Mug Shots – part I

I have a secret:  I am obsessed with coffee.

Whew!  It felt really good to get that out in the open, finally.

What’s really bad is that this obsession encompasses more than *just* roasting, brewing, and drinking coffee.  It also involves talking at length about coffee, coffee shops, and coffee accompaniments.  The real kicker, however, is my love for drawing and painting coffee mugs.

Already drafted up for tomorrow’s post is a list of 6 reasons why coffee mugs are perfectly suited for art.  Today, we will take a quick trip back in time, to the crucial turning point in this young artist’s life, when everything changed.

We will go back to a time when I hated coffee!

The stuff was simply repulsive.  It reminded one of old women and church basements.  It smelled like burnt dirt.  It made one’s eyes sting.   When my mother took me grocery shopping, I would insist on skipping over the coffee aisle and instead meet her at the next row over, just to avoid smelling it.  That, or I would throw a temper-tantrum.

Eventually, the tantrums subsided; mainly because I stopped accompanying Mom to the grocery, and stayed sullenly home, in my room, drawing.

You see, I grew up in Red Wing, Minnesota.  It is a town of 15,000, about an hour south of the Twin Cities on the Mississippi.  In the mid nineties, there was no Target, no Applebee’s, no 24-hour Walmart in town.  There was really nothing open; nowhere to go after 8pm. There was nothing on TV worth watching after prime time, because we didn’t have cable.   But there was Perkins.

Naturally, my friends spent many late nights in one of the booths at Perkins throughout the years of 1996 to 1998, and many from this group actually worked there.  The only catch: you had to order something if you wanted to stay.

Having better things to spend my money on than chicken strips or short stacks with syrup, I decided the most economic way to rent my seat was to order coffee.  It was not in my nature to waste anything that could possibly be ingested without risk of bodily harm – I was a teenager, after all – so I decided once and for all: I would learn to like coffee.

The first cup I managed to choke down was about 90% milk.  So much sugar was used in masking any remaining coffee flavor that an inch and a half of the stuff was left in  the form of sludge at the bottom of the mug when all the liquid was gone.  Over the course of the next few months, though, the coffee content increased, the milk and sweetener decreased, until one fateful night the coffee was black.  And everyone knows the expression: once you go black, you only go back when you *really* deserve all the calories of a fancy latte.


It was from these humble beginnings that a great romance grew.  Over the next few days, this blog will feature the three most recent mug paintings, starting with this one:

This watercolor was painted around the same time as the rosemary bush and the desert tree (click words for previous posts), during a brief, unsustained burst of artistic output about a year ago.  It is in what I consider the academic tradition of still-lives: complex arrangements of objects that you would never actually see together, usually backed by some sort of cloth that has no business there.

I completed it in an afternoon at my dining room table.  It features a broad range of high-keyed colors.  Shadows are executed in a combination of bright azure, deep purples and actual blacks.  The picture achieves a fairly graphic (or ‘poster-like’) feel due to a few factors:

  1. Use of black paint.  Since the revolution of impressionism, pure back pigment has more-or-less been banished to the graphic arts like posters and comic books.  If not treated with care, black can act like a black hole in your otherwise colorful picture, and flatten the space.
  2. Not much modeling of light and shadows.  Modeling refers to the smooth transitions between lights and darks that make flat images appear to have mass and dimension.  In this piece, you can see how the shadows in the folds of the magenta cloth are suggested, but not very realistic: not smooth.  Nor are there any corresponding highlights in the folds.  You can still have a pretty picture without modeling; it just won’t look very “real”.   The modeling on the left side of the mug and handle is a bit more convincing, by contrast.
  3. Uniform intensity of color.  None of the colors recede into the distance, like mountains in the distance.  That phenomenon is also known as ‘atmospheric perspective’
  4. Inconsistent linear perspective.  The wood grain on the table in the foreground does not converge to a vanishing point, therefore doesn’t add a sense of space to the painting.  It does lend an interesting decorative pattern to the piece, however.


All in all, I’d consider this pic a joyous riot of color and pattern executed with more enthusiasm than technical skill.


Just for fun: see if you can locate in this picture:

  • 3 items from Pier 1 imports
  • A fake potted ‘succulent’
  • A spoon that was meant to be silver
  • A giant green wine glass
  • A whitish blob that is supposed to represent a rhomboid porcelain condiment dish.
This entry was published on January 24, 2012 at 11:49 pm. It’s filed under About, Bold Color, Coffee, Humor, MN, The Artistic Process, Watercolors and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

10 thoughts on “Mug Shots – part I

  1. Pingback: I Can’t Hold Out Forever – Even Walls Fall Down « Gabriel Garbow | Artworks

  2. Nice painting. I used to hate coffee as a kid and wondered why adults drank it all the time. Now that I’m in my 30s, I get it. It’s an essential part of my daily routine.


    • Yeah… It really does ingratiate itself upon a person doesn’t it? Like the friend who moves in with you for a week, then stays for years, but you mostly enjoy the company anyway, so you don’t kick him out.


    Love the art and your enthusiasm for coffee. 🙂

  4. I love your love for coffee. I just wish we could swap some roasting techniques in person.

    Oh, and the art: I really like this piece, especially the blues.

  5. I really love this, there is something very unique and appealing about your art. The idea is a marvelous too, I can just about smell the coffee 🙂

    • I appreciate the kind words. Please follow this blog over the coming weeks, as the next few days will feature a few more very recent mug pics. I also will be announcing a contest soon, where folks can submit their own written works. I will select my favorites, and create custom illustrations for them. I’ve just started reading your work, and it’s very evocative. I sense collaboration potential. Details to be determined.

  6. Nice! (Did the “Just for Fun” and found them!)

    • I didn’t make it all that hard, did I? The tricky part is finding the Pier 1 stuff. My house is filled with their stuff having worked for them on and off throughout the years. The official answers will be posted tomorrow.

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