CREATORS – Yamina Pressler

In ALL, CREATORS by McKenzie Prillaman

Name: Yamina Pressler

Which came first in your life, the science or the art?

My first response to this question is definitely science; science came first. I identified as a scientist long before I identified as an artist. As I reflect on my journey to soil art, though, I must admit that art has been with me all along.

I grew up in my mom’s art studio and was exposed to all kinds of art media from a very young age—as long as I can remember, really. Even so, for most of my life, I never felt like I was “creative” or “artsy,” because I constantly compared my work to that of my mom’s, and it just never felt good enough. Up until I started my adventure into soil art in 2019, I would have never called myself an artist. By then, I had already received a PhD in ecology and spent almost a decade studying the soils beneath our feet. From that perspective, science came first, but the artist in me was just hidden beneath, waiting to be discovered.

“Science came first, but the artist in me was just hidden beneath, waiting to be discovered.”

Yamina Pressler
Soil profile with green grass on top, dark brown/black soil beneath that, and light tan soil at the bottom. On the light tan soil, it says "seek wonder in the soil."
Oreo Soil by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour on paper
Thin painting of a small green plant on top with its roots in the soil. Beneath the brown soil is a rainbow gradient. Painting is sitting on thick trunk of a palm tree.
Skinny Rainbow by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour on paper
Simple soil profile with a gradient of light brown on top, pink in the center, and blue/grey at the bottom. The pink has "you had me at soil" written on top. The painting is resting on the dirt.
You Had Me at Soil by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour and small batch soil pigments on paper

Which sciences relate to your art practice?

My art is fundamentally grounded in my work as a soil scientist. I almost exclusively paint soil profiles (a vertical exposure of a soil that shows the many horizons hidden below the surface). My paintings explore the beauty, wonder, and intrinsic value of soil. I had no idea that soils were so complex and colourful before I started studying them as an undergraduate student.

Since then, I’ve been working to show others the beauty of soil through both realistic watercolour recreations of existing soil profiles, and whimsical, colourful explorations into the idea of soil itself. The colour of soil first drew me in and drove my interest in soil science.

I now aim to harness that same sense of wonder through my art as a way to spark curiosity for soils in others. Soils are literally the basis of life on Earth. In order to protect this treasured natural wonder, we must first develop the eyes to be able to see it. That is exactly what my art is all about: giving people the eyes to see soils in a way they maybe never have before. 

“Soils are literally the basis of life on Earth. In order to protect this treasured natural wonder, we must first develop the eyes to be able to see it.”

Yamina Pressler
Soil profile with green grass on top and its dark brown roots showing below. The top layer of dirt is a brown to purple gradient.
Purple Roots by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour and salt on paper
Thin soil profile with line drawing flower on top and rainbow gradient of soil below. Painting is resting on a large rock.
Venus by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour on paper

What materials do you use to create your artworks?

I create mini soil profile paintings using a combination of high pigment watercolours; natural, small batch, soil-based pigments created by Karen Vaughan; and fine black pen. I paint on small sheets (2.5 x 3.75 inches) of assorted styles of Legion paper, and sometimes inside a watercolour notebook. I am exploring larger formats, but I especially love the mini format because it allows me to paint many soil profiles in varied styles in a single session. I view creating these paintings as a process, so I may paint 20 in one sitting and end up falling in love with one or two of them. I am drawn to the mini format because I am able to move through paintings quickly which helps prevent me from worrying too much about any one painting, but rather focus on, and enjoy, the process.  

Artwork/Exhibition you are most proud of:

My first art show was at the Soil Science Society of America Soil in Art, Art with Soil exhibit in San Antonio, Texas in 2019. This was the first time I had displayed or sold my art, and it was a really special moment in time for me. At one point, I was standing at the booth with my friend, collaborator, and long time mentor, Karen Vaughan, marveling at the line of people waiting to visit with my art. It was truly surreal. My first art exhibit will only happen once, and I am so glad I had to opportunity to share the moment with my soil science community.

Soil profile with line drawing of grass on top and a gradient of brown to purple beneath the earth's surface.
Purple Horizons by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour on paper
Soil profile with pink flowering plants and a blue sky above the earth's surface and brown soil and plant roots below.
Pink Flora by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour on paper
Soil profile with simple line drawings of plants at the top and a pastel rainbow gradient of soil below.
Pastel Rainbow by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour on paper

Which scientists and/or artists inspire and/or have influenced you?

My art is influenced most by the people in my life. Two in particular—my mom, Tina Pressler, and my friend, collaborator, and long time mentor, Karen Vaughan.

My mom is a deeply creative abstract painter and print maker. I have watched her follow her creative curiosities and pursue her art for my entire life. I am constantly inspired by her commitment to her work and by the uniqueness of her style. Some of my favorite moments recently have been spending time together painting and printing with soil-based pigments and nature-inspired shapes.

Karen was one of my early soil science professors, and she showed me how beautiful, awe-inspiring, and interesting soils are. Karen helped me realize that soils are the most precious thing that I could spend my life studying. She is also a proud “speed-dater of the arts,” as she often puts it, and through her own creative soil art musings, has encouraged me to keep putting my art out there for the world to see. I am always inspired by her willingness to try new art forms in pursuit of sharing her love for soil with the world.

Soil profile with a bit of blue sky and a green plant at the top and a brown to yellow gradient below the earth's surface.
Banana Soil by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour on paper
Soil profile with some blue sky and a couple of small green plants at the top, and a grey to brown to purple gradient below the surface.
Deep Purple by Yamina Pressler (2019), high pigment watercolour on paper

Is there anything else you want to tell us?

I started painting with watercolour in 2019 in an effort to reduce my plane anxiety. I had been struggling with staying calm while flying and passively searched the internet to find strategies to reduce flight anxiety in anticipation of several upcoming trips. Somehow, I landed on a recommendation to try watercolouring. So, in secret, I bought a travel sized set of watercolour paints, a water brush, and watercolour paper. I boarded the plane, took out the paints and just gave it a try. Before I knew it, the flight was over and the only thing that came out of my brush that day was soil. Before I tried painting soil on an airplane, I never thought I was “good” at art and therefore didn’t do it. But as soon as I started to see art as a process rather than an outcome, and allowed myself to paint something just for the fun of it, everything changed. I have been painting soil profiles ever since.

“As soon as I started to see art as a process rather than an outcome, and allowed myself to paint something just for the fun of it, everything changed. I have been painting soil profiles ever since.”

Yamina Pressler
Yamina Pressler wearing a white button down shirt, pink shorts, and a floral blue baseball cap holding some of her soil watercolors.
Yamina with Paintings by Yamina Pressler (2019), Yamina holding some of her paintings

For more by Yamina Pressler, visit her website, Twitter, or Instagram.

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About the Author
McKenzie Prillaman

McKenzie Prillaman

McKenzie is a fledgling science communicator working at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). After years of thinking she’d become a neuroscience researcher, she discovered her passion for sharing science with others. That finding, in combination with her lifelong dabbling in the arts, led her to write for the Art the Science blog. In her free time, she can be found attempting to cook, crocheting stuffed animals, wandering around thrift shops, and attending too many indie pop/rock concerts. Twitter: @meprillaman