What makes RVA Coffee Stain Doug Orleski tick? And why is his Richmond-themed art so popular?
Father, husband, social media creator, and ultimate Philly sports fan Doug Orleski has created a distinctive voice for himself as Richmond’s resident illustrator during the past ten years. His art has run the gamut from humorous cartoons in the print version of Style Weekly to the custom-designed Ukrop’s rainbow cookie-themed finisher medal for the 2021 Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k.
When Daniel Riddick, director of marketing and communications for Ukrop’s, thinks of Doug’s art, three words come to mind: positivity, simplicity, and inclusion.
“Doug puts happiness into a world that really needs it,” Riddick says. “He has a very welcoming way of letting outsiders in on the inside joke. Most of his art takes a bit of local knowledge to understand, but he’s welcoming you to be part of the club, versus giving off a locals-only vibe.”
It was Doug’s interest in exploring and learning about new things in Richmond that launched him on his artful journey and inspired him to start the blog RVA Coffee Stain on Tumblr in 2012. He came up with that name after sketching with a cup of coffee on his drawing table, often resulting in a coffee ring somewhere on the paper.
“I had a couple of accidents and messed up some pieces,” he says, adding that even after RVA Coffee Stain became more recognizable in the area, some people still confused his brand for a coffee company.
Cartoons, Comic Books, and Love of Archie
Doug’s interest in art began as a child when he was growing up in Levittown, Pennsylvania.
“I loved to doodle. I actually got in trouble for drawing when I was in first grade,” he says. “I was never particularly good at it, but I loved doing it, so I did it a lot.”
A self-taught artist, he began experimenting with different media and taught himself Photoshop. Then, he began posting some of his work online. “I realized things were looking a little better,” he says about his art.
Doug, who has a marketing degree from Christopher Newport University, and his wife Johanna, a lawyer with degrees from James Madison University and William & Mary, moved to Richmond ten years ago. That’s when he began to explore Richmond, drawing anything that intrigued him on first sight. Doug’s walks became moments of inspiration for his art. He took lots of pictures and jotted down notes so he could remember everything once he got home.
These days, when ideas aren’t coming as easily, he combs through his notes and notebook for inspiration. “There are times when I have been busy and can’t get out,” he says. “And I do write everything down. You think you will just remember, but you won’t.”
When he first put his drawings on the Internet, people reached out to him with special requests – drawings of places in the area that evoked memories and helped celebrate special events in people’s lives.
“I started selling my artwork to people around town. It started grassroots. I feel lucky, but there was a lot of work leading up to it,” he says.
His style is not fine art, Doug is quick to point out, and his illustrations incorporate a unique quirkiness. It’s a product of his love of cartoons and comic books that dates back to his childhood and continues today.
“I watched a lot of cartoons, including Disney cartoons. Comic books were big for me when I was young,” he says, noting that when he was a teen he discovered a love for Archie comics in particular. “To this day, I read Archie comics. I have an extensive Archie comics collection.”
Doug attends different Comic-Con events, including the conventions in Baltimore and Richmond. “I like to meet the artists and pick their brains. I follow a lot of artists on social media. That has been really helpful, and it influences my work,” he says.
Health and Wellness Priority
Nearly four years ago, Doug, who was by then the father of two, began paying closer attention to his health. He was getting progressively bigger and “buying shirts larger than I ever thought I would, and even those were a little snug. Being in my late thirties, it felt like I needed to start moving the needle soon because it was only going to get harder for me. I was so out of shape, I think I pulled a muscle once putting on my seatbelt,” he says.
Keeping up with the kids, working full-time, and drawing as a side gig required a lot of energy. “I was pretty overweight,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling good. I felt blah, and I knew something had to change.”
That’s when he began a system of healthy eating. A few months after that, he began running to stay motivated. His diligence paid off.
“I ended up losing about sixty pounds in over a year,” he says. “I definitely felt a shift when I lost the weight. I felt more present with my kids. Feeling better physically trickled into other parts of my life. It helped me have more energy for the craziness of the day-to-day responsibilities of having kids.”
Thanks to the new lifestyle, Doug says he has created more than ever. “I’ve grown artistically and as a father over those years,” he says.
