Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project

As kids, we all think we’re artists. We scribble with crayons, trace with colored pencils, and splash around with bright watercolor paint sets like we’re budding mini-Monets. Regardless of our skill, it’s fun.

All too soon, we find ourselves grinding through day jobs that demand professionalism, responsibility, and constant energy -- our creative days often fall by the wayside. I know I certainly don’t draw with colored pencils anymore, let alone break out the watercolor paints. I often forget that some people do grow up to be artists -- and not the beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking, street-hawking artists, either, but real, hard-working, talented, awe-inspiring artists.

I was reminded of this when I came across Oregon-based painter Karen Eland’s work. But what really caught my eye was her preferred painting medium: beer.
credits:"Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project" align:center

Karen Eland has been painting since she was 14 years old. She took a few years of classes in her teens, but is largely self-taught. While sketching at a coffee shop in her hometown of Tulsa one day, she decided to dip her brush into her espresso, just to see what would happen. As it turned out, she'd embark on a career she never imagined, painting commissions for coffee houses and festivals around the world.

When she moved to Bend, Oregon in 2008, she found herself surrounded by a new medium: beer. After all, Bend boasts the most breweries per capita in the entire country (sorry, Denver). Much like painting with coffee, painting with beer lends a striking golden-brown, almost sepia-toned effect. Today, Eland produces beer art to sell from her Etsy shop and her artist collective studio, with custom commissions for Deschutes Brewery and the Brewers Association, to name a few. She even teaches the occasional painting class.
credits:"Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project" align:center

As you can probably tell, Eland is a true artist. So when I asked her if she could teach me how to paint with beer, it felt like asking Charlie Papazian to casually show me the secrets of home brewing. But I quickly learned that Eland is absolutely lovely and was gracious enough to come to my home to share her tips and techniques. She even let me choose the image we’d be painting: Colorado’s iconic Maroon Bells. (Eland helped me by lightly sketching out the scene first, and brought a color photo for reference).

And because she helped me out, I feel it’s only right to pass along her beer painting secrets to you, too.

Start by making a dark beer reduction

When it comes to painting, be sure to choose a dark beer like a stout or a porter. Although light beers look like they’d make a nice honey-colored tone on paper, they're simply not dark enough to show up. “If you think about looking at a beer in a glass,” Eland says, “you’re actually looking at millions of layers of beer all together, which creates that color you see.” A single painted layer of light beer barely shows up at all, but even the darkest stouts must be reduced on the stove or in a microwave to deepen the color.

“I used to just pour a bottle and paint with it, but then realized that it’s better once it’s been condensed,” she says. “You do have to keep an eye on it, though, because it wants to bubble up and get all over your stove.” Eland suggests slowly reducing the beer to a quarter of a cup until it’s about the consistency (and color) of aged balsamic vinegar. “I usually choose a dark beer I want to taste, then I’ll have a have a few sips before I boil it down,” she says. For our painting purposes, we choose to paint with a can of Guinness.

credits:"Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project"

Embrace traditional watercolor techniques

It didn’t take long for Eland to realize that beer acts a lot like watercolor paint. Thus, she applies traditional watercolor techniques on watercolor paper (she prefers the 140-pound variety). Unlike canvas, watercolor paper absorbs water and paint, and can handle many layers. The heavier the paper, the more paint it can handle.

“If you have a big area, you can paint clear water everywhere, and when you put paint on it, it will naturally spread. That’s a good way to get an even wash.” She tells me that this technique is called “wet on wet,” and that it can be a good way to paint a smooth, even-colored background or sky scene over a large area.

credits:"Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project"

For the “wet on dry” technique, you dip your brush in the beer paint, dab it off on a paper towel, and use a thin, pointed brush to create a smooth controlled line. It’s best for painting defined lines like the mountain peaks of the Maroon Bells.

For the rough, rocky parts of our mountain scene, we used a dry-brushing watercolor technique to achieve a lighter, craggy effect rather than a smooth, shadowy look.

As we paint, Karen tests her painted areas for dryness with the back of her pinky before adding second and third layers. The more layers we add, the deeper the color, and the more depth we achieve.

credits:"Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project"

It’s okay to make mistakes

Karen makes it all look easy, but it’s not. Apply too much paint, and you lose the detail. Flick your brush the wrong way, and you’ve got unwanted water spots. Forget to let your layers dry, and your paint will bleed into the wrong areas. Luckily, for an amateur like me, beer is a surprisingly forgiving “paint.”

“If you make a mistake, just drop some fresh water on the problem area and blot it with a paper towel,” Karen instructs. “Then just repaint. True watercolor paints don’t do that; they stay on.”

credits:"Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project"

Have fun with it!

While plenty of people would rather drink beer than paint with it, painting with beer opened a new opportunity to tap into my inner artist -- which, in many ways, felt like it had been bottled up since childhood. Sitting with Karen and drinking a beer while painting with beer was exciting and fun, and I ended up with a keepsake painting that I’m actually pretty proud of.

credits:"Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project"

“That’s my favorite thing about teaching people,” Karen says. “Almost everyone as a kid would paint and play, but oftentimes it’d go by the wayside if they weren’t ‘good.’ I’m happy to encourage people to try it again. Even if it’s just for fun, that’s valid enough. Especially with beer, it doesn’t have to be serious.”

At its core, Karen’s art helps us see something familiar in a new way. It encourages us to stretch our creativity and perspective, and to find new ways to enjoy the things we already love.

credits:"Dustin Hall / The Brewtography Project"