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Mushroom Chemistry (it's not what you think) Painting with Mushroom Pigments.

1.Alissa and Phaeolus schweinitzi in the wild.
Alissa and Paeolus schweinitzi in the wild

During one of my CandP Coffee House watercolor classes, my student and friend Alissa showed me her samples of dyes made from different mushrooms.  I was impressed, not only by the range of colors, but also by her presentation. 

2Alissa's dye samples
Alissa's swatches of mushroom dye samples

 I knew she did scientific work for her day job, but I had no idea of the breadth of her knowledge about mycology, Not only did she learn where and when to find the mushrooms, but she had conducted workshops on the subject and could rattle off the species and families in Latin. She had also made articles of clothing and weaving dyed with mushroom dyes.

3 Alissa's dye treasures
Alissa's mushroom dye treasures

"How about paint?" I asked her.  When she mentioned that she hadn't tried that yet, I suggested we do some experiments making mushroom watercolor pigment.  So, over a period of three meetings, we got together, boiled up some batches of mushrooms, added the ingredients needed for fixing the color (mordants like alum, iron and vinegar), and brewed up watercolors from some recipes I found online.  (Alissa's comments are in italics.)

4. Mad-Painter-with-romanian-fungus-hat1

Here is Alissa preparing for our experiments in her Romanian mushroom hat.  It is made of pounded mushrooms. (truly)


I donned my Mad Scientist hat  (a rain hat I had picked up from my Peace Corps days) and some round nerd glasses.


Adding water to last autumn's dried Phaeolus schweinitzi.


And we begin to simmer. Toil and Trouble.  Until the smelly mixture is reduced to a rich color.


Decanting the pigment-rich color.


Adding color enhancing mordants and pHadjusters: iron, alum, vinegar and washing soda.

First test

Testing the concentrated solution.  The results were amazing.  All this range from 2 species!  The watercolor pencill added a nice level of detail, illustrating a feature in mycology called "marginate gill edges" where the caps's pigment carries over to the gill's edge.  It is a detail to look for when determining the identity of a specific mushroom.  

At this point,  Alissa took the pigments home to allow them to dry in their labeled containers. 

On Meeting 2, we ground the pigments (I believe in paint lingo it's called "milling") and added the ingredients for watercolor paint.



1. Water  and the dried pigment, 2. oxgall (as a dispersant), 3. glycerine (as a plasterizer or to help the gum arabic redissolve), 4. liquid gum arabic (not pictured but works as a binder), 5. Honey!!! (as a humectant...Note it is REAL honey I buy from my beekeeper friends in Indianola). And finally, 6. corn starch as a filler.

12. Straining-cornstarch. 

Straining the cornstarch. Yeah, my gravy is lumpy too.

Add aproximately 3 parts gum arabic to one part glycerin to 3/4 part honey to 1/2 part ox gall to 2 parts corn starch to "enough" water. 

We dabbed samples on white plates and labeled them.  Alissa again took the paints home to hydrate in the fridge.  We didn't have oil of cloves, but it would be a good thing to add a drop to each container...prevents mold and bad smells.

Hydrated pigments plus watercolor additives

On our third and last meeting, we got together and painted.
15. Mushroom painter 16 Alissa painting the negative
 Alissa painting the negative spaces

17. Alissa's-mushroom1e 18. Jennifer's-morel2011e
 Alissa's mushroom                          Jennifer's morel


19. Pigment-samples-and-product2011ePigment samples and watercolor products

20.Mushroom artists 2011eAlissa and Jennifer at the grand finale of the Mushroom Paint experiment.

And toasted ourselves and the Fungi Family with wine to celebrate!



Next, Alissa has promised to take me to see a wonderful Bog. 

BOG ART is next.


Reader Comments (3)

this is so cool. i need a sweater this is so cool!
April 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLynne Rutter
Amazing.To come up with the idea, much less pull it off!Just amazing.
June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn @ Plumsiena

Love it! very creative and interesting

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWesley Price

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