Café Alla Prima

Artist Gerard Tonti has been experimenting with his coffee and tea medium for the past eight years. It has been a complicated process full of trial and error with unpredictable results. Gerard plans to take the unpredictable on the road this fall.

"It's a very alchemical process".

Originally he was drawn to the idea of painting with stains while studying the role of tea in asian cultures. Throughout history, tea and coffee have been used as dyes and stains for fabric and paper.

"I thought it would be fun to take it as far as I could go. Starting with simple washes done with coffee, the early attempts were done using the stains as a water medium on watercolor paper. As my art progressed, I wanted to challenge myself. There are so many vibrant teas out there and wanted to try to retain the natural color."

What you see in the finished paintings are the culmination of years of research with trial and error experiments. Getting the colors to keep their natural pigment without fading due to oxidation or ultraviolet light exposure were major problems to solve. Each tea and coffee have their own chemical composition and must be treated differently. The binders and other mediums Tonti uses to make each stain into a permanent form of paint vary from one to the next. This makes mixing color very challenging. Thought must be given to how each color and binder will react when combined. In order to resolve this, each color is bound separately.

What made you decide to take your coffee painting on the road?

"It was the next logical step in the series of experiments. I wanted to do something fresh and more spontanious. The Stain in Time series is all about trying to control the uncontrollable and pushing the medium as far as I can take it. Painting from life in a limited time keeps the artistic chops loose and allows me to focus on things in the moment. There is much that can be learned from painting alla prima. I miss that and really feel that as much as I enjoy the goal of the Stain in Time series, I feel being forced to make spontanious decisions can yeild some wonderful and unexpected results. You get to really know your medium and be confortable."

What's is your set up for something like this?

I'm planning on taking everything I use in the studio with me. I'm going to walk into a coffee house with all of my pots, pans, mixing bowls and mediums and just paint something that stikes me. I'm not limiting myself to just people. I'm also giving myself only an hour or two to capture a scene. I'll then return to the studio to add the finishing touches if needed. There might be a few ingredients that in this series that aren't being used yet in the Stain series. I've been working with some italian soda syrups and have been getting some great results."

How are you promoting this?

"Social media. I feel like I really haven't taken advantage of Facebook and Twitter. I want to start to build up the excitement a bit on Twitter this Fall and start to do some painting in some smaller coffee houses. Once the first few trial runs have been completed, I will probably have a calendar with dates and locations of where I will be so that people can watch me on site. I'm going to tweet about the process, my preparation and the experience of painting in each coffee house."

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How is this different from the Stain in Time series?

"I found coffee houses fascinating places. In one place and at one time you have people gathered together in their own circles and there for different reasons. It was only natural that the medium I was experimenting with and the places I would find myself would merge into one idea. I wanted to capture those moments in time at coffee houses where people get together. In one place and at one time, you have a unique set of people together. It is a "Stain in Time". I've always been a fan of decisive moment photography and Henri Cartier-Bresson. You never know what you are going to capture with a camera when you wait for something to happen. I started photographing people with their permission in coffee houses. I liked what I was getting. I then go back to see what I've captured and I look for something that resonates with me. For example, in "An Evening at the Southside", what struck me about that image was the contrast between old and young. You have two women at different stages of their lives there looking at the same thing. The viewer doesn't know what they are both looking at or why they are there and it leaves so much up to interpretation. The Coffee on Canvas series will be done on the fly and I hope it will yield different results."

This is exciting! So when is the first date?

"Follow me on Twitter to find out."

Follow Gerard on Twitter and like him on Facebook to get updates on the Coffee on Canvas series and other projects: