By Kelsey Snell
In an age of “filtered” art (Valencia or X-Pro? Try Rise.), artist Ben Blake takes a different approach. Instead of filtering his work, he works on filters—no sepia staining, no one-touch tilt shifting necessary. Ben began “doodling” on coffee filters two years ago and aptly named his project Draw Coffee, which has generated collaborations with the worldwide coffee community.
After college in his native Ohio, the 25-year-old got married, moved to Italy, then Seattle and recently landed in Washington, D.C., where he works at Peregrine Espresso in Capitol Hill.
Is Draw Coffee a novel concept? Not really. Ben sketches coffee images on coffee filters. His work isn’t for sale, and it’s not solicited. Draw Coffee is simple, and Ben plans to keep it that way.
“I didn’t set out doing the filters with the intent of showing people. They were a personal thing,” he says. And although he shies from using a cliché, Ben says the coffee remains his muse. “It’s an exciting thing for me. If I taste blueberries or cotton candy there’s something about that that makes me want to visualize or draw it.”
Doodling, as the artist unashamedly calls his work, began early on as a way for him to focus in school. Even in Ben’s younger years, most of his drawings starred a sports team or a coffee cup. “I would draw a cup somewhere on the page and it would expand from that. It was just… what I did.” He recalled his first “sell” in college when he auctioned an index card doodle on eBay for $5 of a coffee cup-turned-psychedelic sunburst.
Classroom distractions tend to pay off for Ben. It was the coffee blog Dear Coffee, I Love You. that inspired him to delve into brew science. “The only way I knew how to keep track of that was to journal, write or blog,” he says, “but I didn’t have a lot to say so I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll draw it—on a filter. That will be cool.’”
According to Ben, Hario V60 filters make for a surprisingly reliable canvas. They’re malleable but not fragile, tear-resistant and they don’t yellow, but challenges arise too. Cone filters are fibrous which is good for our coffee but bad for Ben who found only one pen that won’t bleed (Pilot Zebra). And they’re thinness doesn’t leave room for mistakes or erasing.
Ben deemed his daily design project “Draw Coffee,” and people began to notice. Roasts he tried, cafes he visited and home-brewing tips became artworks. Soon enough, roasters would send him beans to sample and followers would recommend shops and brew techniques, hopeful to see them in pen and ink. But he says he’s never drawn a filter that was paid for or requested, and aware that his work could become “diluted,” he grew more selective. Filter sketches touting personal favorites like London’s Workshop Coffee, Aida Batlle’s lots and La Marzocco made the Draw Coffee website before being filed in Ben’s archive—an Able Brewing cone box that holds the rest of his 200-plus collection.
In 2012, the newlywed Blakes moved to Italy, and Ben traversed Europe for coffee events and collaborations. During London Coffee Week, he designed postcards for Hario and flew to Antwerp to judge a latte art competition. In Rotterdam, The Netherlands, Ben paired up with longtime Dutch coffee suppliers Douwe Egberts to doodle on an espresso machine and later designed a shell for ZPM Espresso’s Nocturn machine with coffee-growing landscapes and trippy, textured patterns. He recently designed a T-shirt for Baratza profiling seven different brew methods, and he illustrated Clive Coffee’s The Craft of Espresso book with precise diagrams of grinders, milk wands and portafilters.
Still, the Draw Coffee filters remain off the market. Ben preserves them from the pressures and the expectations, the money and the contracts, that aren’t really his game. However, he acknowledges his awareness of the public eye, and with nearly 3,500 Twitter followers, how can he ignore it? “What are people going to think?” he asks himself as he works. “Will they see an improvement or will they think I’m sloppy and I’ve taken a step backwards?”
So Ben’s original doodle style evolves. Subtle lines for scale and Da Vinci-esque sketching take the place of the whimsical hodge-podge in his first drawings. “Doodles” doesn’t quite fit his latest filters that focus more on lettering and type.
Looking to pioneering typographers Jon Contino and Drew Melton for inspiration, Ben incorporates vintage Americana and calligraphic typefaces in the newest Draw Coffee illustrations. He writes cafe names and phrases (“Nectar of the Gods”) in cursive with artful flourishes and includes aesthetics picked up from handwritten signs and throwback packaging (“cigar boxes to egg crates”).
Now working at Peregrine, Ben also finds inspiration as he learns bar skills and customer service best practices, but another change rumbles. “Drawing has a natural talent wall,” he admits. “You can work at it and get better, but there’s still a wall you hit and you realize ‘I can get better but not as good as I want to be.’ With coffee, there’s so much tangible help you can get. It’s a continual movement forward.”
Thankfully, Ben hasn’t reached that wall just yet, and he continues drawing coffee. He measures the width of coffee cherries and levels dimensional lines with an architect’s precision. And at the tip of most filters, the place of origin, Ben draws his trademark—the coffee cup that started it all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelsey Snell is a city magazine editor and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She’s written about travel and coffee for National Geographic Traveler and Southern Living magazines and is a contributor to National Geographic’s Four Seasons of Travel book. Kelsey also edits coffee maps of London and New York City made by Blue Crow Media, and she thinks you should buy one.