Some of my earliest memories are of the smell of coffee – NOT the taste. I did not like coffee. The drinking of coffee resulted in the onset of migraines. In upset stomachs. In cotton-mouth-I-need-water-to-remove-the-coffee-taste. The SMELL of coffee was the rising of the sun, huge breakfasts spending weeks with my Grandma Benton (“You don’t want a third helping? Are you sure you are okay?”) – of fried eggs, scrambled eggs, toast, pancakes and syrup, biscuits and gravy… and love. The SMELL of coffee was seeing my parents sit silently yet companionably in the mornings before breakfast could even begin to be cooked. The SMELL of coffee was company in the living room – of “how do you take your coffee?” and “two teaspoons of sugar and one of cream” or “why ruin my coffee with sugar or creamer?” And then I began to PAINT with coffee – and my love affair with coffee began. The SMELL of coffee while painting, well…duh…did you read the above? I have also, as an adult, grown to love the taste of coffee as well… but I will get to that, and Italy, in a moment. The childhood memories alone of the smell of coffee assured that I would enjoy at least the attempt at painting with it.
I have used both instant coffee and regularly brewed coffee to paint, but instant coffee is the easiest as you just add more coffee granules to the water to darken whereas with brewed coffee you would need to boil it until it thickens in order to produce the darker values. In order to paint with coffee, I use a good quality watercolor paper as my base. (I prefer 140 lb cold press watercolor paper). I also like to premix my values in a watercolor palette – generally beginning with very light, light, light medium and medium. It helps to prep your paper first as well by wetting both front and back with water and then laying down a very light layer of coffee as a wash over the entire page. (If you have any white areas that need to remain white, however, those need to be blocked off with NO coffee wash added.) This usually serves to prep and stretch my watercolor paper well enough as I work in small areas at a time thereafter and without adding great amounts/areas of water at a time. Some people prefer to also staple or tape the edges, but I haven’t found that to be necessary when I am coffee-painting. Usually a decent hair dryer is all I need to use to dry whatever area/layer I have just worked on, and I also use the heat from the dryer to gently pull or roll the paper to where it remains flat as I work.
The deep, rich brown hues of coffee create beautiful monochromatic paintings, and to give you an idea of how this is accomplished, here is an abbreviated time-lapse journey via four photographs of a recently completed coffee painting.
I generally do a very light pencil sketch of the (in this case) portrait I am about to paint. If the pencil is too dark, it will show through the layers of coffee placed atop, and one cannot erase the pencil marks once the coffee has been placed. I put in general washes of light to medium values to “fix” the basic outlines and shades in place upon which I will work. (note: whites of eyes and teeth remained untouched when the first initial wash was placed on the paper)
The second stage consists of building up layers in the medium and darker areas of value. It is imperative to remember to use the hair dryer to dry each layer before adding another. If the previous layer is not dry, the values will begin to merge together thus ending in a messy, indistinguishable blob of brown.
The third stage is when I begin “popping in” the darker values. At this point, I really begin to move from mediums to much darker values by adding more instant coffee into the values I have already created on the palette. This is also the time period that takes the longest as drying between layers ensures the darkest values and therefore the sharpest details.
And finally, after much angst and waffling back and forth between “Am I finished?” and “There’s still something missing…”, I sign my name in coffee and date it.
Somewhere between loving only the SMELL and beginning to PAINT with coffee I also developed a liking for the TASTE of coffee. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact moment at which this occurred. It was the year 2012: I had arranged a trip to Italy via EF Tours for myself and seven students. Our tour guide, Rosella, had informed us that Starbucks was not allowed in Italy as it would most definitely lower the coffee standards for the entire country. Some of my students were amazed; I was less so as coffee wasn’t high on my list in the first place. But… whilst in Rome… yada, yada, yada… so I decided to sit in a sidewalk café with a cup of Joe while my students browsed surrounding shops. I ordered a cup of coffee (mainly because one cannot SIT anywhere in Rome without being a paying customer) before I commenced people-watching. I received a tiny porcelain cup on a tiny saucer with a tiny silver spoon… What?!?!? So I looked around to see what everyone else was doing with this. Most of the Italians were at the bar drinking their tiny cups and leaving soon after. What I discovered was a cup of coffee to an Italian is the same as an espresso. And it was good! I expected a bitter taste, but the tiny porcelain cup full of rich goodness quickly became the first thing I had each morning.
And then I discovered the Ferrero Pocket Espresso to Go at a truck stop when we stopped for a restroom/snack break…. I have no words… none. I have searched (to no avail!) for a site that will sell this delectable treat and deliver here in the USA. What I did find was that it is only available in the summer in Italy, but the candy version of Ferrero chocolate with liquid espresso at its center can be found year round. I did buy handfuls of them every time I found them while in Italy, but these didn’t last very long once I returned home.
The final coup-de-grace, the moment where I began to love the TASTE as well as the SMELL came immediately after our tour bus had a flat on the trip between Rome and Florence. We limped into the closest truck stop to get our tire changed, and Rosella mentioned that we were in the middle of coffee growing country and to make sure and try the coffee. I ordered a cappuccino for my breakfast – and a second – and a third -- and haven’t looked back since.