Figurative painter Elaine Coffee captures culture in action
By Rosemary Carstens
“I paint what I observe, mostly people and the passing scene,” says Elaine Coffee about her subject matter. “Many years ago while at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, I became more fascinated by the people looking at the paintings—their gestures, postures, and means of communicating with the art—than with the paintings themselves.”
Coffee concentrates almost exclusively on painting the human figure. In her earlier years, she painted individuals, and she still paints portraits. Over time, however, she noticed that people were more interesting in complex groupings because these groupings opened the door to speculation about what might be happening within them. Settings also became more important: “Whether museums, restaurants, bars, street scenes, or an oyster roast, settings determine a painting’s ambiance, lighting, and motion,” she says.
Coffee’s paintings are kinetic vignettes with an emphasis on human interaction in public places. They offer seeds for social commentary, providing a springboard from which one draws one’s own interpretations, and they awaken one’s capacity to participate in her slice-of-life compositions. Although drawn from real life and actual experiences, her subjects are gently enhanced or exaggerated to make each character distinctive and memorable. Coffee’s art uses beautiful forms and a deeply grounded understanding of design, color, and negative space to evoke a vibrant aura of emotional energy and human exchange.
In SAVOURING SEURAT, two of Coffee’s favorite subjects combine: busy museum settings and famous paintings. There is a rhythm to these groupings, an underlying drama and pattern. At such events, people group, separate, flow around one another, and regroup like fish in an aquarium. “I love gesture and revealing body language, as in this painting where people are viewing art and interacting with it on an emotional or contemplative level, as well as with one another,” says Coffee. But scenes like this one, with multiple figures, present technical challenges, and the artist spends many hours visiting public places and social gatherings to observe and sketch people in action, using her camera to capture atmosphere. Drawing on characters from all of these sources, in what she refers to as a “central casting call,” she has learned to be sharply aware of perspective, size, and lighting as she creates her art from these mini-narratives.
Each new painting begins with a gathering of resource materials in the studio near her home in Cave Creek, AZ. Built to delight the eye architecturally as well as to provide serene desert views through its multiple windows, Coffee’s covered-bridge-style studio spans a dry stream bed and is a haven for the artist. A huge easel takes center stage, and one entire wall is covered with shelves bursting with art books. To one side, a sofa’s slipcover features colorful scrawls of famous artists’ names. Ensconced in her aerie, Coffee listens to talk radio or recorded books as she paints.
When inspiration strikes, Coffee’s first step is to work up a value study in her sketchbook. Then, turning to her canvas, she applies a muted, grayish-green wash over the entire surface and begins sketching in the scene with darker paint, using a combination of English red (a warm, dark hue) and olive green, which produces a “wonderful range of browns,” in her underpainting. Occasionally she “mashes in some yellowish white in an area to be highlighted. This initial stage is critical to the success of the final painting,” she says. “Because my compositions are so busy and the figures so animated, there must be a solid pattern of abstract darks and lights at its foundation.
“I want to get the layout pretty much there before I move on,” she emphasizes. “If needed, I rub out my sketch and do it again.” She indicates the basic setting, such as the interior of a museum or bar, and begins defining a couple of the most compelling figures. Coffee is drawn to a somber palette—she seldom uses cadmium hues except for small accents. She feels the more subtle tones are more lifelike and allow for delicate differentiations. Black is not on her palette, and she mixes most all of her colors to achieve highly effective color harmony.
Coffee works from back to front, “pulling the atmosphere forward.” Developing negative space first makes the figures pop into sharper relief. “The eye sockets are critical with my figures,” she states. “They help to indicate size, direction of gaze, and movement. I push those in early on, but I don’t apply the fine details, such as facial expressions, until I’m nearly finished.” Coffee loves “her people.” As she becomes immersed in creating each painting, “the people come to life, and their stories become real,” she says.
