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23rd Annual International

American Society of Botanical Artists at Wave Hill


Lichens of Mallorca

Lichen IDs pending

My painting, “Lichens of Mallorca” is unusual for a botanical art exhibition, both in subject matter and format. It is made up of 6 panels, each one 5 1/2” on a side. In each panel is a composition of lichens I found on the island of Mallorca, off the east coast of Spain. As for the subject matter, I’ll begin with the obvious, that lichens are not plants. They are symbiotic organisms, typically a union of a fungus and a photosynthesizing alga or bacteria. 


Mallorca is a beautiful place, with dramatic geological formations. We went there after visiting my son in France; Mallorca is a famous cycling destination. So while my husband rode his bicycle over the mountain passes, I hiked on mountain trails, through wild rosemary, observed by grazing goats. Wherever I go I am always looking for interesting subjects to paint. Beside these rugged trails I saw striking patterns of lichen on the many rock outcroppings. The exquisite and subtle palette of colors of the lichens attracted me immediately: rust-red, deep brilliant orange, olive gray, warm to cool pale grays, a range of yellows from golden to palest lemon, as well as black and white. 


I’ve been—it’s not an exaggeration to say—obsessed with lichens for several years now. 


I have made a number of paintings of lichens on tree branches and twigs, on soil and on rocks. The current painting is in the last category and consists of crustose lichens: flat lichens adhering closely to the rock. I first noticed lichens with a thought of creating artwork in Pinnacles National Park in central California where rock formations display a vast array of brilliantly colored lichens. I was enraptured by the enormous abstract paintings that nature herself had created. I was fascinated by the infinite variety of colors and shapes and forms that emerge as lichens ever so slowly colonize the rock surfaces. (A note on this slow growth: some species grow only 0.5 mm per year, and there are patches of crustose lichens that are thought to be as much as four thousand years old). I was moved to create paintings that were of real views of lichens, but yet also somewhat abstract. 


Since that first painting of lichens in Pinnacles National Park, I have made paintings of lichens in the desert of eastern Oregon, the Rocky Mountains, Northern California, coastal Brittany, on the standing megalithic stones of Carnac, and finally in Mallorca. Some are triptychs, some what I call “quartets”, with four panels, and some six panel paintings like this one in the 23rd Annual International. 


I select the lichens to include in these panel paintings so as to create a balance of color, shape and texture. I typically include a fair amount of the rocky substrate, which has been an enjoyable challenge to learn to paint. There is often one color element that ties together the different panels. 


The lichens of Mallorca presented a more restricted range of colors than in some other sites I have seen. There were not a very great a range of species, probably because the island is windswept and very dry. But this very restriction seemed to present an opportunity for me: to focus closely on the fascinating, intricate forms created by the growing lichens, along with their apothecia, or reproductive structures. (These are the tiny disks you see on the lichens in the painting.) The open space inside the loops of lobed lichens is where the very oldest part of the lichen has died, so the growth is occurring around the outside of the loop. In some of the panels you can see new lichens growing in the spaces that have opened up. 


I paint in gouache and watercolor, using the somewhat opaque property of gouache to create many layers, working often from dark to light. I like the dense quality this gives to the painting, particularly when it’s a painting of something solid like this very tough lichen growing on a rock surface. I plan the overall composition carefully, and lightly sketch a general outline of the form of the lichen in each panel. But I do most of my drawing with the brush, as I am painting. I use many layers of transparent wash to modify colors as I work. In this painting I worked on two or three panels at a time, each in a different stage of completion. This allowed me to make small changes in color and composition as I proceeded. 


I am a beginner when it comes to identification of lichens. I rely on kind lichenologist friends to help me when I need to identify the ones in my paintings. Since this location is so remote from California, where I live, the lichenologist I consulted was only able to make suggestions for the genera represented. I don’t know if this habitat contains any unique or unstudied lichens. Stephen Sharnoff in his authoritative Field Guide to California Lichens says that “Our present knowledge of the lichens in California is still quite incomplete”. So confidently identifying lichens in a place such as Mallorca would require making contact with a European lichenologist—perhaps I can do that on a future trip. 


Lichens are some of the least noticed of living organisms. Many friends have commented that they never even saw them until they went on a walk with me. But they thrive in almost every ecosystem and have important roles to play. They provide food and nesting material for animals and birds, prevent soil erosion, and are a significant source of fixed atmospheric nitrogen for plants. They are also of great interest as indicators of air quality and are studied by scientists for this reason. My love of lichens arises, though, from the beauty and multiplicity of their shapes and colors. They richly repay close observation. I feel I am just beginning to discover the marvelous gifts lichens have to offer me as an artist. 


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Read more about this artist’s work: 22nd Annual

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Lichen IDs pending

Lichens of Mallorca

Gouache on paper

18-1/2 x 12-1/2 inches

©2020 Lucy Martin

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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