Attracting Crowds at the Coffee Shop

I met Barbara McKee at the Rocky Mountain Society of Botanical Artists meeting last fall. The notes in my database next to her name say: “delightful!”
Barbara McKee
Barbara McKee paints “Japanese Iris” in her local coffee shop.
So I wasn't too surprised when I read her comment on a post last week. Who but someone “delightful” could come up with the following?
. . . for the last couple of years I've been doing watercolor botanicals (with silly creatures and meanings hidden in the foliage) and I paint in COFFEE SHOPS a lot.  People come over and LOVE them, so I get their names and email addresses, with permission to send them stuff.
If people can spend four hours with their computers over a cup of coffee, why not we artists?  WHAT a good deal this has been, and my cat doesn't paw over my water glass there!
In Louisville, Colorado, Barbara McKee provides surprising entertainment for coffee-shop patrons.

The Routine

Barbara walks to Vic's Espresso 3-4 times a week for morning coffee. Then she returns 3-4 more times to paint.
Barbara loves getting out of the house and connecting with people. She admits she's naturally shy, so she was a little self-conscious at first.
Painting at coffee shops challenges Barbara to be more out front as an artist.
Sometimes Don, Barbara's husband, accompanies her. He's a sculptor and works on small 3-D pieces while sipping Joe.
It's become such a habit that the first thing Barbara and Don do on vacation is seek out a coffee shop for their art sessions.

Opportunity to Amass Fans

Barbara and Don make art at coffee shops to escape their home studios and connect with the outside world, but Barbara said after hearing me speak last fall that she now sees opportunity in the setting. So, when people engage in conversation, she asks them if they'd like to receive an email with the finished piece and as other paintings are completed.
Next on her list is a blog where she can show off her work.
How about you? Do you ever make art in public (non-art) spaces?

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55 thoughts on “Attracting Crowds at the Coffee Shop”

  1. I actually did this while stuck in jury duty. It was killing me to be waiting around when I had art to create at home, so I brought my work with me. It was a good conversation starter and a great way to pass the time.

  2. Plein air painters make art in public spaces all the time–just not usually indoors. I’m sure coffee shop patrons would object to the, um, perfume of the (supposedly odorless) solvents oil painters use. But plein air, in parks, along roadsides, on the quay–painters go all sorts of places. And sometimes attract viewers. There’s an interesting ambiguity plein air painters have toward spectators: painting is hard work, and it’s actually very hard to work and converse at the same time. And there’s time pressure, too: the light is always changing. But–people have been known to buy paintings still wet right off the easel, at least sometimes. Getting names for a contact list is a good idea.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Stephanie: No, you absolutely could not take anything but water-based materials into the coffee shop. Sounds like outdoors is your public space. No need to go to the coffee shop.

  3. This is really a great idea on so many levels. I’d have a problem dragging my potters wheel into my local coffee shop though. However, since I sell in a local coffee shop it would be a good idea for me to consider another way to get this kind of interest.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lori: Could you be like Barbara’s husband and sketch? Maybe experiment with clean clay in public places?

  4. This is a great idea! When I’ve sketched in my local coffee shop, I’ve always kept the sketchbook hidden, thinking that people would not like the fact Ii’m drawing their hangout. Turns out that I’ve been missing an opportunity to connect with fellow caffeine lovers about art. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Brilliant idea…altho the first time i went with a sketchpad (to draw the patrons) I was paralyzed. Now, I think i could handle it and would love the conversation starter bit. Kudos to this brave gal for stepping outside her comfort zone!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Cindy: Yes, the first steps are always the most difficult. Kudos to YOU for getting past them.

  6. I love the idea of painting in a coffee shop! So clever. As a plein air painter I am used to working in public places and welcome the opportunity to engage in conversation with viewers. I’ve added to my mailing list, handed out business cards, invited people to exhibits and have even sold a few paintings right off the easel. Many people have never seen an artist at work and are reluctant to disturb me but are interested to watch the process. Once on a cross country plane flight I did a small pastel painting on my lap. None of the passengers seemed to notice but it kept me entertained for a few hours. I refer to that piece as my “plane air” painting.

  7. I used to take variously, a drawing pad or some bead weaving with me to work on in public places like that before I started being my mother’s caregiver. Even the rare occasion when someone approached me about my work, I never thought to ask them if they’d want to receive an email when the piece was finished. That’s very savvy marketing. 🙂

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Patricia: It’s not just marketing, but a service to potential fans.

  8. I art journal in public (usually on the sidelines of different events my kids participate in – but only whilst waiting for their turn to play!!) and bring my sketch materials to my daughter’s dance school and practice life drawing on the young ladies. I also like to try and set my easel up in public spaces and actively paint – it takes far more planning to do, but the entire experience is wonderful. The painting, the being in a fresh setting, and the interacting. Thanks for helping me recognize this could also be an opportunity to market and engage new customers!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Kimberly: I like thinking of it as engaging rather than marketing. Just connecting with people is a HUGE part of marketing, but it’s much more fun to think of it without the M word.

