I do have the 2-1/2 year old toilet paper from the Art Institute (stored in my basement). From the 12-foot stream, I have about 36 sheets to use.

As explained above, each print takes 3 sheets to produce. I could do a shortcut where I use two sheets per print. Thus, I have 18 prints I could make.

Should I print the 14 artworks from Gallery 216 on toilet paper? This year, the Art Institute rearranged the artwork in their European Painting and Sculpture galleries to make room for the El Greco exhibit. Therefore, the 14 photos I have of the art in Gallery 216 isn’t the same artwork the Art Institute currently has hanging up in Gallery 216.

Maybe I’ll sit on this project for a little bit more.

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