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New book illustration project: Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher

Cover, Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Cover, Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

I’m excited to tell you about new book illustration project with Dunlin Press: Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, by Alex Toms. The debut poetry collection launches on Thursday 11th October 2018 and the words inside it are simply stunning.

Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

We already had beautiful photography from MW Bewick for the poetry book but we wanted an illustrative element too. In illustrating this book I really wanted to do the poems justice. I was mindful not to interfere with the reader’s experience of the words by being too literal in my illustration. My work had to convey a mood and atmosphere while allowing the amazing imagery that Alex creates to breathe.

Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms
Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms

When approaching this illustration commission I do what I always do, go back to my art history books and my old sketchbooks. My studio is packed with sketchbooks and folders stuffed full of experiments and ideas that I’ve parked for later and my ever-growing art book collection is a constant resource. Alongside a scrapbook of cut-out collages I did about 10 years ago when I was hungover in my art studio in Tottenham (never throw away your sketchbooks kids), a book on DADA and a book on Matisse’s cut-outs, the visual concept for “Eels” was born.

Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

I love paper cuts,  I could swear I love them so much but I have never found a way to incorporate paper cuts into a project. Seeing my old scrapbooks and work by very different artists using cut-up and collage techniques freed me to create something visceral, with a sense of movement, depth and physicality that is so alive in Alex’s poems.

Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

Originally I had little, delicately trimmed paper shapes on painted backgrounds but everything seemed too polite and restrained. So I went big and got to work drawing with scissors on A2 and A3 black matte paper, creating lots and lots of rough eel, sea kale and old fashioned eel catcher net shapes.

Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

I then arranged the shapes randomly on a large piece of card, set-up my camera and tripod over the card, and made a series of compositions with the cut out paper. The results were exactly what I wanted.

The book launches on Thursday 11th October 2018 and you can pre-order it HERE

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Experiments in ink!

Ink, mark-making experiments Ella Johnston
In preparation for #inktober I’ve been playing with experiments in ink!

Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, silver leaf collage. Ella Johnston
Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, silver leaf collage. Ella Johnston

Ages ago I told you about how as an artist and illustrator I strive for simplicity, well this has been a little mantra playing in my head all year so recently I gave into it. I’ve  started working on art work and illustrations using simple black Indian ink and various mark-making tools.

Simplicity is hard.

Composition, Indian ink teasel drawing Ella Johnston
Composition, Indian ink teasel drawing Ella Johnston
Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, gold leaf collage.
Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, gold leaf collage.

These scratchy ink sketches and gold/silver leaf and book paper collages are my first steps along my journey into the simple mark marking. Taking my cue from various Japanese ink artists I’ve experimented with my mark-making tools. I’ve fashioned ‘pens’ and ‘brushes’ from dried out teasels, found feathers, dried seed-heads and bunches of twigs to produce various line effects.

Composition, Indian ink teasel drawing Ella Johnston
Composition, Indian ink teasel drawing Ella Johnston

I thought I would combine these ink strokes with collage to create movement, contrast and texture. I’m also fascinated by palimpsests (where a manuscript or piece of written-on material has been written over but still bears visible traces of its earlier form) so I wanted to create a sense of that.

Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, gold leaf collage.
Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, gold leaf collage.

At the moment, I still need to work on my serenity ( I imagine a few people have remarked on that through the years).

I like combining humble unbleached papers I use for the inner pages of my hand-stitched books (sometimes painted with washes of colour, sometimes not) with gold and silver leaf to create a sense of collision. After these elements are layered up, I naturally want to produce something visceral and energetic over them with the ink marks.

Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, gold leaf collage. Ella Johnston Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, gold leaf collage. Ella Johnston

Composition, Indian ink feather and teasel drawing, book paper, gold leaf collage. Ella Johnston
Composition, Indian ink dried seed-head, feather and teasel drawing, book paper, gold leaf collage. Ella Johnston

This mark-making method is real fun and, at this stage in my development with getting to know this way of working, I feel a little indulgent. I love the variation in marks the teasel, feather and seed-head tips create – I could go on all day marvelling at all the different line effects they produce.

