Accidental Art: Wood Painting with Fungi

Accidental Art: Wood Painting with Fungi

❖ Fungus-infested wood, or spalt was once dismissed as inferior, structurally unsound and consigned to the scrap heap. But since the 1950’s,  the Lindquists, a father and son wood turning team from the New York Adirondacks, changed the way we look at spalted wood. Today, the intricate swirls of bold lines, unexpected splotches of color and random patterns are a sculptor’s dream. Spalting has developed a niche market by adding economic value to a previously wasted resource.  

Science of Spalting: Oregon State University’s Sara Robinson (“Dr. Spalting”) has taken this accidental art and transformed it into science. By systematically testing different combinations of fungi, moisture, temperature and pH, Dr. Robinson creates beautiful wood specimen in the laboratory.

❖ The thick black lines that appear to artistically meander through the wood actually mark out fungal war zones! Formed by heavy deposits of black melanin pigment and hardened combinations of fungal filaments and wood, zone lines are used by antagonistic fungi of different species or even genetically distinct fungi of the same species to protect their own territory and resources. Bleached patches of wood that form a canvas for other colors are formed by white rot fungi that eat away at dark colored lignin leaving behind the lighter colored cellulose. Then there are the splotches of pigment: blues, greens and pinks, deposited by fungi that colonize wood in successive waves, each species leaving an environment that paves the way for another.

Ref: Developing fungal pigments for “painting” vascular plants. Sara C. Robinson Appl Microbiol Biotechnol (2012) 93:1389–1394 

Article about Dr. Spalting at OSU

This   #ScienceEveryday post was inspired by Brent Neal pointing to a blog post by American Scientist  ▶

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98 Responses to Accidental Art: Wood Painting with Fungi

  1. Norman M. says:

    Organic and beautiful

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Turning scrap wood into art, Shaker Cherukuri 🙂

  3. This is so awesome and interesting! Thanks for teaching me something this AM already!!

  4. Nice writeup Rajini Rao and thanks Brent Neal for inspiring it 🙂

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    You’re welcome, Jeffrey J Davis . Just another day in Google+ University 🙂

    Thanks, Norman Ma and Kim Smith !

  6. I read about this a while ago and thought wow! I would have probably thrown the wood out for imperfections 😛  Thank you for posting this 🙂

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    Nature’s Picasso Ooh, an excellent caption Aida Hazlan !

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    Eric Brockmann that is an artistic evolutionary tree! Fungi are a distinct kingdom and a special favorite of mine since my lab uses them (especially, Saccharomyces cerevisiae) as a model organism for more complex eukaryotic cells. 

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Rashmi Pahuja , I thought fungal rot was all bad too. While it’s true that spalted wood is not structurally safe for building, it’s great for small objects and art forms. 

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    Vicky Gallardo I had not looked at it like that, but now that you mention it, the first image does look like a map of a continent. The second one could be an emerald island in an ocean 🙂

  11. Gretchen S. says:

    Oh, that’s gorgeous! I’ve definitely seen some turned wood like this so I think it’s caught on.

  12. They look beautiful! Both ancient and modern at the same time. Thanks for sharing Rajini Rao!

  13. Rajini Rao says:

    A nice combination of art and science too, Janice Mansfield . 

    Thanks, Barbara Nelsen and Gretchen S. . I’ve seen wood with colored striations before, but now I’ll have to look closer at the “zone lines” and appreciate the fungal art. 

  14. Chad Haney says:

    Thanks Brent Neal for inspiring a fantastic post from Rajini Rao. I’ve always had pocket knives. I think a lot of young lads enjoy whittling wood. I was always amazed at what the lake and sun could do to driftwood. It’s equally amazing what fungi can do to wood and now I know how. Great post Rajini. It brings back fond memories.

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Aww, I’m glad this brought back fond memories. I can picture a young Chad Haney sitting on a log in the sunshine, whittling away on a piece of driftwood ❤

  16. Chad Haney says:

    #truestory , Rajini Rao. We went camping on Lake Superior almost every summer. I would always find some interesting driftwood to whittle away at. I bet Gnotic Pasta did the same.

