Everyday arts & poetry magazine

Don’t fade, stain red: Gerard Tonti’s paintings challenge the tea alchemy

Gerard Tonti, Pittsburgh born artist painting with coffee and tea. Credit Gerard Tonti

Gerard Tonti, Pittsburgh-born artist painting with coffee and tea. Artist’s courtesy

1701: Berlin

Nineteen-year-old Johann Friedrich Böttger appears to transform silver into gold by addition of mysterious red powder: impresses Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Augustus II, elector of Saxony.

Byproducts: Böttger brought to Augustus II in Dresden, where he fails to create gold; he then creates imitation china in city of Meissen and transforms it into center for porcelain production.”

Lapham’s Quarterly: Magic shows, Volume V, Number 3, Summer 2012, p. 93

“When there are no signs of fading, I’ll begin to paint.”

Gerard Tonti (a quote from the conversation)

They sought to turn the common into the precious, while he seeks to keep it as is. Gold was their goal and ultimate destination, whereas he is pursuing a colour: red. A red that stays red in time. And while many ancient alchemists eventually gave up their initial objective and turned into chemists, he seems about to succeed. Gerard Tonti, a Pittsburgh-born artist painting with coffee and tea has been trying and erring for eight years to perfect the use of these hot drinks as a painting medium, and expand the colour palette. “I’m not able to get a red from fading… yet”, he told us on our interview. “Getting close though.”

Bastart caught a few words with the artist about challenges, inspirations and alchemy that turns the stains into art.


“I’ve always wanted to be an artist. I have a background in fine art, stop motion animation, and illustration. For the past 8 years I have been experimenting with the coffee and tea medium. For the first 2 years I only used coffee. Over the past 6 years I have done research and experiments with converting the teas and coffees into an actual painting medium. I am a web designer/graphic designer by day”, says Mr. Tonti.

Who had the most significant impact on your desire to become an artist?

I guess it all started with comic books and drawing when I was young. I had an uncle who was very inspiring and I would really enjoy looking through my grandfather’s sketchbooks. My grandfather was actually a steel worker but he sketched all the time. I was amazed that he could draw so well and not have any training, so I got more curious. My other grandfather was a jazz musician, so music and art are in the blood. I think that’s what peaked my interest early.

Leaf and bean – are they equally important in your art? How about your cup, is it tea or coffee that comes first?

I was primarily a tea drinker and never touched coffee until the start of this project. Now I love them both. Tea and coffee both have their different chemical make-ups and are both equally important when creating a piece. If I had to pick one favourite tea for drinking it would be green or white tea.

I paint with many different teas and import them from around the world

How many cups does it take to paint a painting?

I go through a lot of coffee and tea. The time it takes to create a painting depends so much on the size. With normal paint, size is not much of an issue because you can just use larger brushes and more paint. Because I make my own color from stains, it’s a multi-step process that takes time, and size becomes an issue. The larger paintings for the Stain in Time series are around 80” x 50” which is a pretty large surface to cover with only coffee and tea. Those larger pieces take a few months.

I’m doing a smaller series of alla prima paintings from life called Coffee on Canvas where I go into a coffee house, set up my easel, paint trays, chemicals, and mediums and find a composition or subject that grabs me. I only paint for a maximum of two hours on site, gather enough information, and then complete the painting at home. These are smaller pieces and take less time.

From leaves and beans to final work of art: describe the main steps…

Not every leaf and bean produces the same result, so what is used to bind them has to be changed or altered.

It starts with making the color, steeping and brewing for a long period of time. Then different binders, mediums and additives are added to bind the stains into a paint and keep the colors from fading and oxidizing. This process is repeated and changed as needed for each color.

The process

Painting with Coffee and Tea – Artist Gerard Tonti talks about his coffee and tea painting process.

Most of us drink coffee or tea to enjoy the taste or get the caffeine-effect, but little we know about the “chemical behaviour” or “chemical make-up” of a certain bean or leaf… Tell us more about the alchemic part of your art.

The teas give the paintings some color and even more color can be made by carefully (and alchemically) mixing the teas. It gets really tricky because each tea and coffee have their own properties that define them so working with each color presents challenges.

When I first started doing the paintings they were done using only coffees, espresso, and chicory. I started to incorporate some teas like Rooibos later to get some warmer tones and color. They then progressed to paintings that combine both teas and coffees.

Coffee beans have oils in them and most of the teas do not, so binding them to be used as paints is going to be different. Coffee is also more acidic than tea. Some of the teas I use contain flowers, berries, etc. Because they are all different, what’s added to them to make them into a paint is different. There are different binders that turn the stains into a paint. In addition to binding, I have to use an ultraviolet light additive that keeps the colors from fading when exposed to sunlight. Oxygen is also a factor: I use an additive for that as well…

How about Matcha, Japan’s legendary powdered tea: anything particular in its behaviour?