It was through the new running regimen that Doug connected with Sports Backers. They asked him to do the Dash for the Cash in conjunction with the 2020 10k. “If you beat the professional runners, you get $2,500,” he said. “I started running with the training group, and then COVID-19 hit, and I didn’t get to do Dash for the Cash.”
Doug did run the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k the next year, in 2021, the same year his rainbow cookie illustration was used for the finisher medal.
“That is part of his personal fitness,” says Pete Woody of Sports Backers. “He got active and healthy, and that’s what Sports Backers is all about. I’m inspired by his work and his personal story.”
Today, the artist behind RVA Coffee Stain has found a happy middle ground when it comes to his running. “I’ve also found a healthy, sustainable weight,” he says, adding that since starting to exercise regularly, he has experienced a shift in his creativity that flipped a switch in his artwork. “I’m feeling better, and I’ve felt a shift in everything. Changing that part of my life really helped out.”
About the same time Doug was working to better his health, his wife Johanna was suddenly faced with a diagnosis of stage one breast cancer, just as the pandemic was starting.
“We were shocked,” says Doug, who adds that the couple was working from home with the kids and in a self-imposed lock-down at the time. “We were strictly quarantining like most, but there was the added pressure of trying to keep the kids’ lives normal, while also not keeping them in the dark.”
Before they told the kids about Johanna’s diagnosis, Doug remembers retreating to the bathroom and crying. “I could hear the kids just innocently playing in the living room,” he says. “It was this weird mix of pockets of sadness and then all of us putting on a brave face for the kids.”
The family started the journey in June 2020. “It kind of feels like a blur to look back on it. It was a shock to the system – being in the pandemic, too. Johanna responded well to chemotherapy, and she is post-cancer now.”
Johanna’s road to cancer survivor status included a double mastectomy after six rounds of chemo. She also went through immunotherapy and breast reconstruction surgery.
“She finished everything [treatment] in August 2021,” he says. “In some ways, it doesn’t even feel like it happened. In other ways, there is always the shadow of cancer because cancers can reoccur. Every time I hear someone say, ‘I’m great now,’ I want to shudder. I say a little prayer. It’s something you always live with.”
Johanna says she feels a profound gratitude, “which is really such a gift, of being able to appreciate small joys and moments, and to shed a lot of insecurities and frustrations, because you realize life really is just so precious,” she says. “Those frustrating stressful moments with my kids definitely don’t get to me like they used to, because I’m just so thankful to be here and be their mom. And the same goes for our marriage. I’ve always laughed with Doug, but I am so delighted and joyful to be his wife and be in this life with him, because every day is just a gift.”
Family Time in Coffee Stain Land
One of the couple’s main priorities is family time. Doug and Johanna enjoy taking their two elementary school-aged kids on family outings, which often includes the theatre.
“We grew up doing theatre,” says Doug, who met Johanna in 2006 while the two were doing musicals at Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania. “We did summer shows there. We met doing a summer show, Urinetown.”
The family supports the arts in Richmond, which also gives Doug a chance to connect with the region he celebrates through his art. “We like to have the kids experience it and go to shows at Altria,” says Doug.
They’ve also taken the kids to Broadway shows. “We want them to experience it because it was such a big part of our lives growing up,” Doug says.
While Doug and Johanna would love for their kids to be into art and theatre, they also want them to do the things that interest them.
“We really want them to blossom into the people they were meant to be, not what we envisioned we would be,” says Johanna.
The couple, who moved from Northside to Southside about five years ago, encourages the kids to try different things to discover their interests. “For example, I love baseball, and we gave t-ball a try recently with the kids and it didn’t click,” says Doug. “We want them to at least try a thing before saying they don’t like it. The activities that seem to click with them so far have been the arts. We encourage that through classes and camps like SPARC.”
Other outings in Richmond include Maymont and VMFA. “It’s really open and has tons of different sections,” Doug says. “Our younger one likes to go to the furniture section, while our older child prefers looking at the Fabergé eggs.”