  9. I really liked this post. I often do my art in public places – art walks, paint-outs and public parks and cafes. I’ve found it a really fun way to meet new people and getting their feedback. Working on my art in my home or a studio can be wonderful for allowing me to focus on my work uninterruped, but it can also be isolating. It makes me appreciate my own creative drive more when I get feedback from a stranger who feels compelled to chat with me about what I’m doing. I especially love it when children come up and talk to me – I love being able to encourage them to be creative too! A couple of weeks ago a Swedish family came up to me and their little girl said “You are really GREAT!” – a big compliment from a 5 year old!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Carol: It is, indeed, a big compliment from a 5 year old. Relish it!

  10. Great way to build her web community by going out into the real world to get email addresses and interact. With so many online tools people forget how much you can get done by just getting out there and speaking to people. It’s a good point to remember no matter what you do. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Staci: Yes, I appreciate it very much when artists like Barbara share there stories with me in order to inspire other artists.

  11. I have drawn at some art shows I’ve participated in, and it does draw people in (no pun intended!!) that may not have come to my booth otherwise. I also use to draw at the LA zoo many years ago…will have to start that up again after this bit of inspiration. I am shy too and a bit self conscious, but I think after a few sessions, I may just naturally get over that?!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Kathryn: I like your attitude. No one ever got anywhere without taking risks.

  12. I started hanging out in cafes sketching when I was 16 – I learned early that it attracts people’s attention to the art, so I never stopped. 20 years later, I’m still a cafe resident artist, (as any who know me online hear about all the time) and I’ve been privileged to meet thousands of people through this arena. Not to mention, sell some art, and gain a few loyal and returning clients. The greatest benefit is the international meet and greet – I meet people from all over the world just by working in the public eye. Recently I met the representative of the Indian consulate and his wife, as well as the owner of a well-known French yoghurt company. People think that sitting in a cafe drawing is an easy life, but they don’t know how it can attract the most unusual opportunities.

  13. Our South Mississippi Art Association ( has held Quick Draws to entertain the public, raise money for charity, and get exposure for the artists. Here’s how it works: the location is at a large restaurant/bar&grill type of business. Tickets are sold and heavy hors d’ouevres are offered throughout the event. Artists get set up to create their work. There is a band playing while everyone enjoys the food and drink and watching the artists work. The artists have one hour to complete their art and 15 minutes to frame or otherwise finish it. Then a live auction is held. Proceeds can go 100% to the charity or split with the artists, depending on the arrangements ahead of time. It’s a great deal of fun!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Fun, Martha! I prefer the scenario where the artists receive a portion of the proceeds. Always.

  14. When younger I loved pubs (with live music too) and drew in my sketchbook regularly. This very quickly equated to free beer since I draw good portraits and caricatures. Which alas in turn led me to stop that practice. Too much beer and the inability to say no.
    A good time ago now my sketchbook (full of sketches of Dougie McLean and his music pals) was stolen from a changing room and the pages scattered across a toilet floor. It was mistaken for a wallet I suspect. I didn’t think it upset me much (apart from being very very angry). But the proof was I got out of the habit for many years from that point.
    Back on the wagon now though. Any excuse to sit in a cafe and sip teas and sketch. Same goes for meetings. I sketch and doodle all the way through them with not one objection from anyone. (Research actually shows you retain more of a phone call or meeting if you doodle at the same time). True.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Nice story, Alan. I enjoyed visiting your site, but I’m curious as to why your name isn’t on it.

  15. AnnaMaria Windisch-Hunt

    Cafe TuTuTango in Coconut Grove was build on the fact that it was an artist loft, easels were provided, 2-4 artist each evening creating, we got paid and were able to sell our work. It was such a successful destination restaurant. That I was able to talk most of the the local restaurants/cafe into supporting artists. Greenstreet cafe even went so far as to give half price coffee any time they came to sketch on the premises.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      AnnaMaria: It sounds like these places no longer exist. Have they gone out of business?

  16. Just read this while I’m sipping my coffee! What a delightful idea. Thank you so much for posting this. It’s a great idea for a rainy day when you can’t get out in en plein air. Mmmmm this could be a whole revolution. Au plein dedans?

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Carolyn: Funny that you wrote this since what I remember of visiting your studio was that it rained all day!

  17. This is really fantastic!
    I go to the LA Zoo at least once a month, and draw the animals for my own enjoyment and portfolio growth. I get a lot of people watching me, and I often get some truly lovely compliments! I went with a friend who is an excellent photographer recently, and inbetween photographing the animals, she would take shots of people watching me draw. I had no idea a whole line of kids were looking over my shoulder!
    Its yet to gain me any business deals, but I think if I went to a cafe, I’d probably bring a project instead of actually painting the guests there. Guests tend to get a little mad if they realize you’re drawing them, but painting in a cafe sounds like such a fun idea, I might grab some small projects and try it out! 🙂

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Jessie: Do you hand out business cards to people watching you at the zoo? Or follow up with them in any way? It might be a missed opportunity.

