From Coffee to Canvas: Carolyn Sewell Trades Controversy for Creativity


This time each year, as stockings are hung from chimneys with care, a small but vocal minority of Scrooges make a social media mountain out of the non-denominational season’s greetings molehill. The 2015 bugaboo: Starbucks’ annual holiday-themed red cups, a tradition for the coffee giant since 1997.

In the past, the cups have featured a series of holiday-themed images, ranging from ornaments to reindeer to snowmen. This year’s cups, by minimalist contrast, feature the iconic green Starbucks seal floating atop a tasteful red ombré.

“In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cups designs,” said Starbucks’ vice president of Design & Content Jeffrey Fields in a company press release. “This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories. Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays. We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it. It’s a more open way to usher in the holiday.”

Where a few folks felt insulted over not being sufficiently reminded of their preferred holiday, illustrator and hand letterer Carolyn Sewell saw a blank canvas. Once she got her hands — and considerable talent — on the red cups, she began crafting a series of illustrations that have taught her quite a bit about her technique and process. I asked her about the project.


What did you think when you first saw this year’s red cup?

I was thrilled. The simplicity of the red gradient is the perfect background for hand lettering and patterns! I couldn’t wait to get my pens on them.


How many cups have you illustrated to this point? How long does it typically take to finish one cup?

I’ve sketched more than 20 cups, but only drawn on nine. I just had a baby (on December 3), so I have to work on them in between feedings. Each cup takes about 20 minutes, maybe less. I’d love to do 100 cups.


In your illustrations so far, the metallic gold brush pen has been your go-to. Is there a reason for that?

I tried using various paint pens, and although white and silver looked great, I wanted to limit myself and see what I could do with just one color.

Carolyn Sewell’s work was also featured in John Foster’s series of “Late Bloomers”—designers who have found their unique and compelling style a little later in life.

These kind of passion projects allow designers and illustrators to work on new techniques. Is there something you set out to focus on as you illustrated the cups?

Oh, absolutely. Passion projects are creative oxygen! For this one, I wanted to work entirely with patterns — and avoid my go-to, hand lettering — using the same “canvas” and “paint” each time.


What have you learned about your process?

I’ve learned I like to repeat myself. There’s something very calming and Zen-like when you draw the same mark over and over again. What’s also fascinating is how a single mark may not be very interesting, but when you repeat it enough times, suddenly it is.Starbucks_RecCupCanvas_001

Something else that strikes me about the cups — from an illustration standpoint — are the limitations involved: A set color, a set series of sizes and a set canvas. What has working within these limitations taught you?

I have never done well with options: Too many and I become paralyzed. And, like most designers, I thrive on limitations, as it forces my brain to find another gear. Plus, it’s always more impressive to see what you can create with one tool, rather than having all of the tools.


What do you think about the “controversy” over the red cups themselves?

I honestly think it’s ridiculous. Starbucks designed the most inoffensive cup ever, and yet folks still find a way to be bothered. I started drawing on the cups before the controversy, so my illustrations are not a reaction to the story, but rather a reaction to the lovely cup design. If people are truly bothered by the cup, then I suggest they pick up a pen and do something about it.

How do you feel about what Jeffrey Fields had to say about the cups?

I couldn’t agree more. The red cups are a blank page for your story. I choose to tell mine with metallic gold.

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