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The Painter as Espresso-nist

Starbucks coffee was a wake-up call to Steven Mikel, who now works in shades of mocha.

Steven Mikel paints with thick coffee, occasionally thinning it with java from his drinking mug.

Steven Mikel paints with thick coffee, occasionally thinning it with java from his drinking mug.

Photo By Norma Lopez Molina

In Steven Mikel’s Celebration townhouse, a hardworking coffeemaker fills the air with the aroma of Arabica and French roast, making the place smell like a Starbucks.

That scent has been inspirational to Mikel. In the home-slash-studio he shares with his wife, Jo, Mikel uses Starbucks coffee as paint, creating the large canvases he calls “dark roast watercolors.” With his cappuccino-colored hair (and café au lait Yorkie, Sasha), the 41-year-old was practically born to be a coffee painter.

Mikel’s paintings are photorealistic, from a close-up of a Harley-Davidson engine to a view of Orlando’s CityArts Factory’s marquee. Bringing an engineer’s eye to the work (he’s a software designer by trade), he sketches the images in pencil on canvas, and then builds layers of
transparent tint and thicker swatches of color to make the final picture.

“I’ve tried other things to paint with,” Mikel says, “like rose petals (faded quickly) and wine (changed color). Most organic substances turn brown. Coffee is already brown, so …”

He credits the frugality of his 94-year-old, live-in father-in-law as the inspiration behind his discovery of an unusual medium.  “He would run Sunday’s unused pot back through the coffeemaker on Monday,” Mikel says. “So I had to figure out something to do with the leftovers or drink really bad brew.”

It was an ideal choice. “I love sepia-toned photos anyway,” he says. “To have a medium that does that so well is really exciting.” Mikel introduced his caffeinated creations at the Disney Festival of the Masters art show in 2009, where he won third place.

How much coffee does Mikel perk in a day?

“Quite a bit,” he chuckles. The artist drinks a few cups out of each pot and cooks the rest down; three cups will become about a teaspoon of thick, chocolate brown resin, which he’ll thin with liquid from his ever-present mug as he paints—and drinks. With a constant supply of caffeine, Mikel is a fast talker, his sentences running unpunctuated as he works. “I paint while I’m on site at art shows, and after a few hours I really can’t work on anything with fine detail,” he says, jiggling a paintbrush in explanation.

The paintings aren’t just a mocha-centric gimmick. They’re good enough to be selling in the galleries of luxury hotels owned by prodigious art collector Richard Kessler, including the Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando, the Bohemian Hotel Celebration and the Casa Monica in St. Augustine—with prices between $1,900 and $2,900.

With his paintings now being sold in galleries, Mikel hopes he is closer to a full-time life as an artist. If that happens, he might want to switch to decaf.

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