Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

Big-Leaf Maple with Mushrooms 

Acer macrophyllum, Coprinellus sp.
University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley, California

When I read the parameters for Out of the Woods, my first thought was, I probably won't enter a painting. I focus mainly on fungi and lichen, and didn't expect I would come across a subject I wanted to paint for this show. However, I like to paint all sorts of strange things - a contorted branch, interesting textures in bark, for example. (Flowers, though I love them in my garden, don't call to me as an artist.) So one day after gallery sitting at a Northern California SBA show at the Berkeley Arboretum, I decided to go for a walk and see what I could see. I came across a marvelous tree: a big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) with a remarkable growth pattern, and in a dead branch still attached to the living tree, a fruiting of Inky-Cap mushrooms. I was absolutely thrilled, and knew immediately that this would be my entry for Out of the Woods. 


I painted the dead branch with its beautiful treasure of mushrooms - I should clarify that it was actually the original main trunk, broken off at some time in the past. The tree now consists of immensely long, twisting branches reaching up from the remaining trunk. I made a second painting, including as much as I could of the whole tree, though this was difficult. It was growing in a deep, very steep ravine, completely overshadowed by huge oak trees, which probably accounts for the peculiar manner of growth. But showing much of the tree did not allow me to paint these exquisite mushrooms in detail, so I concentrated on just the portion of the tree that contained them. 


I attempted to identify these inky-cap mushrooms, but the experts I consulted weren't able to get closer than the likely genus, Coprinellus. They are lovely mushrooms, with a warm golden-brown color and delicately striated caps, delightfully speckled with tiny white dots. They are growing in a mass under the bark, peeping out in several places. Inky-cap mushrooms have an interesting method of spore dispersal: when they are mature, they self-digest, or deliquesce. They produce enzymes which dissolve the gill tissue, creating a black inky liquid which often drips to the ground. Some species only live for a day or so before they vanish in a drip of ink. In my painting, you can see that the gills in a few of the mushrooms are already beginning to turn black. I probably came across these wonderful mushrooms at exactly their peak of loveliness--in another day or two they may have been gone.


A comment on my technique: I use gouache, which means my approach is very different from a watercolorist. In this painting, for example, I approach the bark by first painting the entire area with a deep, almost black color.  Then I use white in a dry brush technique to create texture. I add in the fine cracks again with the dark color. After that I use thin, careful washes over the white to create the varying colors present in bark: a little blue, a little tan, pink, green - all these are present when you look closely. Then I highlight the upper surfaces of the bark "islands" and deepen the shadows underneath, as well as on the underside of the branch. I feel that this many-layered approach creates a sense of depth and density that is appropriate to my preferred subject, the earthy fungi and lichens. 


I'm often asked about my preferred subject matter. When the Weird, Wild and Wonderful show was announced I was excited; I felt nearly all my work could be described in that way! Fungi appeal to me in many ways. They are often overlooked; they are mysterious in their growth, appearing and disappearing somewhat unpredictably; they are strange, even sometimes bordering on hideous; their biology--their mutually beneficial links with trees and other plants -  is fascinating. They are responsible for much of the decomposition that happens in the forest. To me, they represent the cycle of life, death, decomposition and rebirth in which all organisms take part. 

Read more about this artist’s work: Weird, Wild and Wonderful
  • © 2017 Lucy Martin
    Big-Leaf Maple with Mushrooms
    Acer macrophyllum, Coprinellus sp.
    Gouache on paper
    17" x 23"