Composition, Indian ink teasel, feather and seedhead drawing Ella Johnston
Composition, Indian ink teasel, feather and seedhead drawing Ella Johnston
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New book illustration: The Orphaned Spaces

The Orphaned Spaces front cover, illustration and design by Ella Johnston (c) Dunlin Press
The Orphaned Spaces front cover, illustration and design by Ella Johnston (c) Dunlin Press

Last month, Dunlin Press launched its new book, The Orphaned Spaces; a collaboration with featuring illustration from myself and words from poet MW Bewick

The Orphaned Spaces, illustration and design by Ella Johnston (c) Dunlin Press
The Orphaned Spaces, illustration and design by Ella Johnston (c) Dunlin Press

The Orphaned Spaces is a rumination on life and loss through the prism of liminal spaces – derelict land, brownfield sites, edgelands – caught between moments of dilapidation and regeneration.

Wild flower pressings. The Orphaned Spaces, illustration and design by Ella Johnston

The Orphaned Spaces project was meant to be a small artistic endeavour. Our original idea for The Orphaned Spaces was to have a brown paper bag containing fragments of writing, the odd drawing and some landscape photography, all loosely themed around ‘waste ground’. About a month in however, it had already started to take on a life of its own.  As is the way of things,  it escalated into something bigger, encompassing a 148-page book and  handmade book box set.

The Orphaned Spaces, photography, illustration and design by Ella Johnston (c) Dunlin Press
The Orphaned Spaces, photography, illustration and design by Ella Johnston (c) Dunlin Press

The Orphaned Spaces features exquisite words and visceral landscape imagery from MW Bewick and my quick brush sketches that I spoke about in this previous post. Both the book and the box set also include fine line botanical and insect studies in black and white (see below),  ikebana-inspired still life plant photography plus wild flower pressings, all created by me.

Green Malachite Beetle, black and white fine line insect illustration. Ella Johnston
Green Malachite Beetle, black and white fine line insect illustration. Ella Johnston
Rosebay Willlowherb, black and white fine line botanical illustration. Ella Johnston
Rosebay Willlowherb, black and white fine line botanical illustration. Ella Johnston
Scarce Emerald Damselfly, black and white fine line insect illustration. Ella Johnston
Scarce Emerald Damselfly, black and white fine line insect illustration. Ella Johnston
Rosebay Willlowherb, black and white fine line botanical illustration. Ella Johnston
Rosebay Willlowherb, black and white fine line botanical illustration. Ella Johnston

The black and white studies were created with fineliner pigment ink pens.

Ikebana-inspired botanical photography, (c) Ella Johnston/Dunlin press
Ikebana-inspired botanical photography, (c) Ella Johnston/Dunlin press

I’m really pleased with the botanical photography aspect of the book – you can read more about it here

Wild flower pressings, The Orphaned Spaces. Dunlin Press
Wild flower pressings, The Orphaned Spaces. Dunlin Press

I’m also delighted with the way my wildflower pressings came out. I used to press wild flowers and plants with my mum when I was kid, so I wanted this aspect to be in the book as I felt it needed a child-like, playful aspect to it. Actually as it turned out I think in some ways these illustrative elements are the most plaintive and poignant images of the publication – they are particularly effective as the archival prints featured in the box set but that’s worthy of another post.

Wild flower pressings, The Orphaned Spaces. Dunlin Press
Wild flower pressings, The Orphaned Spaces. Dunlin Press
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Bookmaking how to: The Orphaned Spaces

You know last week I told you about the Dunlin Press Waste Ground Project I was working on? Well, here are two short book-making how to films as a sneak peek on what’s to come…

These videos show you how I created our hand-stitched book of photography depicting botanical still lives of plants collected from brownfield sites and a pamphlet of black and white sketches also created by me. This book will form part of a limited edition box set.