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Idyllic times, Chad Haney . When’s your next camping trip? Any plans to visit with Dan again? 

  18. Mike Gleason says:

    Very interesting! Can it be made static? In other words, can art objects be treated to prevent them from rotting away over time while maintaining the colors?

  19. Chad Haney says:

    Rajini Rao, our intrepid explorer is figuring out when we can go camping again. There is a plane crash site on the itinerary. I’m guessing mid to late June.

  20. I have the opposite question, Mike Gleason  can it be catalyzed so that your coffee table evolves on a daily basis!!??

  21. Rajini Rao says:

    Mike Gleason , I think the fungi are dead by the time the wood is turned. These are probably coated with oil/lacquer or preservatives when finished (Kathryn Kure do you know?). What I had not realized is that the wood can also be spalted after logging. 

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    How clever, I had not thought of that option either Jeffrey J Davis . Living art. 

  23. Chad Haney says:

    I’m pretty sure the fungi is dead. If it isn’t, it most likely is after the wood is oiled/lacquered/shellaced.

  24. Chad Haney says:

    Just to keep the science goodness going, shellac is made from the female lac bug (Kerria lacca) secretion.

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    And that reminded me of cochineal (red food coloring)..also from sort of lac insect Chad Haney  🙂

    Edit: apparently a scale insect, although I don’t know the difference 😉

  26. Mike Gleason says:

    Cool. In the article, she mentions how she extracts fungal pigment and paints it into the wood.

  27. Rajini Rao says:

    Sara Robinson sure has a fun research program! 

  28. Mike Gleason says:

    Just did a Google image search for spalted wood; beautiful stuff!

  29. Rajini Rao says:

    Mike Gleason I did the same! It seems to be popular for making guitars too. 

  30. Chad Haney says:

    The wiki on cochineal is pretty interesting. I wonder how many people died trying various plants, mushrooms, etc. It’s fascinating that people figured out that this bug could be used to make a safe dye, many years ago. The trial and error aspect makes me think about the people that got sick or died, during the learning process.

  31. Rajini Rao we have had a bout of mountain pine beetle attack coniferous forests here in B.C. It somehow turns the timber in the mature stands blue. Its been devastating for the forest industry, but in the midst of all that, they have marketed the blue timber as something special. Architects are using the beams as features. I’ll see if I can dig up some photos

  32. Adit Morey says:

    The creation of artifacts using wood treated, with various types of fungi, is very quirky and creative. It’s fascinating how something which damages wood can, by using controlled external factors, be used to create something very artistic and aesthetically pleasing.

  33. Rajini Rao It is very interesting to see how wood and fungi interact to create beautiful boards. 

    I found “Northern spalting” (the website of Sara Robinson), which is a focal point for all things spalted:

  34. Rajini Rao says:

    A nice find, thank you annarita ruberto . I liked this part from the Buy Fungi link: “Non-toxic, pure-culture fungi are available to purchase through Oregon State University, via this website.  The fungi are kept active in the lab and arrive to you in an aggressive, pigmenting state.”  🙂

  35. Rajini Rao says:

    Janice Mansfield , that would be neat. Thank you. Perhaps burrowing/decomposition by the mountain pine beetle makes way for fungal or bacterial growth. 

  36. Rajini Rao says:

    Chad Haney , yikes..did not realize that people died experimenting with lacquers and dyes. Glad we have better guidelines for experimenting today. 

  37. Gretchen S. says:

    “aggressive, pigmenting state” – I love it!

  38. rob M. says:

    gorgeous contrasts & odd, unique line/shapes thanx 4 the post 😉

  39. Rajini Rao says:

    We should all have aggressive, pigmenting states. Think how much more interesting the world would be, Gretchen S. 😀

  40. Rajini Rao Thanks to you I found the research of Sara Robinson. I’m interested not only in the interactions between fungi and wood, but also in the implications of such interactions for science, art, and craft.

    In fact, I love both Science and Art. The first is part of my work, the second is an essential part of my passions.

