Actor and filmmaker Jackie Chan once wryly remarked that “coffee is a language unto itself.”
But even Chan had no idea how the Yakima painter Paul Henderson could express himself through the medium of coffee.
Landscapes, city scenes, Native American figures, and wildlife all take shape through Henderson’s brushwork as he applies coffee strokes to paper. His work has an “old-fashioned tone,” he said, reminiscent of the sepia-toned photographs that were popular in the 1880s. There is a rich spectrum of colors from light beige to dark chocolate brown.
When he first started working in his studio, Henderson was able to string together several cups of French Press coffee of varying strengths. It could be decaffeinated or regular, maybe from Costco, although he draws the line on using a latte or frappuccino. A light roast can produce a gentle sepia tone, while a dark roast can produce a dark brown hue, he explained.
He uses watercolor brushes on a canvas made from 140 lb watercolor paper. Depending on the size and complexity of the subject, a painting can take anywhere from six to 60 hours to complete. He often starts with hot coffee in his containers, but as the coffee progresses, it will cool, resulting in darker hues as the liquid evaporates a bit.
One of the biggest challenges when painting with coffee, as opposed to a thicker watercolor or acrylic medium, is achieving an opaque quality. Henderson figured out how to do it, but he says, “I don’t share my methods.”
On the plus side, it has the benefit of not having to worry about color bleed since he’s basically working with “one color”. And he says he “loves the resulting color and look. It’s not just brown. It has an amber rim or a slightly reddish orange hue. It’s difficult to achieve the result with regular watercolour.”
When he first began painting with coffee, Henderson was not aware of any other artist using the medium. As far back as 2009, the JAHO coffee roastery website reported, “Coffee painting is by no means a new art form, but lately it has been sweeping the globe and increasing in popularity.” In a different twist, “Chinese artists have been using tea in their paintings for centuries. …” added a 2021 article on the Ripples website.
For Henderson, “What I enjoy is not thinking, chilling, turning on the blues (music) and having fun,” he said. He also enjoys “the challenge of painting in an exotic medium.” The finished product “looks more authentic than a pencil,” he added, “…(with) an old, antique feel.”
Henderson said he’s always been interested in art. His attention to detail was evident early on. If he drew a ship, it would have “a whole city on it”. When he drew a castle, each brick would be delineated and “there had to be something in every window”. As a younger adult (he is now 75) he mainly worked in the oil industry.
Coffee was added to Henderson’s painting repertoire as a happy coincidence. In 1986, his 5-year-old daughter, Elissa, found a piece of thick drawing paper on which Henderson had made a rough pencil sketch of a Native American head. Elissa turned the paper over, drew with her crayons for a while, and then threw the paper in the trash. Henderson later retrieved the paper and noticed a coffee stain had accumulated on it.
“I used coffee to go over the pencil lines and darken them,” he recalls, and so his career as a coffee painter was born.
Over the years, Henderson has been seen at coffee bar openings in Seattle and Portland. He describes himself as a “very much a coffee lover” and often keeps a mug of the brew by his side to sip while he works. This led to a mishap several times when he accidentally dipped his brush in his drink. (He drank the coffee anyway.)
A Washington native who has lived in Yakima since 1975, he has done gallery exhibitions and local shows. His work has been featured in radio and television reports, and once a story was picked up by a newspaper association. Now he mainly sells his work through online galleries and local shows. From September 4-6, his studio will be one of eight stops included on the Labor Day Weekend Artist’s Studio Tour planned for Yakima Valley.
The detail that was evident in Henderson’s childhood drawings is still an integral part of his painting with coffee. Whether it’s the individual beans in a painting of an old coffee grinder and sack of coffee beans, the tiny window panes in an 1889 painting of Yakima City Hall, or the faces on a totem pole, he’s very accurate.
Some have asked him if these coffee images will endure over time. Of the coffee art he’s observed over the decades, he’s found that “it lasts as long as watercolor.”
Henderson also works in other media. There are scenes of Oregon’s Cannon Beach, with lights sparkling on the waves, or stately evergreens and mountain peaks, all painted in acrylic on canvas. There are selections in “abstract realism” such as a “painted desert”, “bamboo forest” and the moon, also in acrylic. And Henderson has further liberated himself from his control over detail to create works of the imagination, such as B. An outdoor clock amidst lines of flowing paint depicting how “Time Keeps on Slipping”. His Native American motifs reflect his own ancestry, which is part of the Cherokee Indians.
Henderson says he enjoys the diversity of his work. He likes to quote the motto “Diversity is the spice of life”. Recently he has experimented with painting in concentrated Concord grape juice, depicting subjects such as a wine bottle, a glass and a bunch of grapes.
There are still ambitious dreams on the horizon for his coffee painting. “I’d like to depict Starbucks headquarters (the old Sears flagship building in South Seattle),” he said, “also a big painting of a whole two blocks full of old, historic buildings in Roslyn.”
So, grab that cup of coffee—regular or decaf—and toast Paul Henderson, a creative Yakima trendsetter.