How One Scientist Makes Science and Art with Soil

From the time she was little, DeAnn Presley has loved soil. Growing up on a small farm in Iowa, she spent most of her days playing outside. Like many kids, she loved making mud pies.

“We had what we called our mud table. It was this giant old wire spool that we would set on its end to make a table. We would steal my mom’s stuff out of the kitchen and make mudpies,” she recalled.

According to Presley, that was the precursor to everything.

Today, Presley conducts soil research and extension work as a professor of environmental soil science and management at Kansas State University, and she is part of the North Central Region Water Network’s Soil Health Nexus team. But soil is not just her science – it is also her art.

Presley is a photographer and painter, and soil is both her subject and her medium. Her photography shows off the beauty of blooming prairies, superb soils, and other magnificent Kansas landscapes. But it was her beautifully crafted watercolor soil profiles that caught our attention. The cool thing is, her paints are actually created from soil.

Gravel Travel. Photo Courtesy of DeAnn Presley

Two Fences, Many Stories. Photo Courtesy of DeAnn Presley

“It began with my nerdy love for the pigments, and I started painting after that,” recounted Presley, who was introduced to the craft of soil-based paints by a pair of soil scientists, Dr. Karen Vaughan at the University of Wyoming and Dr. Yamina Pressler at California Polytechnic State University. Since then she has even dabbled in creating her own set of paints from natural pigments. 

In order to make these watercolor paints, the creator first collects different rocks, minerals, or soils. Then the collected materials are broken down and ground up into a fine powder. That powder is mixed with Acacia gum and water to make the final product.

“Most of these [paints] are just soil. And what’s cool about that is if someone says, this is Spanish red ochre, I look at it and say, oh yeah that probably has hematite in it,” said Presley. “I just geek out over that. I love thinking about what’s in it and why a color is the way it is and where it came from.” 

Painting soil profiles with natural pigments from soil can also be a great teaching tool.

This image depicts three soil profiles painted by DeAnn Presley. A profile that is similar to that found in Kansas with topsoil, subsoil, and carbonates (left). A profile of a wetland (center). A profile with a petrocalcic horizon (right).

“In this profile [center profile above], it is supposed to look like a wetland. There is no oxidized soil at all; it’s all reduced [minerals]. So looking at the minerals used to paint this, I look at what is in those minerals and why are they reduced. When you’re painting with reduced paints I think that reinforces [the concept] somehow,” Presly explained.

While she didn’t get to paint with her students this semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Presley has been putting her paints to good use. During Zoom calls when she is a participant, she paints soil profiles while she listens. Since moving to an online format, she says she has been able to paint at least three times a week.

Given the growing conversation around the linkages between science and art, for Presley, being able to not just show her art but also teach with it enhances those linkages. “I think that is important for kids and adults to have different ways of expressing themselves and solving problems.” 

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