The Orphaned Spaces is the culmination of a multimedia collaboration by independent publisher Dunlin Press. The project is centred on a rumination on life through the prism of liminal spaces – derelict land, brownfield sites – caught between moments of dilapidation and regeneration. The project takes the form a paperback book, a highly limited edition box set, featuring hand-stitched booklets, archival prints and a reliquary, as well as art prints and more.

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New work: Bird prints

A3 Limited Edition Wren Giclee Print (c) Ella Johnston

I’ve recently launched a whole new collection of illustrated bird prints now available on my Etsy and Folksy shops.

A3 Limited Edition Wren Giclee Print (c) Ella JohnstonI really enjoyed drawing this wren – I created it using new uni-pin sepia pigment ink pens on watercolour paper. This delicate avian illustration is then scanned and printed as a fine art print on archival paper ensuring that it will last a lifetime.A3 Limited Edition Peacock Giclee Print (c) Ella JohnstonI originally created the watercolour and ink Peacock artwork for an exhibition. The artwork showcases vivid blue, pea green and violet watercolour washes combined with shimmery golden POSCA pen washes. I then overlaid the painting with pigment ink pen.
A3 Limited Edition Peacock Giclee Print (c) Ella JohnstonMy golden plover drawing was originally created for the book The Migrant Waders, published by Dunlin Press. It was one of my favourite illustrations and I love looking at it, so I had to turn it into a print. Again this is printed on high quality archival paper so it will last a lifetime.
A4 Limited Edition Golden Plover Giclee Print (c) Ella Johnston
A4 Limited Edition Golden Plover Giclee Print (c) Ella JohnstonGolden Plover illustration work in progress (c) Ella Johnston

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New illustration project: The Waste Ground

Black and white wild flower sketches (c) Ella Johnston
Here’s a preview of some sketches I’ve been working on for an up-coming Dunlin Press project to be published next month.

Black and white wild flower sketches (c) Ella Johnston

The Waste Ground Project is the culmination of a multimedia collaboration. The project is centred on a rumination on life through the prism of liminal spaces – derelict land, brownfield sites – caught between moments of dilapidation and regeneration. The project takes the form a paperback book, a highly limited edition box set, featuring hand-stitched booklets, archival prints and a reliquary, as well as art prints and more.

Black and white wild flower sketches (c) Ella Johnston
These sketches are for the text element of the piece. They accompany beautiful prose written by MW Bewick.
Black and white wild flower sketches (c) Ella Johnston
These black and white wild flower and plant sketches have been created with a brush paint pen. They accompany more detailed fine-liner drawings elsewhere in the piece. I wanted these illustrations to be loose, gestural and quick so they feel like they’ve been captured on the fly.
Black and white wild flower sketches (c) Ella Johnston
Watch this space for more updates.
Black and white wild flower sketches (c) Ella Johnston
Black and white wild flower sketches (c) Ella Johnston

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New botanical print; Juniper berries

Work in progress Juniper watercolour and ink drawing (c) Ella JohnstonThis is my new botanical print, juniper berries illustrated in watercolour and ink. A perfect gift for gin fiends!A3 Limited Edition Juniper Giclee Print (c) Ella JohnstonI’ve been producing a lot of new work recently and I’m going to get into the habit showing some of it to you on a regular basis. This juniper berries drawing was really fun to do – I love its needles (something I’m not too familiar with in terms of illustration) and its juicy berries.
A3 Limited Edition Juniper Giclee Print (c) Ella Johnston
The new art print is available on my Etsy shop.
A3 Limited Edition Juniper Giclee Print (c) Ella Johnston

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The joy of house plants

My work explores the way human connect with the natural world, so it will be not surprise that I am a big fan of house plants! I love them. They provide a great eco-friendly home update (they’ve brightened up our battered old piano and bright white sideboard), they look amazing and will lift your soul – I promise.

