For that strong ‘sip’ of creativity…

It may be messy, but it is a creative combination of water colour and coffee


YOU decide to have an espresso while completing your watercolour painting homework when your favourite drink accidentally spilled on the painting.

Don’t panic! The best way to use the spilled coffee is to blend it with the painting and voila! An interesting effect may just be created.

It may be messy, but it is a creative combination of watercolour and coffee. Modern problems require modern solutions after all!

Yes, the coffee that you drink can be used for painting. In fact, it isn’t a new thing.

The history of coffee painting goes back to the 17th century, when the popularity of coffee was strongly emerging in Europe.

The inspiration of coffee painting originated from ancient Chinese artists who actually used tea in their artworks to create that distinct sepia effect.

In fact, tea and coffee were also used in the earlier days to make marble statues appear older.

One fine example is the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who used coffee and tea on his garden statues so they would appear seasoned.

Nowadays, artists all over the world are using coffee to paint.

Thai artist Pornchai Lerthammasiri specialises in coffee painting, something that he experimented with and took six years to master just to get the right texture of coffee and water.

He is known for including themes of history and old times in his paintings.

Spanish artist Juan Antonia, better known as Juapi, ventured into the world of coffee painting after being involved in an accident that left him incapacitated for six months.

So, he decided to try new things and one of them was using coffee as a medium to paint.

Juapi is known for his paintings of popular characters from franchises such as Marvel, DC Comics and Star Wars.

On the other hand, the largest coffee painting was completed by an 18-year-old Cypriot artist Alex Dzaghigian in January this year.

The painting which measures 158.37 sq m was meant to commemorate 2,500 years since the 300 Spartans fought against the Persian army in Thermopylae.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Jerome Liew Chai — who has been working as a graphic designer for six years and currently working as an art tutor in ARTtherapy, Bangsar, for less than a year — is now using coffee as his medium.

Being a VP of urban sketching group KL Sketch Nation, Chai has been taught the art during one of the coffee painting workshops.

“I started learning coffee painting from a Malaysian artist Vivian Lee. Then, someone asked me whether I’m able to do coffee painting and I told them I can try,” he said in an interview with The Malaysian Reserve.

Chai’s first project is for Shell Malaysia Trading Sdn Bhd to commemorate the opening of its Costa Coffee opening in Kota Damansara more than three years ago.

How Does it Work? If you are familiar with using watercolour to paint, then coffee painting works in a similar fashion.

One would need to start off from the lighter shades to darker ones. This would teach you a lot of patience because you would need to wait until the paint dries in order to coat a darker layer.

Planning is also required because you would need to understand which part of the painting that will be lighter and which part will look darker.

Coffee paintings are all originally hand-drawn, which is something unique and precious. It is also limited and non-reproducible

“The coffee that you mix together creates a watercolour-like effect because it’s quite soft and strong at the same time, but when you’re using other media, the effect looks hard. So, coffee paint and water-based media are very fast,” said Chai.

Unlike watercolour, coffee painting is monotonous and only creates a sepia effect.

“Coffee painting is easy to learn for beginners because it is really just about toning control. You only need to understand white, grey and dark areas, and that’s it!”

You would also need to separate the coffee mixes into three hues: Light, medium and dark.

To create the lighter hue, add little coffee powder with a lot of water, while the medium hue should have more powder. For the dark hue, add as little water as possible with a lot of powder.

“Because you’re using coffee, it doesn’t matter whether it’s fresh or not. So you just dilute it in water and you can use as much as you want,” Chai said.

Before one could start painting, they would need to start drawing the subject first. For beginners, portraits are not encouraged.

Rather, they are recommended to draw either objects, animals or flowers. “For drawing, there are two things that you can do. One is to draw the detail first by using little ink. After the paint has dried, you just draw more details.”

According to Chai, his style usually does not use waterproof ink, but rather the type that can be smudged away.

“When you put in water, it is smudged away, but you can still see the details, which you could use a smaller brush to add in. I would use a ‘0’ size brush to do that.”

When Chai adds in the details, he won’t use the pen to draw, but rather use dots because he does not want the lines to be clear.

“It almost feels like the lines are there, but I use dots. It has to be completely dry if you want to add in the pen,” he said.

A Form of Art Therapy
The best thing about painting using coffee is that you’re not only able to create beautiful pieces, but your artwork would smell nice too!

Chai believes that the aroma from the coffee helps in calming you down.

“For coffee paint, it triggers your sense of smell. So it makes your body feel more calm and relaxed. With the smell of coffee and the painting activity, it will be much more enjoyable and relaxing,” he said.

Although coffee is meant to keep a person awake and alert, Chai said he feels more calm and relaxed when he drinks coffee.

“Most of the students tell me that drinking and smelling the coffee makes them calm. I don’t know what the difference is, but for me, when I teach them, the students feel relaxed about it.”

