Painting with Soil

Soil enjoys a special place in landscape painting (see e.g. Zika 2001 and Feller et al 2010) and its representation throughout art history has been analyzed (van Breemen 2010, Busch 2002, Hartemink 2009) as well as taken on as an expressive medium within the soil scientific community (e.g. paintings by Gerd Wessolek and Jay Noller).

Troodos Forest Soil

Jay Noller’s Soilscapes: Troodos Forest Soil

Given its primary position in art history, painting can provide relatively easy access to the sometimes-inaccessible world of contemporary art. In conversations with soil scientists, painting often comes up as a relatively well-known and accepted art form with which to explore the aesthetic properties of the soil. When the Soil Alliance of Lower Austria launched its educational outreach project “Painting with the Colors of the Earth” with artist Irena Racek in 2008, resonance within the soil scientific community was immense. Soil painting workshops with children and youth groups popped up in Europe and the United States. The Austrian government began distributing soil painting kits online (Szlezak 2009). Sand painting and pigment making workshops appeared at soil science and geological conferences and on soil information websites (e.g. artists Rainer Sieverding, Karl Böttcher, Peter Ward, Irena Racek, and the Pedotopia Project by authors Toland and Wessolek).

Painting with the Colors of the Earth

painting with the colors of the earth

Through a growing interest in painting with soil, a wider conversation on the aesthetic properties of soil has opened within soil scientific communities. Suddenly, intrinsic values of beauty, diversity, and uniqueness are gaining traction alongside instrumental values such as those typified by soil functions and ecosystem services. This development falls within the scope of “raising soil awareness” – a strategy of preventative soil protection that is gathering support not only in soil scientific circles but also in environmental policy and decision making contexts (e.g. within the European Network of Soil Awareness ENSA or the platform session “Raising Soil Awareness” of the Global Soil Forum’s 2012 Global Soil Week in Berlin).

Badami Felsbemalung

Ulrike Arnold: Badami Cave Painting

Contemporary painter Ulrike Arnold has been raising soil awareness for over 30 years. Travelling to remote landscapes all over the world, Arnold creates abstract paintings with local earth materials on massive canvases or directly on the cave walls and rock ledges where she sometimes takes shelter. Arnold is on a life quest to bring about awareness of soil to a greater public. Using the landscape as her studio in what could be called a dynamic dialog with the earth, Arnold’s work is all about eliciting the beauty and diversity of earth materials – something immeasurable and unclassifiable by science. According to Arnold, “I’m a cave woman or a mud woman, a woman of the earth. Soil is the strongest of the archaic elements. I feel directly connected to a place by simply touching the earth. I feel immediate contact and then I feel at home, not homeless or lost, even in a totally foreign place…” (Ulrike Arnold, in an interview with A. Toland on November 6, 2012)

Ulrike Arnold: "Yuendumu" central Australia

Ulrike Arnold: “Yuendumu” central Australia

Painting with the earth, however, must not be understood out of context, Ulrike Arnold warns. The colors and textures brought together in her Earth Paintings come from somewhere distinctive and carry with them the aura of place. To complete the picture, Arnold often exhibits detailed photographs and films of rock crevices, caves, muddied surfaces, surrounding landscape features, and local inhabitants, in addition to her Earth Paintings. These materials help viewers contextualize the landscapes, climates, and cultural settings from which her works are extracted. This is a valuable lesson for soil scientists looking to reconnect with society and culture in their research. The inclusion of field photography and descriptions of local land-based problems are sometimes included in scholarly articles to underline the relevance of a given study. Such contextualization of research within local environments and communities could be more widely practiced in academic journals, at conferences and in research projects. Artists could be of great assistance in such contextualization efforts.

Given the dominant status of painting in art history, it is up to contemporary artists to push the borders and expectations of what painting is and what painting can do, as well as what color is and where color comes from. Two more examples are necessary here to show the range of possibilities of painting with soil.

