Schuylkill Haven man creates masterpieces with coffee
A peregrine falcon dives at more than 160 mph. A snowy owl makes a rare migration into Schuylkill County.
These are a couple occur- rences from which artist Dave Hughes has drawn inspiration.
Hughes, Schuylkill Haven, is a nature and wildlife artist with a passion for birds of prey. Since the age of 12, Hughes has been capturing these scenes from nature in his art. Sketches of eagles and owls are given a sense of life with watercolors, oils and, uniquely, instant coffee.
A native of Pottstown, Hughes moved to Schuylkill County with his business, Art Gone Wild, to be closer to Hawk Mountain. The sanctuary in Drehersville was the place that triggered his passion when he was a pre-teen.
"My uncle brought me up to Hawk Mountain to baby-sit me for a day and I fell in love with it," Hughes said.
It was at the sanctuary that Hughes met wildlife artist Fred Wetzel. This relationship marked a key point in Hughes' life and art career. It was under the supportive wing of Wetzel that Hughes honed his craft.
"I am very grateful for his tutelage and I still stay in contact with him," he said.
Today, Hughes spreads his knowledge at workshops around the region. While he teaches classes about sketching and painting, it is his work with instant coffee that provides a jolt to other artists' minds.
"Anything that I learned that I can teach them, I feel good about it," said Hughes, who operates Deer Trail Studio from his home.
He learned of using the morning pick-me-up beverage at a local car dealership. He said he sparked up a conversation with a fellow artist, who showed him some work which included coffee art. He took the idea home and refined it.
During these workshops, Hughes describes the mixtures and how to form them for painting. It is a simple formula that creates complex works of art.
Hughes said he boils one cup of water and adds 10 scoops of instant coffee. Then, the light brown liquid is poured into a baby food jar, serving as the lightest shade of brown he will use. Another 10 scoops of coffee are added to the water for a darker shade. Hughes continues these pattern up to 50 scoops. The thick, dark mixture is his darkest shade.
"You don't want to drink that unless you want to be up for a night and a half or have heart palpitations," he said.
He also tells his students the background of coffee art and shows them a demonstration before handing over the brush.
"Then I let them get their hands dirty," he said figuratively. Although he cautions that coffee is messy and can stain clothes.
Protecting the art
It can also damage other things, such as paper.
"Over time, coffee will disintegrate things," he said.
To remedy this, Hughes uses an acid-free paper and a frame with UV protection glass.
Hughes finished his first coffee art painting in 2003 - a picture featuring a Carolina wren. He said the special measures taken to protect the art has that 11-year-old painting looking as fresh as it did when completed.
Although the brand of coffee doesn't matter as long as it's instant, Hughes does have rules when it comes to brushes. First, he said to designate brushes to coffee art only. Over time the coffee will eat the bristles and render them useless when painting with a different medium, such as watercolors.
"It works the best, watercolor brushes," Hughes said, although he noted any brush found at an arts and crafts store would work.
He begins a coffee art painting by covering the canvas with a wash. Unlike his work with oils or watercolors, he doesn't plan the picture he will be painting with coffee.
"I sit down, put wash on and it's relaxing for me because I don't know what I'm going to do before I start," he said.
Hughes said he has eight to 10 books and numerous boxes full of sketches. The drawings keep the pictures he envisioned preserved in time before he returns to make a painting.
However, some pictures trigger a clear inspiration and work begins immediately. One case was a recently oil painting of a Carolina wren.
"I had it on my mind and I did it right away," he said.
He gets a wide range of artists at the workshops. He said the participants have ranged in age from 10 to 71, although the average age is between 15 and mid-30s. About 15 to 20 people attend a workshop on average. Some shops, like a class at Hawk Mountain, can be bigger and split into two sessions.
He said the coffee workshops are a big hit because it is a unique technique.
"They have a lot of fun with coffee," he said.
He said a few students have contacted him after the workshops to give him updates on their work and that they are still working on their art.
"It makes me feel good because I'm giving back what someone gave to me," he said.
For the students who would like to venture into the medium, he offers simple advice.
"Really, you should just practice," he said.
Outside of his art, Hughes does interior house painting and delivers produce from Reading for Healthy Habits.
But he said three quarters of his time is spent on his paintings.
He mainly sticks to birds and small game, although he occasionally ventures into landscapes and buildings.
"I like to paint old barns before they get torn down," he said.
Like the old barns, he tries to physically see everything he paints. On Wednesday, he painted a picture featuring a snowy owl. The bird is not native to the region but certain circumstances in their environment forces them to migrate south. Hughes said they usually only travel down to the New England region and upper New York, but this year they have come to Pennsylvania and have been spotted as far south as Florida and Bermuda.
In the region, he knows they have been seen in the Lancaster area and Tamaqua.
"I've seen a few," he said.
On rare occasions he will paint something he hasn't seen. One example is a strange request from a friend for an extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.
There are limits he will not pass.
He said he is not into doing pet pictures. Most of the time the person has a photograph of the pet they wish to have as a painting. He believes a photograph is not a good representation of the animal and tries to connect the person with artists who specialize in that field.
"There is a niche for other artists," he said.
Hughes said he visits eight to 11 art shows per year. Like his workshops, the coffee art draws a lot of interest due to its uniqueness.
"It's not really a common method to use but it's a good conversation starter at art shows," he said.
Having decades of experience under his belt, Hughes said he has painted many different species of bird. His favorite is the fast-diving peregrine falcon.
"I can't tell you how many times I have painted that bird," he said.
However, one species has eluded the tip of Hughes' paintbrush - the California condor.
"One of these days I will see one," he said.