You Can Use Anything to Paint
Apart from Chai, there have been a few Malaysian artists who have tried using coffee to paint.

One of them is cartoonist Mohd Azmi Mohd Hussin, who broke the Malaysian Book of Records the second time for painting a 101m-long piece about places in Penang using coffee.

Lee (second from right) posing with her Mona Lisa coffee painting during her 1st solo coffee painting exhibition with Eco Sanctuary in 2017

However, Chai said Malaysians are still not too familiar with coffee painting.

“Although it has existed for quite some time already, people don’t realise that coffee can be used for painting,” he said.

In fact, coffee is not the only condiment that can be used to paint. Other food ingredients can also be experimented on.

Chai said some of his friends even use chilli sauce and curry to paint!

“I conducted a lot of workshops for KL Sketch Nation, so that more people would explore possibilities, not just being limited to using pen and drawing.”

When Chai attended an international watercolour exhibition, he met an artist from Pakistan who paints using chai or spiced tea.

“It’s kind of interesting and I said, ‘Hey, you’re using tea for watercolour painting!’.

He was the one artist using tea for painting in Pakistan. So I felt that this is a very good way to do that,” said Chai.

His next target is making coffee paintings in bigger pieces.

Choosing the Right Coffee
Meanwhile, artist Lee had no knowledge about coffee painting, but discovered it via her own experiment to paint with it.

She only discovered later that more and more artists had started to paint using coffee.

“I started to paint with coffee since the 2014 Coffee Art Fringe Festival Asia. It was an experiment; I wanted to join the art festival, so I was thinking of creating something special and unique for all the coffee lovers.

“I wanted to create something permanent, something meaningful that could be kept forever and that resulted in the coffee caricature idea,” Lee said.

Not all coffee powder is created equal — which is why it is important to understand the consistency that you want for your painting.

“Instant coffee is suitable for outdoor and quick sketch painting. It is also convenient during small events and on smaller paintings. Instant coffee gives a smooth finish,” Lee said.

She also said that using ground coffee would create a stronger and darker value.

“It will also create a glossy surface even when it’s dry. The ground coffee beans will also stay on paper as its texture will enhance the overall painting.”

To Lee, coffee — as a medium used in a painting — creates a very distinctive colour which conjures a vintage and old school feel. “The different shades of the coffee have a sentimental quality that makes the artwork look more pleasing to the eye,” she added.

Coffee painting is very flexible as it can be completed using a variety of ways.

“I think all artists have their own styles and characteristics, so we don’t compare…We learn from each other and create our own masterpieces.

“Coffee paintings are all originally handdrawn, which is something unique and precious. It is also limited and non-reproducible.”

Finding Pride Through Coffee
Previously, Lee worked as an art tutor and an in-house visual merchandise graphic designer.

She quit her job to pursue something more challenging and different. Currently, she accepts commission works online for portraits, calligraphy and designs.

“I get commissions from young couples to businessmen. These young couples would request for their photos to be drawn in a cartoon or caricature style as a gift for their beloved.

The different shades of the coffee have a sentimental quality that makes the artwork look more pleasing to the eye

“Some pet lovers would request a coffee painting of their pets. Some would request fashion illustration-styled wedding portraits for newly-wed couples as a wedding gift,” said Lee.

She even got a commision by the Malaysia Retail Chain Association to paint a caricature of Berjaya Corp Bhd executive chairman Tan Sri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun.

All the projects make Lee proud and have driven her to keep moving forward.

She usually receives more commissions during Valentine’s Day, birthday celebrations and Christmas.

Apart from commissions, Lee has also done several collaborations with cafes and coffee suppliers. For instance, she has partnered Essenso Coffee, Starbucks Malaysia, Café Bene and O’ Coffee Club “I usually collaborate with brands and coffee suppliers, as well as prepare for international coffee expos and conduct art workshops,” said Lee.

In the past few years, she has joined several international coffee expos such as the 2017 Melbourne International Coffee Expo, the I Love Coffee & Tea Expo 2016, Food & Coffee Expo in Singapore, Cafe Show Vietnam and Cafe Malaysia in Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre.

“I previously had my first solo coffee painting exhibition with Eco Sanctuary in May 2017 for one month.

“Eco World Development Group Bhd (EcoWorld) was the main sponsor for my whole exhibition and I am very grateful to have my first solo with them,” said Lee.

EcoWorld provided a bungalow show unit as the art gallery and the unit consisted of five rooms.

Each room offered a different theme which is Secret Garden, People, Coffee Fashion Illustration, Landmarks of Malaysia and My Journey.

As for workshops, Lee would usually conduct the events upon request which depend much on the number of participants and occasions, such as small private class, team building and company event.

Those interested can reach out to Lee via her Instagram or Facebook page, vivianleesart.

“It is very easy to learn and it is suitable for everyone. I have a few different options for the workshop: Basic coffee colouring workshop, coffee bean arrangement workshop and intermediate coffee painting workshop,” Lee added.