Hiking is another treasured family adventure. “We’ve also done a lot of local hikes along the James River and Forest Hill Park,” says Johanna. “We’ve done the Texas Beach trail off of the North Bank trail. We do a lot of river and woodland trails. During COVID, it was our refuge – a way to be safe.”
Doug and Johanna also help their kids experience Richmond’s diverse culinary scene. Near the top of the restaurant list is Lemon Cuisine of India. “We eat there more than I’d like to admit,” Doug says. “You can see the [restaurant] drawing behind their register.”
Some of the family’s favorite dining spots include Garnett’s, Chiocca’s, Perk!, Pepe’s, and Mellow Mushroom.
When Passion Transitions to Income
One of Doug’s earliest commissions was a cartoon for someone who had first met their special someone at work near a copy machine. “It was a copy machine spitting out paper with hearts on it,” he says.
Later he worked on a commission for the Graduate Hotel that was inspired by electric trolleys in Richmond. He has also done two commissions for Representative Abigail Spanberger that were gifts for her team, and commissions for Ukrop’s, including a Christmas card, as well as the 10k finisher medal art.
“I had done a drawing of the Ukrop’s rainbow cookies, and they saw it and sent me cookies,” he says. “The rainbow cookie print is sold by Ukrop’s and on my Etsy site. It’s one of my top-selling pieces of art.”
Riddick says he has been a fan of Doug’s work since he first saw him in Style Weekly. “I’ve always viewed him as a local celebrity of sorts. As director of marketing of Ukrop’s, I’m constantly looking to associate our brand with things that are classic Richmond, but also new, fun, and innovative.
“His work is lighthearted and family-friendly, so that’s a plus for Ukrop’s, as well. It was a perfect fit. Once I saw his rainbow cookie art – before I ever reached out to him – I knew I had to call him. We were about to open the Market Hall, and I thought that piece would be a perfect addition to our small rainbow cookie-themed merchandise section.”
His prints are a favorite on Etsy, where he showcases and sells the majority of his work. “It took me a while to gain traction on Etsy. After a year or two of lackluster sales, it started to pick up steam, and sales have doubled each year over the past few years,” he says. “I drive all my sales through my social media pages.”
He tries to keep his site fresh with new Richmond-related prints. “It’s just me doing all the order processing, packing, and shipping, so I have to be careful about the speed of the growth,” he says. “I have plans to add some new products along with the prints, like a calendar and
a sketchbook compilation later this year.”
Channeling Creativity into a Way of Life
A lot of times when he’s packing orders for Etsy clients, his kids will come in the home studio, which he calls the side room, and hang out. “I have one rule when we’re in the side room: There’s no criticizing each other’s artwork. Positive energy only. There’s a lot of ‘Whose drawing do you like better?’ when they’re out here drawing,” he says. “I want them to know it’s more important that you like the drawing you made.”
In addition to his work as RVA Coffee Stain, Doug also works part-time as a graphic designer for Precision Marketing Group. “I have my feet in both, and that helps me have a consistent paycheck,” he says.
Through a pandemic that impacted millions of families around the world and through his wife’s cancer diagnosis, Doug channeled his energy into his creative passion. His way of managing his emotions is to create artwork. “You can get yourself lost in something,” he says.
He says his art changed after becoming a father and he matured artistically. “In my early years of cartooning, I would tackle more controversial topics. It was good for social media interaction, but not always the interaction I wanted,” he says. “I found myself making something for the sake of it being part of a current hot topic. It’s not a fun artistic head space to be in because I found myself trying to create for ‘likes’ or social media interaction.”
As he has grown, he’s realized the less emphasis you put on getting likes and clicks on social media, the better you feel about your art, he says. “Create it for you and not for others. If I could give any advice to a young artist, I’d say put your art out there as much as you can, but don’t get consumed by the social media numbers. Easier said than done for a lot of us,” says Doug.
About the future of RVA Coffee Stain, Doug says he is up for staying on the art journey to see where it will lead. “I love being able to make Richmond art and celebrate Richmond. I like connecting with people,” he says. “Creating art as it comes to me is more authentic than having a rigid plan. I like letting my art evolve.”
Illustration/photography: Doug Orleski and Scott Schwartzkopf