    There is a my artistic work at this post:

  41. Rajini Rao says:

    annarita ruberto you’re so talented! That’s an intriguing piece of art to have created while so young. The textures and colors of your painting are quite reminiscent of spalted wood, just by chance. 

  42. Chad Haney says:

    Rajini Rao, it was a general statement about trying various plants and fungi, nothing specific to lacquers and dyes. One of my grad school friends is in pharmacognosy. I learned a lot of interesting medicinal plant history from him and his classmates.

  43. Rajini Rao Many thanks for appreciating. When I was a 5 years-old kid, I created some colors by using soil, juice of fallen leaves and extinguished charcoal fire to draw and paint a black panther on a tile to wood.☺

  44. I never knew about spalting. Then again, I’ve never been in an environmental with the humidity and moisture needed.

    I have to wonder the ease or lack of ease for spalting on different tree species. It seems maples, beech, birch, and conifers are common. According to the article, hardwoods are better than softwoods, but I would love to know if, say, Bois d’Arc is impossible or if it needs the right conditions it rarely finds in the environment.

    On a side note, as I went to read more on it, apparently one splater, Rob, makes a spalting paste of ammonia, fertilizer, oak leaves, grass clippings, and beer. I wish it said the story on how he finalized on that mix. Wonder what Sara uses….

    Google URL shortner doesn’t like my phone. Sorry!

    ( Producing Spalted Wood – Forest Products Laboratory:

  45. Rajini Rao says:

    Pharmacognosy now that’s quite a word, Chad Haney .

    annarita ruberto , your comment ties in perfectly with Carissa Braun ‘s on the spalting paste of grass clippings, etc. A nice coincidence! Thanks, Carissa, got to look that up. I did read that the sugar maple (Acer) was a favorite for spalting.

  46. Gary Ray R says:

    Thanks again for yet another good article; and this one highlights the work of another woman scientist, Oregon State University’s Sara Robinson.  

    I’ve shared to Science on G+ 

  47. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, as always, for your appreciation of #stemwomen  Gary Ray R ! 

  48. E.E. Giorgi says:

    cool, we have those vases here in santa fe !

  49. Cristina Buscarons Fes-hi un cop d’ull.

  50. Mary T says:

    Beautiful and fascinating post Rajini Rao ~ I have never heard of Spalting before.  I especially like the bowl with the turquoise in it.

  51. Robert Moser says:

    Love it.  Beautiful pieces, and an interesting history.  Thanks for sharing it with us!  

    You should show this to your Dad, Andy Tomascak .   

  52. Rajini Rao says:

    I love the turquoise patch too, Mara Rose . 

    Robert Moser , glad you liked it! I had fun reading up on the process this morning. 

  53. Mary T says:

    I wonder whether they could use this wood as the veneer for a table?

  54. Rajini Rao says:

    I did a Google image search for spalted wood and did see quite a few tables..they looked like solid blocks rather than veneer. Wouldn’t it be great to buy one? No idea how expensive they are. 

  55. Mary T says:

    I looked and found spalted pecan.  It’s gorgeous, and apparently rare, as it comes from downed trees.  Site said there is usually a wait.

  56. Rajini Rao says:

    Uh oh, that usually means big money too, Mara Rose. 

  57. Mary T says:

    Yep, that means I won’t be on the waiting list, ha! 

  58. Kathryn Kure says:

    Rajini Rao this is one reason we have wood all over our garden, under trees, baking in the sun … yes, indeed. as everyone else has said, you can create spalting after cutting, as long as the wood is still fresh, really.

    The one thing I didn’t see mention of much, though, is the simple issue of: TIME. 

    Given that wood dries at the rate of an inch a year – indeed! you can certainly get all kinds of fungal and other activity going on in recently harvested wood. (It is another reason why very large wooden bowls are so very expensive, you have to put it aside and wait years and years before turning it. You can, of course, turn the bowls when the wood is ‘wet’ but then the final bowl, especially if it is interesting (in terms of zones – here’s the mark the fire made, here’s the new heart wood, here’s the wood eaten by wood-worms, here’s a termite hole, here’s this fungus, here’s that fungus, oh, look! here’s a burl …) it tends to warp as it dries which is not everyone’s cup of tea. Then again, those people also don’t want a piece of wood that has such history either. 

