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Painting with Soil—Jan Lang’s Images of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Instructions on making “soil paints” (PDF; 28 KB)

Click on the paintings below to see larger images.

Soil portrait of Lewis and Clark.

Soil painting of Monticello. Soil painting: Lewis and Clark Expedition in wooded area.
Soil painting: in pirogues. Soil painting: Sakajawea and baby. Soil painting of pirogue in waterway.
Soil painting of Clark's slave, York. Soil painting of American Indian with field burn in background. Soil painting of landscape with sunflowers.
Soil painting of boat in waterway. Soil painting of landscape. Soil painting with horses crossing snow-covered mountains.
Soil painting of Fort Clatsop. Soil painting: looking out onto the water.  

After working 14 years as a Technician in the NRCS Charles E. Kellogg Soil Survey Laboratory in Lincoln, Nebraska, Janis Lang began to think of soil in a whole new way. In the laboratory she had always noticed the many beautiful colors of the soils that she analyzed from all over the country and the world. Lang had an idea, -- why not use soil to paint scenes from the Lewis and Clark expedition? What better way to celebrate the expedition’s recording of our country’s natural resources, especially our landscapes and soils?

Soil samples are put through a very fine sieve and mixed with a clear acrylic to create “soil paints.” Using these, she painted scenes from the Lewis and Clark Trail on watercolor paper. She says, “The trick with painting landscapes is that it is hard to get the color right. When I paint with soil, the color comes from nature and it is exactly right.”

Lang took her inspiration from photographs she had seen and from descriptions of soils and landscapes that NRCS soil scientists had discovered in the Lewis and Clark journals. Lewis and Clark had specific instructions from President Jefferson to report on factors of the land that would show its potential for agricultural uses. The President wanted the explorers to describe “–the soil & face of the country, its growth and vegetable productions, especially those not of the U.S.”