They have also brought out my nurturing side – I’m not ashamed to admit that I talk to our growing green housemates and it’s very therapeutic. I’ve bought a leaf mister – an object not on my radar five years ago – and I got a dedicated house plant watering can for my birthday this year.
I love house plants. Photo (c): Ella JohnstonSo what do I like about house plants? As you know I’ve been banging on about the benefits of greenery and nature for years.  I love the organic, wild(ish) element that they give to my home. It swells my heart to watch our plants grow, especially as they are all quite easy to maintain and look after – although I admit I’ve had some neglect/kill with kindness-related fatalities.

Houseplants (c) Ella Johnston ellasplace.co.ukI’m constantly adding to my home jungle. At the moment, I’ve got Monstera deliciosa, Castanospermum Australe (Jack’s Beanstalk), Dracaena marginata (Madagascar Dragon Tree), Chamaedorea (mountain palm), Sword Fern, Sanseveria (Mother-in-law’s tongue), Fittonias, Aloe Vera and some succulents.
I love house plants. Photo (c): Ella Johnston I’ve been very successful with the monsteras (touch wood), had mixed results with the fittonias (I think I transplanted them too early), I have an on-going struggle with succulents but have managed to keep it together with the aloes (so low maintenance it’s unreal).

What are my top house plant tips?  Hmm not sure really,  I’m certainly no expert. I’ve got most of the plants in rooms at the back of the house where they will get the most light. I don’t have a strict timetable when it comes to watering – I’ve had so many over-watering incidents in the past that now I tend to go by feel (using my fingers to assess the dryness/dampness of the soil, checking the leaves and stems). Obviously I’ve found myself giving the monstera, dragon tree and mountain palm more of a drink in the summer months but I don’t have any hard and fast rules.

Have you got bitten by the house plant bug? Can you recommend anywhere to get some good large(ish) pots? Give me a shout and let me know.

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Ella’s Edit: Sea-inspired buys

Seahorse ornaments www.tch.net/
Seahorse ornaments, The Contemporary Home

Have you noticed how dark it’s got recently? I quite like autumn but this has come as s shock even to me so I’m lighting in my mood with these sea-side themed buys from The Contemporary Home.

 Large Ceramic Shells www.tch.net/
Large Ceramic ShellsThe Contemporary Home

These delightful oversized ceramic sea shells and seahorses have not only kept a little bit of summer in my heart but they’ve also saved my bathroom look during its ‘transitional phase’. We’ve getting it decorated in the new year and I wanted something to brighten it up in the short term.

I’ve teamed them with some real items scavenged from the beaches of Great Britain to give the smallest room in the house a bit of life.  Who knows where they’ll live when my bathroom is complete – watch this space!

Seahorse ornaments www.tch.net/
Seahorse ornamentsThe Contemporary Home
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October drawing of the month: Flying Dunlin

Flying dunlin watercolour and fine line drawing (c) Ella Johnston
My October drawing of the month is of a flying dunlin.

As the co-founder of Dunlin Press this bird is particularly important to me and Dr B. We are very fond of these birds, very soon they’ll be scuttling around in the mud on Wivenhoe quay.

Work in progress: Flying dunlin watercolour and fine line drawing (c) Ella Johnston

I’ve been drawing dunlins for a little while now, and even have a print of another dunlin drawing available on Folksy, but I’ve never attempted to draw a flying dunlin before. They are quite magical when they fly. I normally spot these wading birds in groups scurrying around on the mud as the tide is coming in during twilight so it’s quite hard to see them at first. You can just about detect them by a little flash of white on their bellies. It’s only when they fly do you see them fully as the white plumage underneath their wings catches and twinkles in the moonlight, it’s lovely.

dunlin print by Ella Johnston

I created this illustration with washes of watercolour and picked out the details with a uni-pin fine line pen, you can see me adding some detail in the video below…