Art that starts in a cup of tea

Zimbabwean-born artist and now Mowbray resident, Jeanne-Marie Webb, in front of her famous portraits on teabags.

The journey of a rooibos teabag is simple for many: remove from its packaging, put into a cup, add water, enjoy a cup of tea and then off to the dirt bin it goes.

However, for Zimbabwean-born artist, Jeanne-Marie Webb, the end of that cup of tea cannot come any sooner, because as she is sipping away, she’s already thinking of images of her next delicate paintings on none other than a rooibos teabag.

The concept behind her year-long “One Face a Day” project, which was recently exhibited in the Mother City, started a few years ago when she searched tirelessly for the perfect miniature substrate for her paintings.

“I happened to stumble upon a tattered old rooibos teabag one night whilst rummaging through one of my old paper boxes, and I thought, why not? It proved to be the perfect canvas for what I had in mind and I absolutely love the concept of creating unique pieces of art on a teabag,” says Ms Webb, who now lives in Mowbray.

Over the years, this unusual method has been tested on several different kinds of teabags, but it’s the red residue on rooibos teabags which does the trick for Ms Webb. Mixed with primer, the end result is a perfectly matched skin-tone, which is used in all her portraits.

“I had no idea that the medium would become such a hit. During my ‘One Face a Day’ project, scores of Facebook friends asked if they could join me, which later evolved into an online workshop as I shared the process of how to paint creative portraits on tiny rooibos tea bags with art-enthusiasts from around the world.

“The growing interest led to hundreds of artists flocking to buy rooibos tea on Amazon, and there’s no sign of this trend letting up just yet,” says Ms Webb.

This past week’s online auction which was open to international buyers, saw her selling more than 150 paintings to overseas buyers. About 130 were sold to local art collectors at her recent exhibition. She is also booked to do another online auction later this year which will include some of her other works and remaining rooibos teabag paintings.

Ernest du Toit, director of the South African Rooibos Council, says the trend is on the up as more artists use rooibos tea bags and even dried tea leaves in their art.

“Artists are on a constant watch to find new mediums to perform their art in. Taking inspiration from sand-painting, in which grains of sand are corralled to create an image, many artists are realising the same can be done with tea. It’s also a great way to upcycle and gives rooibos teabags a second life. Artists can enjoy a cup of tea first and then save the tea bag for when they want to work on it. Rooibos tea can also be used as a subtle dye or can be pasted as pieces of empty bags into a two-dimensional painting,” he said.

Mr Du Toit says another artist, Colorado-based Wewer Keohane, created teabag kimonos (robes), with each garment combining at least 600 steeped, dried and glued bags into a work of art that, while fragile, is actually wearable too.

Ruth Tabancay of Berkeley in California made quilts out of tea bags. Her quilts are full-sized and some take as many as 1 400 tea bags to complete.

“The concept of painting on or using tea bags in art is truly unique, and forces artists to work on a canvas that isn’t blank, but is instead imprinted with odd colours and textures. The creative possibilities are endless,” Mr Du Toit says.

Later this year, Ms Webb will also head to the United States to showcase her work, after being invited to share her process of painting on rooibos teabags with various studios.

For more information about rooibos and its many uses, visit or go to for more information on Ms Webb’s work.