    We have warm enough and humid enough weather that we don’t need to use any concoctions. Our biggest issue is keeping the wood away from termites (white ants) which devour it at an incredibly rapid rate while we are waiting for the fungus to take. 

    It’s one of the reasons why my husband is always on the quest for wood, and will often rush back to our house and drive off armed with a chain-saw if he’s spied a newly felled tree that already has fungal and other activity happening in it. 

    The more interesting the wood, the harder it is to turn, generally speaking, you have softer wood and harder wood and the burls, in particular, are very brittle, grain going this way, grain going that – it’s as much an art as it is anything, wood-turning. 

  59. Rajini Rao I read the article on TechLine, pointed out by Carissa Braun 

     and I found many interesting information. Thanks to both of you!☺

  60. Rajini Rao says:

    annarita ruberto good to hear! Looking forward to more of your unique artwork shared here on G+ 🙂

  61. Rajini Rao says:

    Kathryn Kure thanks for your insightful comments. The time factor is formidable- little wonder that each piece is precious and individual. I hope it is okay to link to the beautiful Acacia wooden bowl ( that your husband made: it would be of interest to people on this thread. 

  62. Kathryn Kure says:

    Of course, Rajini Rao – if I wasn’t happy with items being shared, I wouldn’t post them to “public”. But thank you for asking – 

  63. Rajini Rao says:

    Wonderful, thank you Kathryn Kure . Incidentally, what is so great about the G+ platform is that we can discuss something academically, and then call upon folks who have real experience with the topic to give us their insight. I don’t see this happening anywhere else and find the predictions on Google+’s demise quite shortsighted.  

  64. Kathryn Kure says:

    Rajini Rao agreed. I must admit, also, it keeps you on your toes, since you know there are topic experts out there, so, what I love about G+ is that people don’t tend to rabbit on their unsubstantiated opinions – since they will be called up on them (nicely, generally, unless they’re trolling, in which case they’re blocked). 

    The “Walking Dead” article by TechCrunch has received a lot of attention – this is my favourite article ( discussing the claims by Alex Ander – which is a great rebuttal. 

  65. Yet another interesting post, Rajini Rao ! I learned something new!

    The chemistry of the pigments is very interesting. The blue-green  pigment is xylindein  produced by Chlorociboria species, and the yellow orange ones could be  carotenoids produced by Monascus species.

  66. Rajini Rao says:

    Siromi Samarasinghe that is a good paper, just glanced over it. There is chemistry everywhere, especially in art!

    I had noted the acidic pH optimum (pH 4.5-5) and was not surprised since fungi prefer acidic pH (as opposed to most bacteria). For example, yeast are culture around pH 4.5 too. The information on pigment production is really interesting! I had not heard of fungal melanin , that forms the black zone lines, before. Also that pigment production is induced by “antagonistic reactions”. Presumably either a stress response pathway or species-specific signaling. 

  67. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks for the rebuttal article on G+ being “walking dead”, Kathryn Kure . A sensible read. 

  68. It’s amazing how these fungi  produce extracellular pigmentation to control the growth of other fungi! Thanks for this great post Rajini Rao 

  69. Rajini Rao

    Yesterday I shared  another one, created when I was 17 years-old:

  70. Rajini Rao says:

    Intriguing, annarita ruberto . I’m not good at interpreting feelings behind artwork, but I’m curious to see what others come up with 🙂

  71. Wow that is pretty interesting.

  72. Jim Gardner says:

    Excellent post and comments. Thanks for sharing, everyone!

  73. Amazing!! Thanks Rajini Rao for sharing.

  74. Dan Traina says:

    wonderful post…thanks so much for sharing!

  75. Rajini Rao says:

    My pleasure, glad you enjoyed it Dan Traina !

  76. Aldo Salmon says:

    A beautiful adoration in my part Totally in Love!

  77. Meg Moses says:

    we have always   taken   creativity from nature

  78. Very nice and interesting

  79. Meg Moses says:

    look  at  your  own  blood  cells or plants  or  mold, a  world of art


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