Matcha powder is in ground form so I have to boil it down in water and then add the additives and binders to make the paint. Think of it as a form of tempera painting where you take a dry pigment and bind it.

Most people who haven’t seen the painting think they are light water colors, like I’m dipping my brush into a cup of coffee. When you see them, they look like an oil or acrylic

What is your definition of “stain”?

By their nature coffee and teas are “stains” and they have been used for centuries to dye fabric and paper. When I say stain, I am talking about the elements in their natural form. I’m taking the pigments found in coffee and tea and turning them into a medium, thick enough to paint with.

What is your oldest work and how is it doing today?

My oldest what I call “test study” goes back to eight years ago was done completely with espresso, coffee and chicory. So you can imagine, there is not much color in that one – pure sepia in tone. That painting is fine and looks the same today as it did when I painted it.

It’s when you get into the teas that presents the problems. I test them on various surfaces (canvas and papers) and then expose them to light and oxygen for a long period of time, sometimes days. I make notes along with the exposures: when I get no fading, I begin to paint.

“The newer paintings will be the first to feature reds and violets, I should then have a full colour spectrum”, says Mr. Tonti.

The color ones that you see are still not technically “full color”. I’m not able to get a red to keep from fading… yet. Getting close though. Not producing a red also does not allow me to produce violet so that’s why the paintings are currently “half-color”, as I like to call them.

Is it actually possible to keep colours from fading or just to slow down the inevitable process?

The paintings with the colored teas have not faded at all. The red teas are usually composed of flowers or berries, which have a property in them that naturally fades. This is why all of the reds in oil paints, acrylic paint and watercolor paints are made with other chemicals like cadmium. It might be completely impossible to keep it from fading unless adding non-organic binders and mediums.

There’s nothing in nature that will keep a red color without fading naturally

You defined your coffee and tea art a process of trial and error. What’s the toughest part about it? What’s the most inspiring?

The hardest part is the medium itself. It can be quite unpredictable. It’s both frustrating and rewarding. It requires patience and learning to appreciate the things that happen by accident. In a way it’s the perfect medium. I believe that part of the excitement with the artistic process lies in trying to balance the controllable and the uncontrollable. This medium can be controlled but when it cannot be controlled it can produce unexpected and exciting results.

Artists you could call your influencers?

There are probably way too many to list and they are from different disciplines, but off the top of my head: Lucian Freud, Kathy Kollwitz, Chuck Close, Tim Burton, Edgar Degas, Sherwood Anderson, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Sally Mann to name a few.

Can you tell us anything about the projects you are currently working on?

Stain in Time is working from a combination of photographs, whereas Cafe Alla Prima will be painting with coffee and teas in a live setting from life.
“They will have different looks to them. I really enjoy working from life and being in the coffee shops though. That’s why I decided to take it on the road. Plus, people get to see the process and it gets them to come out and spend some time in some really great locations”, says the artist.

I’m ramping up to do a coffee tour in the fall, launching a new website with all of my work and then will be using Twitter to promote the tour. The website will have all of my work on it – paintings, murals, public art, animation, illustration and the coffee art, and will be completed sometime in July.

I’ve invested in some new equipment and am now using induction cookers to make the paints more quickly. There will be new paintings for both the Stain in Time series and the live Coffee on Canvas series started in the fall. I am retitling the Coffee on Canvas series Cafe Alla Prima.

Early in the Strip Medium: Espresso, Coffee, Rose Tea, Berry Tea on canvas
 60h” x 48w”

Early in the Strip by Gerard Tonti

Morning Cup Medium: Espresso, Coffee, Rose Tea, Berry Tea, Rooibos Tea on watercolor paper/canvas
: 48w” x 36h”

Morning Cup by Gerard Tonti

Sip Medium: Espresso, Espresso Grinds, Rooibos Tea, Butterfly Pea Tea, Matcha Powder, and Chrysanthemum Tea on watercolor paper/canvas
: 72w” x 48h”

Sip by Gerard Tonti

Evening at the Beehive Medium: Espresso, Espresso Grinds, Rooibos Tea, Butterfly Pea Tea, Matcha Powder, and Chrysanthemum Tea on watercolor paper/canvas
: 80w” x 50h”

Evening at the Beehive by Gerard Tonti

A Stain in Time – Paintings Created with Coffee and Tea

Watch on the artist’s channel on Vimeo:
Producer: Sean Montgomery
Director: Alan Jaskiewicz
Editor: Dave Gal
Colorist: Matt Fezz

For more information about Gerard Tonti’s paintings with coffeee and tea please visit the artit’s official website and follow @GerardTonti.  
Words and interview by Jurga

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