By Ciera Miller
I wonder which artist it was who woke up first thing in the morning and decided, “You know, instead of drinking my coffee, I’m going to use it to paint!” Was it Picasso? Did he ever dream of painting Guernica with the earthy tones of coffee grounds instead of the browns, greys, and blacks he used in oil? Did Monet ever accidentally dip his paintbrush into his coffee and dot the Rouen Cathedral’s arches and think, “Wow! I’m going to do that with the rest of my paintings!” Or was it even farther back, with Rembrandt and The Night Watch: did Rembrandt want to include another secret in his piece, and created the shadowy chiaroscuro with coffee to do it?
Sadly, it was none of these brilliant artists, though painting with liquids that weren’t paint began even before them. In ancient China, after tea was discovered, artists there thought it would be a cool idea to paint with tea because of its yellowy-brown color. They intended for the background of their paintings to look richer and have more of a sepia tone. This idea traveled with tea along the Silk Road, just as coffee traveled to Europe from Mecca on its own Mediterranean trade route. But painting with coffee didn’t find solid footing as an accepted medium amongst the oil and watercolor that artists had been using for portraits for years before. It did become more used though as artists began to experiment with different mediums in the early 20th century, such as with Gabriele d’Annunzio, who used to doctor the extravagant statues in his garden with coffee and tea to make them look older and more classical.
But coffee painting is a more contemporary form of art, and coffee artists range all over the world. With their different perspectives, they use the coffee in different ways and to express similar yet very different ideas in our contemporary society.
In Thailand, Pornchai Lerthammasiri creates paintings in not only watercolor and oil paint, but also with coffee, which has become one of his specialties. He paints scenes “en plein air”, meaning “in open air”, a lot like the French impressionists did. He wants to pay attention to the light and and color, which he could do with dark, earthy tones of coffee. He discovered how coffee creates special tones for his different outside scenes and now it’s become part of his work. For Lerthammasiri, using coffee adds more naturalness to his paintings because he’s physically using the world around him to portray the world he sees outside everyday. And so, his paintings become more natural and powerful with his usage of coffee to speak about nature.
In the United States, Andrew and Angela Sarkela Saur are known as “The Coffee Artists”. Over a decade ago, they threw out ideas of “normal” mediums and began to use only coffee in their painting. Originally, their focus was creating art for coffee shops out of coffee, but their ideas have expanded since then. Now, they view coffee as the everyday object that it is, and so make an artist statement about the beauty of everyday objects by using different art techniques with this new medium. And because coffee is a universal drink, their paintings have a way of communicating with everyone around the world, regardless of any sort of language boundary.
Like the Sarkela Saurs, Malaysian artist Hong Yi, more commonly known as Red, wants to communicate to the world about not only the beauty of everyday objects, but also about the accumulation of objects. She uses neither traditional art tools nor art mediums, and her tools aren’t limited to just an espresso cup and coffee but a myriad of other everyday things to create a statement. Out of 20,000 collected tea bags, Red created Teh Tarik Man, a commissioned piece of a man making tea, for the Malaysian World Economic Forum. She made this to remind Malaysians of what their home looked and smelled like. Out of coffee, she created Jay, a musician who was important to high school students growing up in China in the 80s and 90s. In one of his songs, Jay mentions drinking coffee and fragments, so in her painting, Red used coffee ring stains to create his portrait, many of which were fragmented to represent both of those things. It worked in her favor as well that the coffee aged the canvas she was using to make it look like an old photograph, and give the nostalgic feeling of once being a high school student.
So it wasn’t Picasso, Monet or Rembrandt who thought about using coffee in their paintings, but it doesn’t need to be the famous artists of yesterday who create beautiful, thoughtful artworks about our world today with coffee. We have brilliant artists to do that for us, such as Pornchai Lerthammasiri, Andrew and Angela Sarkela Saur, and Hong Yi, and so many more like Karen Eland, Sunshine Plata, and Alexander Perandin Moreira. Coffee painting is taking the world by storm, and maybe one day, these artists’ names will be in our textbooks, right beside Picasso, Monet, and Rembrandt.
Sources: The Art of Painting Coffee, Coffee Paintings, Coffee painting: 5 well known artists, Thai Coffee Painting, Painting with Coffee: Andrew and Angela Sarkela Saur, creating fine art, Red Hong Yi, Coffee Art in Communities, Social Media and the Art Market, Jay, Red Hong Yi – Photo Source