People around the world have been using coffee and tea to paint for centuries, but no one has taken this under-utilized art form as far as Pittsburgh resident, artist, and mad scientist Gerard Tonti. Here at CUPS, we’re highkey obsessed with everything coffee, and since we recently opened up shop in Pittsburgh, we sat down with Gerard to find out more about his caffeinated canvas.
The Seed For The Idea
Gerard’s fascination with this unusual medium began years ago, when he was studying the use of coffee and tea in a watercolor style and a fabric stain in Asian art.
“I started with just using coffee as a stain,” says Gerard, who’s background lies in oil painting. “Then i thought, ‘If you can use it as a watercolor type medium, what if you could make it thicker?'”
With that, he started experimenting. Not many painters’ studios include things like induction cookers, herb grinders, and stainless steel pots, but then again, not many painters make their own paint.
The Science Of Turning Coffee & Tea Into Paint
Every paint requires some kind of binder – this is the chemical that makes it stick to other surfaces. Instead of just using the coffee as a wash on paper, Gerard started combining coffees with all different kinds of binders, until he found the best mixtures that yield usable coffee paint.
After he had that figured out, he decided he wanted to try adding color, so he turned to tea. This is where the bigger problems began – anything natural fades in color over time, and anything colorful he painted using tea would ultimately turn brown with UV exposure.
With a lot of trial and error, he was able to find an oxidizer additive that would prevent this fading, resulting in the colorful paintings you can see in his body of work today. After several years of testing many different chemical combinations, he is finally at a point where he can make just about any color, and none of the chemicals he uses are harmful to the environment.
“It’s very much like cooking – I make the stuff in a pot,” says Gerard. “That’s what makes it fun! Every batch of tea is different, and there are always new color variations. I can get flesh tones and silvers and more, just by cross-pollinating the teas and changing their pH level, adding things like vinegar. Other people have attempted this, but I’m the only one crazy enough to take it the whole way.”
One major breakthrough in expanding his color palette was Gerard’s discovery of Butterfly Pea Flower Tea, a mesmerizing blue concoction that comes from a rare flower grown on a hilltop in Thailand. It can be hard to find, but it is the only way for a coffee and tea painter to achieve a true blue, which he can combine with other varieties to make a wide array of new colors.
The Subject Matter
Once he had the paint-making down, Gerard had to decide what to actually capture in his paintings. As you might expect, he decided to start by going into coffee shops and brainstorming some ideas. Since he loves people watching, he created a series called A Stain In Time, which aimed to capture people sitting in coffee shops and enjoying their beverages of choice.
After that, he did a series of paintings of objects found in coffee shops, complementing the first series with some still lifes. His current project is a series of abstract paintings, where he is experimenting with actually dripping coffee and tea onto the canvas and letting gravity do the work to form interesting shapes and stains.
The Extra Dimensions Coffee Adds
As if all of the above wasn’t cool enough, there’s the smell and texture, which Gerard achieves by embellishing each work with coffee grounds and tea leaves.
“Even when I’m using prints, I paint on top of them with coffee and tea embellishments,” he says. “The texture and smell carry over and last forever, adding a different dimension to the art.”
Those extra dimensions are what really sets Gerard’s work apart – imagine having a unique, textural painting in your home that smelled like your favorite blend of coffee or tea.
Where To Find Gerard’s Work
Aside from his coffee and tea paintings, Gerard has done other experiments with unusual media, and has also done several prominent murals around Pittsburgh. You can see tons more of Gerard’s work, as well as purchase some, on his website.