Coffee Art: When A Spill Turns Into A Masterpiece

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(Left) Afghan girl; (Right) Albert Einstein, by Maria Aristidou (Courtesy of Maria Aristidou)

Ever splashed yourself with coffee or sat a dripping cup down on a white tablecloth? Then you're well aware of the beverage's staining powers. But where some see a ruined shirt, others have found a canvas.

For artist Maria Aristidou, it all started with a latte. "I was working on another commission using watercolors, when all the sudden, I spilled all over the drawing," she says.

The Beatles, by Maria Aristidou
The Beatles, by Maria Aristidou (Courtesy of Maria Aristidou)

Rather than trying to wipe up the mess, she took a moment to look. "The accidental spill, the shade of coffee, and how it got absorbed in the paper fascinated me."

Since then, she's continued painting entire images out of coffee. Aristidou feels that she has more control painting with coffee than, say, with a brown watercolor paint.

While Aristidou's subjects are mostly related to pop culture — illustrations of Disney characters, Yoda, or the iconic Afghan girl cover of National Geographic — other artists have turned to more palpable subjects.

(Left) Yoda; (Right) Hans Solo, by Maria Aristidou
(Left) Yoda; (Right) Hans Solo, by Maria Aristidou (Courtesy of Maria Aristidou)

Angel Sarkela-Saur and Andy Saur are a married couple who bill themselves as "The Coffee Artists." Together they've been using coffee to illustrate everything from landscapes to images of a French bulldog licking his lips after spilling a cup of joe on the floor.

Serene Moment, by Andy and Angel Saur
Serene Moment, by Andy and Angel Saur ( Courtesy of Andy and Angel Saur)

It took them a fair amount of experimentation before they found the best way to draw out coffee's color. Sarkela-Saur says that their first attempt was using whole roast beans "to see if we could draw with it like charcoal. It didn't work at all." They also tried mixing coffee pigment into a pastel block that "became more of a rock than anything."


Finally, they settled on using coffee in its simplest form: water and steeped coffee grounds. Over time, they've noticed subtle differences in the roasts. A French roast, Saur says, may have a red tone to it, while espresso produces a dry brown.

(Left) Coffee Strategy; (Right) Gidget Sneaks a Taste, by Andy and Angel Saur
(Left) Coffee Strategy; (Right) Gidget Sneaks a Taste, by Andy and Angel Saur (Courtesy of Andy and Angel Saur)

Few have played with the accidental quality of seeing coffee spilled on a white surface like Giulia Bernardelli. The majority of her work is a hybrid of painting and photography. First, she creates a small image out of coffee pigment — either on paper or inside the bottom of a cup itself. Then she takes a photo with the cup still in the shot.

"I try to catch the magic of a moment — as if the coffee created a story by toppling," she says.

The overall effect is more like spotting familiar shapes in the clouds than looking at art. Even though, unlike clouds, Bernardelli's images are all carefully created. That spontaneous quality to her art is heightened by the fact that she shies away from using paintbrushes or traditional art supplies to turn coffee into images. "My tools are spoons, fingers, and toothpicks," she says.

While many people are attracted to the sepia tones of coffee, the pigment alone probably isn't the reason why so much coffee art exists. People connect with coffee in a way that few non-caffeinated beverages can replicate. Saur says that coffee "is a universal beverage:" It not only wakes us up in the morning but gathers people together, too.

Copyright 2015 NPR.