Coffee’s fascination with watching people began early. When growing up in the New York metropolitan area, her mother, an accomplished artist, frequently took Elaine along to art classes, museums, on subways, and into the ebb and flow of the crowded city streets. Little did Elaine realize, at the time, how profoundly those experiences would influence the direction of her art.
Coffee’s first academic pursuits took place at Elmira College, where she majored in biochemistry with an eye toward a career in medicine. But after two years, the lure of art became greater, and she switched to the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she earned a fine-arts degree. She also studied medical illustration in night classes at Hunter College but quickly realized there was not a practical way to combine her two interests.
Following graduation, Coffee took a job in the art department of an advertising agency in New York City. Then, her former husband’s work took them to Arizona and ultimately led them to a two-and-a-half-year sojourn in Geneva, Switzerland. There she did illustration work for the American International Women’s Club magazine, The Courier, and broadened her knowledge of art and cuisine. Upon completion of her husband’s overseas assignment, the couple returned to Arizona, where, for more than a decade, Coffee was the art director for the now-defunct Scottsdale magazine. She also wrote features and eventually became the food editor. She has traveled extensively both within the United States and abroad, including France, Ireland, England, Mexico, New Zealand, and Australia. Her adventures have deepened her vast visual repertoire of people in social settings and living their everyday lives—and her interest in painting them.
A workshop with noted figurative painter Milt Kobayashi at the Scottsdale Artists’ School was significant for the artist, and it reinforced her developing sophistication with abstraction and design. Of her choice to take Kobayashi’s workshop, she says, “I liked his color, design, and use of negative space, and there was a decided Asian influence in his work—all of which was seductive for a figure painter.” What struck her most about his work, however, was the attitude his figures exuded: “He posed his models to add overall expressive interest to their hands, their bodies, to add personality to each figure study. I began to look for attitude in the figures I wanted to paint.” But rather than focus on one or two figures in smaller paintings, Coffee wanted more people and more depth, and she wanted to make a much larger statement.
Today Coffee is represented by several prominent galleries, and her work is widely collected in the United States and Europe. She also teaches and, in addition to her signature group paintings, accepts portrait commissions. A key component of her success lies not only in her unique personal style but also in her understanding of color harmonies, negative space, values, and the effects of light on form. A painting with a concrete, well-thought-out design can be spotted across the room, long before its details come into play, and it draws viewers closer. While Coffee’s subject matter is often light and playful, the technical knowledge behind it is hard earned, amassed over decades, and her discerning use of abstract patterns elevates her work beyond the ordinary.
TWO CHARDONNAYS, PLEASE illustrates how Coffee’s underlying design enhances her composition’s impact. The setting is the bar at the Dorset Inn, the oldest continually operating inn in Vermont, dating to 1796. The room is warm with the charm of Old World gathering places, and Patrick, the bartender, has been there for ages and is well known to regulars. Soft lighting emphasizes the bar’s warmth. Viewing the scene, one connects immediately with the satisfaction of a relaxing evening chatting away in the soft din of a comfortable bar. Beneath the skillfully executed gestural quality of each of the main figures, note the series of rectangular and triangular elements of line, form, light, and shadow that draw the eye back again and again to Patrick, the painting’s central, iconic figure.
Coffee’s paintings are about the good times, the exchange of ideas and opinions, food, and human connection. As Jack Morris, co-owner of Morris & Whiteside Galleries in Hilton Head, SC, sums up: “People relate to the candid, informal nature of Coffee’s art—the everyday aspect. They see themselves sitting at that bar or restaurant, or in that museum, sharing conversations. Elaine does more than render a likeness—the spirit of her work lies in her innate ability to capture an aliveness, a truth, in the body language of people interacting with each other within common social settings.”
Tree’s Place Art Gallery, Orleans, MA; S.R. Brennen Galleries, Palm Desert, CA, and Santa Fe, NM; Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head, SC; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY.
Featured in April 2012.