Painting Mushrooms With Mushrooms

I wish I liked mushrooms – the taste, I mean.

I like everything else about them: The colors, the shapes, the deep, dark, autumnal forests where they grow. I like that some are edible and I like that others can kill you. They have a mythical quality – like magic potion ingredients of some ancient folk tale. Pity they have the texture of a swollen funnel-web abdomen.*

Mushrooms as a medium?

A common but fascinating fellow is the Shaggy Inkcap. These distinct mushrooms begin as ovoid bulbs and fan out into the characteristic bell shape upon maturity. The most striking feature is deep, black, liquid spores which drip from the cap like engine oil. Though their ghoulish appearance gives an impression of poison, the shaggy ink cap is an appetizing prospect for foragers. They typically grow in and around common suburban lawns.

A Shaggy ink cap I found growing on the lawn

I’ve seen a few artists experiment with ink cap ink, but didn’t think too much of it beyond an interesting gimmick. Art is hard enough with good supplies, let alone wrestling sticky goo from a mushroom. When I chanced upon a small cluster growing on the side of the road, however, I thought; why not. I took a few of the inkiest specimens and laid them gills-up on a paper towel. That was the extent of my preparation.

The underside of a mature shaggy ink cap
The underside of a mature shaggy ink cap

The ink was surprisingly inky. Droplets were deep and shiny and left black streaks on the skin. I expected it to feel quite viscous and sticky given how congealed it appears upon the mushroom, but a brush dipped straight between the gills revealed a silky if not slightly watery medium.

Inkcap Ink
Diluting the ink with water

I painted on watercolor paper. Straight, the ink remained slick, but did not stretch very far. Diluted, it produced a smooth handling warm grey. Dark marks came from short pokes, but it was difficult to achieve opaque lines from longer strokes. Producing deep black required layering, though a good range of midtones was achieved with single strokes. It drybrushed well and produced good texture.

Ink cap ink at various shades

Another quirk of this mushroom is that it degrades very quickly – usually a matter of hours after being picked. While this is a nuisance when preserving it for later cooking, it proves an advantage when painting. As minutes passed and the mushroom broke down, I noticed more black globules sweating from the gills, replenishing the ink supply as I worked.


Nobody is trading their Pigma Microns for a brush and inkcap spores, but the ink from a shaggy inkcap remains a pleasantly surprising and workable medium. Paired with some good watercolor paper, it handles much like weaker India ink, giving good gradients and diluting smoothly. Imagine India ink watered down to 70%, and you’ll have a fairly good idea of what it’s like to work with a Shaggy Ink Cap.

The final illustration

*Porcini mushrooms being the exception.

Comments are closed.