For the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking of little else but painting with coffee. It just seemed like such a fun medium that, if used to create realistic looking art, mimics the look of an old-timey sepia photo. (I want to thank DC in Style for the idea — head over to her blog for some fab coffee illustrations of chic girls.)

For my first time using coffee in lieu of watercolors, I decided to do a portrait of blogger Liz Morrow of Delightfully Tacky, based on a photo from her blog. With her big wild brown hair, I figured she would be the perfect subject matter.

At any rate, if you are interested in trying painting with coffee, scroll down for a how-to based on what I learned and for photos of my illustration as it was being done.

  1. Like with a watercolor illustration, you start with a simple sketch.
  2. Make coffee, if possible in very small quantities. This wound up being a little tough for me. Like watercolor, to get a darker pigment, you need less water, so I tried to make the shortest cup of coffee possible. We have a Nespresso machine so I set it to espresso mode, which gives you a shot’s worth. That actually still wound up being too much water. I tried again a couple of times, each time, using less water, but ultimately I wound up having to put the espresso in a frying pan to reduce it. I reduced it too much though—and that coffee got syrupy so I mixed it with the other coffee. I then learned that even after doing this, I wasn’t going to get the pigment as dark and saturated as a watercolor could get. To get the dark color I wanted for areas like the roots of her hair, and the outline of her lips, I had to go over them several times. Like watercolors, with coffee, you add water to get a lighter color. I mixed my brown shades in empty spice jars.
  3. Coffee, after drying, blends slightly better on your page, than watercolors do when a wet brush is applied to the dried color. This was a nice surprise, since with watercolors, usually going over the same area several times with a brush after it’s already dried can leave the page looking overworked or even ruined.
  4. The same rules apply to coffee as they do with color, which is don’t try to paint details or fix something when the page is wet because the color will bleed. I had to stop myself from going back to try to get the contrast I wanted and never quite got. However I may finish this another day once I figure out the right consistency to reduce the coffee to in order to get the deepest, richest possible hue. Some other artists have recommended instant coffee for this purpose.

Verdict: Fun and interesting, though like with anything else worth doing, it requires practice, even for experienced illustrators.

Hopefully I’ve explained all the steps here, but if anyone has any questions, please let me know.