Jesse Graves & Morgan Herum: mudstencil in Missouri

Jesse Graves & Morgan Herum: mudstencil in Missouri

On the street level, artist Jesse Graves has been branding bridges, sidewalks, and buildings with mud graffiti for the past several years. Using black compost, red clay deposits from his native Wisconsin, and sediments from the Milwaukee River, Graves’ Mud Stencil project combines painting and graffiti, art and activism, natural elements and urban public space. Graves says: “…mud is a pigment.  It sticks, it binds, and it works very similar to the way paint does… Spray paint is really toxic. I want to create environmental messages, so it wouldn’t make sense (to use spray paint)… Earth is the most basic substance.  It’s what all life grows out of. It’s what things breakdown into when they decompose. So I’m using earth to spread messages that I see can help preserve our Earth… because it’s the material that’s most logical for my message.” (Jesse Graves, in an interview with A. Toland on September 20, 2012)

Soil not Oil Mudstencil

Soil not Oil Mudstencil

Typical for street artists, Graves openly shares his methods and designs under creative commons license on his blog,, and the mud stencil idea has since spread to cities across the United States and abroad. This street art project brings soil back into the urban environment, where it is usually invisible, and takes painting out of studio and exhibition contexts to champion environmental messages over authorship or originality.

Reis working in Idaho’s Salmon River, courtesy of Mario Reis & Gail Severn Gallery

Reis working in Idaho’s Salmon River, courtesy of Mario Reis & Gail Severn Gallery

Authorship is also challenged in natural landscapes, for example, in the works of Mario Reis. Reis “coauthors” his work with streams and rivers in a unique approach to painting he calls Nature Watercolors. By placing stretched canvases in strategic positions and depths in the river, Reis captures the signature swirls of ancient waterways in the sediment load unique to each river system. Reis (2004, p.107) explains, “The rivers in my paintings are both the object and subject of my work. I am not creating an illusion of rivers, but catching some of the real essence of the rivers in my painting. They leave their imprint on the cotton and show us how they are.” While the artist chooses the specific sites and painstakingly installs the stretched canvases, sometimes using rocks as counterweights to control the placement of pigment, the river itself completes the painting by depositing sediment residue on the surface of the canvas.

More than anything, Reis’s works are a record of time. Eroded sediments from mountains, forests, and farmlands on exodus to the sea are captured en route in the steady course of the river’s flow. “Whatever happens,” Reis says, “it’s an expression of Nature in its own voice. Each stream has a specific character. Some paint in a really hard-edge manner, others paint more softly. In this way each painting, influenced by the interaction between myself and the river, is a kind of self-portrait of that specific river.” (ibid p.106).

Mario Reis: Daisy Creek,Montana, USA

Mario Reis: Daisy Creek,
Montana, USA


Busch, B. (2002) (Hrsg.): Erde. Schriftenreihe Forum, Bd. 11, Elemente des Naturhaushalts III. Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH, Köln

Feller, C., Chapuis-Lardy, L., and Ugolini, F. (2010): The Representation of Soil in the Western Art: From Genesis to Pedogenesis. In: Feller and Landa (Eds.) Soil and Culture. Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London and New York: Springer Science + Business Media B.V.: 3-21

Hartemink, A. (2009): The Depiction of Soil Profiles Since the Late 1700s. In: Catena Nr. 9 2009. 113-127

Reis, M. (2004): Riverwork. In: Grande, J., Art Nature Dialogues – Interviews with Environmental Artists. Albany: State University of New York Press. 105-116

Van Breemen, N. (2010): Transcendental Aspects of Soil in Contemporary Arts. In: Feller and Landa (eds.) Soil and Culture. Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London and New York: Springer Science + Business Media B.V., p. 37–43

Zika, A. (2001): ParTerre. Studien und Materialien zur Kulturgeschichte des gestalteten Bodens. Wuppertal. Fachbereich 5 der Bergischen Universität. Dissertation


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