How long does it take you to crush a tinnie? Half a second if you’re being casual. Maybe three seconds if you’re holding intense eye contact with someone to make a point.
If you’re taking a photograph of that same crushed tinnie, you might then take a few minutes setting it up just right. Ten if you’re pedantic.
If you’re Dean Spinks, you’ll then spend 20 to 30 hours drawing that tinnie, painstakingly recreating each detail with pen and paper in larger-than-life photorealistic detail.
DEAN'S FIRST CRUSH
Like many great things, the beginning of this art series came about by a quirk of fate.
Dean’s a self-taught artist. He started drawing as a form of escapism while working as a graphic designer in the corporate world, and his creative outlet grew and grew. By 2017, he’d started to make a name for himself as an artist specialising in photorealistic black and white portraits, and was known for his cross-hatching style. It was at one of his early exhibitions in Sydney that the story of the crushed beer cans begins.
“I had a portraiture exhibition at 212 Blu in Newtown, and Young Henrys chucked in a bunch of tinnies to support the show. All my friends came, people came to check out the show, and everyone was drinking Young Henrys tinnies.
“At the end, I had all these photos of crushed tinnies, and I thought, ‘How can I thank Young Henrys, and show my appreciation for supporting the art community?’ So I drew one up – and it looked so cool. That’s where it started.”
It was a crushed Newtowner can drawn in simple black pen, and in Dean’s mind it was just a thank you gift. But when Young Henrys posted the drawing on Instagram and Dean gained a thousand followers, he realised he’d hit on something special. Something that spoke to people.
SO SIMPLE, YET SO COMPLEX
For thin bits of bent metal, crushed tinnies are surprisingly paradoxical objects. They’re an icon of Australian culture, a symbol of enjoyment and satisfaction… but they’re also literally rubbish. There’s a wealth of nostalgia and meaning ripe for the taking if you care to look for it, but there’s also simple sense memory: the feeling of aluminium crumpling beneath your fingers.
The funny thing is, Dean says even if he’d thought of drawing beer cans before, it wouldn’t have occurred to him to crush them. But since he did, he never looked back.
“It’s more nostalgic, not just marketing. Without the crush, I’m just drawing their product shot. [To me, that] loses some of the appeal.
“There’s something in the crush. It’s far more interesting to the eye. More evocative. All the artwork folds around the crush, all the reflections and shadows, and people can stare at it for hours. You feel like you can grab it and crush it. Everyone feels that. Everyone knows what that’s like.”
After the Newtowner picture, Dean developed an obsession with drawing crushed cans: tinnie after tinnie, month after month. There was no big thinking behind which cans he decided to draw; just a series of fanboy moments where he was struck by an urge to draw the can of whatever he was drinking at the time. And, you know, he half hoped a brewery might throw him a slab of beer here and there.
But it didn’t take long for people to start noticing Dean’s tinnie pictures. He received a few commissions. People started asking him if they could buy prints, which sent him into a mad scramble to scan his pictures to meet this market. One friend and fan was so keen about Dean’s beer tinnie artworks that he bought three of the originals – and later became Dean’s agent.
In time, Dean had created a neat series of crushed tinnies including a handful of craft beers, a few commercial beers, some San Pellegrino drinks, a Coke and a Red Bull.
Dean’s wondered if there are any copyright or legal issues with any of these images, but after he and his agent looked into it, they believe he’s in the clear – and more than that, the breweries are happy to have their tinnies on display to the world.
“It is a real grey area,” he says. “If I were to just photograph a can and sell that as a print, that’s using [the brewery’s] intellectual property. But I am crushing it, using my brain to interpret it and draw it, it is a work of art… and I only make peanuts off it as I sell prints.
“I’d never want to piss off a brewery. If they weren’t happy with it, I’d immediately pull it down. But everyone’s thought it’s really cool.”
THE ARTISTIC PROCESS
It starts with crushing the can – and Dean even takes this part seriously.
“It takes four or five times to crush. You don’t always get a good crush. You’ve got to get the right angle.”
Once he’s got a crush he’s happy with, he takes a photo of the tinnie: a simple shot with a white background, making sure there are some reflections on the can, but not too many.
Then begins the drawing. Armed with different weights of Copic marker, with nibs ranging from 0.03mm to 0.8mm, Dean uses cross-hatching to create depth and detail in his drawings. Originally, he’d use only black pen, since when Dean started drawing tinnies in 2018 he was still working entirely in monochrome.
“I didn’t use colour at all then. Before that I would just draw in pen, the pens are just black, layering a lot of little lines and dots to create tone and colour. I’d figured out how to draw in a photorealistic way with pen, but couldn’t figure out how to do colour on top of that.
“The way a painter might mix colours, the theory… I’ve never understood how to do it. It’s another language to me.”
But after drawing a couple of tinnies, something clicked for Dean when his graphic designer brain lent its wisdom to his self-taught artist brain. He knew the people designing these beer cans weren’t using gradients of colour in the way a painter would, but were only using one or a few basic colours for each design. So he decided to try playing around with the same concept, bringing together the colours of Copic marker available and the cross-hatching techniques he’d already mastered to create gradients and shadows.
This new tool changed the way Dean approached his artworks – first the tinnie pictures, then his other drawings, too.
“It’s funny, because if you think about the colours, it looks complex, but the colour’s really simple. Coopers is just one green: literally lay a flat colour then on top of that is a series of tone of the black pen.
“The colour theory is quite simple… but it brought [my drawings] to life.”
"Life" is a good description; at first glance, Dean's tinnies look like photos. The brain doesn't want to believe they could be pen drawings. You have to get up close and personal to understand how the life-like details – the crinkles in the metal, the bending of the reflections, the shadows in the indents – are brought together by thousands of tiny pen strokes layered on top of each other.
A coloured tinnie artwork on A2 – the size of most of these beer can pictures – takes Dean between 20 and 30 hours to complete, usually over three or four weeks. Moving forward, he’d like to start drawing beer tinnies in A1 size – the size of the Coke and Red Bull drawings. These larger artworks take twice as long to create, but Dean says he prefers the end result, and finds they have more impact.
“You can really get in and pinpoint the details,” he says.
“I’d love to go bigger again… but I’d have to get a new desk!”
You can watch time-lapse videos of Dean bringing his creations to life on his YouTube channel, where tens of hours of cross-hatching is compressed to under a minute. (Here's the Stone & Wood video.)
KEEN FOR MORE CANS
Dean hasn’t drawn any tinnies for a while; after his obsession with drawing beer cans in 2018 and 2019, he was called away with a lot of other portraiture work. But he’s itching to get back to doing more.
“I’m coming back around – gotta get back on the beer cans for the moment," he says.
“The next ones I want to do are some of the classic Aussie beer cans, cans that are part of the culture: VB, XXXX, even an Emu or something like that.
“Then after that, back to the craft ones. I want to do the Grifter Serpents Kiss – I’ve got a few I was drinking under my sink, crushed and ready to photograph.”
Dean also draws other things including portraits of celebrities, native Australian animals, and recently a nostalgic series of crumpled footy cards and cassette tapes. But to me, he’ll always be the guy who draws big beer cans. So next time you spend half a second crushing a tinnie, take another half second to think about how a crushed tinnie altered the course of Dean Spinks’ career.