  18. I usually work on large, commissioned sculptures, but I have brought an easel to our local coffee shop and worked on bas-relief sculptures! I really enjoy getting out of the house and working with people. I love the conversations that arise. Thanks for the reminder. I haven’t done this in a year!

  19. I frequently draw in my Moleskine in restaurants and coffee shops (well actually everywhere, but never thought of doing watercolours. What an idea!) Turn over
    is so fast in the coffee shops I frequent, that I don’t know whether they’d resent
    the intrusion. But hey — now that the weather is warming up I could sit at one of
    the outside tables and give it a whirl. Thanks for this lovely idea.

  20. I’ve been writing occasional posts about painting plein air, usually from the point of view of being terrified that someone will ask me a question. I’m trying to develop a more confident and positive approach to these interactions… Your post, the comments, and your replies to them are really great and wonderfully inspiring. Thank you!

  21. Pingback: The coffee shop is the future of . . . well, everything — Online Collaboration | Office Inn

  22. I do mainly pastels, and as I was reading all the comments, I kept wondering if that would be acceptable or appropriate in a coffee shop, given that they can be messier than watercolors or simply sketching. Then I got to Barbara Muir’s comment about doing art at one of the outside tables, and that, I think, is a great compromise! I could always do sketches inside with a tea when the weather is rainy. Thanks for the original idea from Barbara McKee, and thanks for posting Alyson!

  23. Alyson, great idea! I haven’t painted in coffee shops… Yet! But I’ve pInted regularly at farmers’ markets in upscale communities, and I a friend (years ago now) started painting the scenes outside an inn on a lake in NH. Eventually the Inn took her on as their artist in residence. I’ve sold quite a few paintings at a B&B in Tucson during their high season… As their AIR.
    What’s so wondwerful about painting in public places is that it introduces fine art to fools that might have never given it a second thought. I have sold paintings to non-collectors from the B&B and also as a result from portrait commissions.

  24. This darned iPad key plunk keyboard… I hope everyone got a good laugh out of “fools”. I sure did when I re-read my text. I meant it to say “folks”. I would never call anyone a fool…

    1. Hi Alyson, thank you so much for posting Barbara’s article and this discussion! I always enjoy being “out there”, but never thought of making it a really regular part of my painting schedule. This was all so encouraging, and, I have just rediscovered watercolor – quick, light, portable and best of all great fun for people to watch

  25. Pingback: Why Working in Coffee Shops Works — Art Biz Blog

  26. I’ve been a part of The Sketchbook Project for 3 years now and it’s a fantastic-sized sketchbook to tuck in a bag or even a large pocket. (Can’t say enough good things about the folks @ The Art House Co-op I carry one micron pen with me and sometimes a pencil for shading (but no eraser!). Because of its small format, not as many people stop by, but it helps me enormously to have something to do while soaking up the coffee shop ambience, getting out of the house office/studio and pushing myself to develop my nascent ink-drawing skills. I’m going to Maine for the month of August to a fairly remote area. I’ll have to drive to town to get wi-fi, so I’m really looking forward to having the tech-free place to create art and then the sociability of a coffee shop for writing.

    1. Hi Jane, Thank you for posting the link to arthousecoop (and your site, the mindful drawer, looks really interesting too.
      happy painting, Anne

  27. I work outdoors almost exclusively, painting the sunrise each morning and doing plein air work wherever I go. My sketchbook is always with me and I take my students outdoors to draw and paint when I can.
    I have painted in coffee shops and restaurants, mostly in outdoor settings, but now I’m thinking that the local coffee shop at the beach near my house would be a good place to show up on a regular basis.
    Thanks for the inspiration, Barbara, and thanks for sharing with us, Alyson.

  28. What a great article – and even more juice in the comments! Thanks for all the wonderful ideas here.
    Just tried a cafe painting day, and it was fun (once I got over feeling self conscious!)

  29. this is truly a very brave and a wonderful approach to meet new people (not to mention the emails) and to show them the kind of art you create. I would love to try this though again fear is gripping me in its palms, I am very conscious about people staring so if I am able to get over this hurdle then it will be a great achievement for me.
    I will give it a try as I love the inspiration it is creating within me.
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  30. Just am reading though stuff today online and loved re-reading this post. I did paint watercolor in a Starbucks once and it was a fun experience. I’m not shy…

    Forgot all about this idea in the meantime and want to try it again. Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose. I can meat people who may never enter a gallery or artist studio. I enjoy meeting people and showing them my work. I think I’ll put some business cards on the edge of the table, so they can take one without any pressure from me.

    My only problem would be staying away from the sweets and sticking to just coffee.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lori: So good to see you here. Enjoy the treats at Starbucks—you’ll work them off while painting, right?

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