Friday, 30 December 2011

Elephant No. 89: Painting with Coffee

A couple of months ago, I painted with tea, so today I thought I'd try painting with coffee.

Painting with coffee is usually done with instant coffee, but I thought I'd try painting with the dregs of a very nice Sumatran coffee made in a French press. This may have been foolish of me in retrospect, but everything I do on this blog is something of an experiment, so what the heck.

Most coffee paintings are richly coloured, dark and moody. Usually using various proportions of instant coffee to water, coffee painters can create effects similar to monochromatic watercolours. I'm wondering if the suspension of the instant coffee particles and their ability to dissolve is what makes this work. My painting is very pale in comparison with any coffee painting I've seen online, so perhaps instant coffee behaves more like paint than my actual coffee. Or maybe I just need a lot more time to add layers.

Coffee painting by Karen Eland, 2003. Eland uses espresso for her
works, often leaving the espresso to sit for a few days to
thicken and darken.

In addition to using coffee as a watercolour paint on paper, the technique invented by Canadian artist Marie Linda Bluto involves painting instant coffee over a base of acrylic medium, creating some spectacular effects. I first encountered her work at a local gallery a couple of months ago, and it was something of a revelation. I might try the "Bluto technique", as it is now known, at some point in the future, but for today we're stuck with my far less dazzling effort.

by Marie Linda Bluto

To start, I painted a small piece of mid-range watercolour paper with a wash of coffee. The paper promptly curled up, so I decided it needed to be blasted with the hairdryer. It still wouldn't lay flat, so I taped down the undersides of all four corners.

Once the wash was dry, I painted an outline. I had intended a faint outline, but this was fainter than I expected. I did like the effect, though.

I blasted that with the hairdryer as well, then simply kept adding coffee with a very fine brush. One thing I noticed was that, when you add more coffee, the brushstroke often removes the layer of coffee beneath, creating white areas. At first this annoyed me, then I realized I could use it to my advantage, removing coffee where I didn't want it.

I had to dig down deep into the coffee dregs to get any pigment, and the coffee particles tended to be poorly suspended in the water. This means that many layers are required in order to get any real density of colour laid down.

Ultimately I gave up trying to build up a dark colour. I could see that I was going to start overworking the painting, and it wasn't going to get much darker within the time frame I had, anyway.

I don't mind the final result at all, despite the fact that it's nothing like I envisaged. It has a faded look that I like, and it smells interesting as well. Another bonus: coffee does an amazing job at reconditioning brushes. The brush I used for the background wash was dry and stiff when I started, but is now soft and good as new. Go figure.

Elephant Lore of the Day
The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus) is a subspecies of Asian elephant, native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Protected in Indonesia since 1931, the Sumatran elephant is nonetheless a species at risk.

Sumatran elephants are smaller and lighter in colour than other Asian elephants. Their average height is between 2 and 3.2 metres (6.6 and 10.5 feet), and they weigh between 2,000 and 4,000 kilograms (4,400 and 8,800 pounds).

Once widespread on the island, Sumatran elephants now survive only in highly fragmented groups. In the mid-1980s, there were 44 separate known populations, although this has since declined significantly. For example, in one province, the twelve populations known in the 1980s have been reduced to three. In 2000, it was estimated that only 2,000 to 2,700 wild Sumatran elephants still existed; this number has probably fallen considerably further since then.

The remaining wild population of Sumatran elephants is threatened by poaching, habitat loss, and conflict with humans. A whopping 65% of Sumatran elephant deaths are at the hands of people. Of this 65%, 30% of deaths are caused by poisoning due to fear of the animal. Sadly, 83% of the Sumatran elephant's former habitat has been turned into plantations, leaving the remaining wild elephants isolated, prevented from reaching sources of food and water, and in ever-increasing conflict with human activities.

To help preserve the remaining wild Sumatran elephants, in 2004 Indonesia established Tesso Nilo National Park. It is one of Sumatra's last forests large enough to support a viable population of elephants.

Sumatran elephant at the Ragunan Zoo, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2009.
Photo: Midori

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund 

World Society for the Protection of Animals 

Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world) 

Performing Animal Welfare Society

Bring the Elephant Home 

African Wildlife Foundation


  1. Such an interesting concept of using tea and coffee as painting tools. Really impressive. I might give it a try one day too.

  2. You should! I think maybe stronger coffee would be better than what I used. :)