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My mark making tools

Ella Johnston, artist materials. Photography Nathan Jones

It starts with playing.

I have to let intuition guide me a little. If I use a square brush, I know that I want to explore something about form, with spontaneity and looseness. It involves memory and even muscle memory of making those marks.

Ella Johnston, artist. Photography Nathan Jones
Photography Nathan Jones


If I pick up a pen I know I want to be precise, when I use a particular brush I want to be expressive in a different way. I’ll know it instinctively when I start.

Then, once I introduce the colours, form and composition, I’ll know what theme it’s taking. It can almost be like you’re in a trance, a slightly different level of consciousness. I’m alert, and the marks I make are deliberate, but there’s also a flow, a dance, which you don’t have to think about, and it just happens.


Memory of days past white-noise feedback ink on paper, Ella Johnston

If I’m holding a large square brush, how do I make that curve? How do I make those gestures, those swooshes and dashes that look like they’re moving even if they’re static? They’re still but they’ve got movement, like they’re about to fly. Or a mark that’s got to be so solid. I’m not thinking hard about it. If I’m too diligent it doesn’t work. I’ve got to be purposeful, but at the same time I’ve got to let go and be free. Focused but free.

Ella Johnston making marks

I’ve always liked ink. I like the unruliness of it and that you’ve got options to use a pen or a brush, and to water it down to create washes. There’s a lot of scope. 

Water Meditations Sea Glass III ink on Awagami Factory Bamboo washi paper, Ella Johnston

In the past few years I’ve also experimented with different types of mark-making tools. I’ve used feathers, and reeds from the marshes near where I live, and broom, and the seed-heads of teasel. They make different types of mark. And there’s something more fluid about inks than paint when you make those marks. I like its immediacy, its unforgiving nature.

In the depths, ink on Fabriano watercolour paper. Ella Johnston

I use a lot of Japanese calligraphy brushes of different sizes, and square brushes, and I also make my own tin-can pens from old soft drinks and beer cans. They’re really a calligraphy tool but, like with the calligraphy brushes, I use them for drawing and mark making. I like the playfulness I can achieve with the tin-can pens, the variation of line, and when I combine that with the softness of a brush it’s quite interesting. 

Asemic poem large scale, Ella Johnston artist

If I’m using soft round brushes, I might know that I want to press the full weight of the brush down and drag it. Or I might want to work with the tip of a calligraphy brush to produce very fine lines. With a tin-can pen you’re not going to get a consistent line. It doesn’t hold ink in that way. You don’t control it in the way you do with a brush.

Eucalyptus Ella Johnston

I often use the tin-can pens to create a kind of central column in the work, which is a kind of upwards life force. There’s a journey there, a sense of collision and violence, but an upward momentum and force. The hard lines and edges of the pen strokes, in contrast to the soft lines of the brush produce collisions. Then I’ll add extra shapes, circles or blocks of colour. And in doing all this there’s a search for balance, beauty and harmony. There’s a mood. It’s a mood of stillness and movement and the contrast between them. 

The Observations of Angelus Novus, The Storm, Ella Johnston

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Being an artist, some thoughts

art tools. Photography Nathan Jones

 Artists eh? Funny little creatures. Well some are. Some really aren’t. Anyway I was thinking about being an artist and I thought I would share some musings.

Ella Johnston, art and illustration. Photography Nathan Jones

I have no idea why I’m an artist. I don’t know whether it’s a compulsion, a habit or a passion. All I know is that I am more who I am when I’m painting or drawing, when I’m making marks or thinking about marks. 

art tools. Photography Nathan Jones

When I approach each new work, in some ways I don’t have any set thing in mind. I just kind of know I want to get to work on it. I might know I want to work with inks, or paint, or pens. Then, when I’m sat with the paper, canvas, the inks, brushes or pens, I take a bit of time. It’s almost like a sort of meditation. I take a breath, I think about the marks I want to make, and then I start. 

Ella Johnston, artist. Photography Nathan Jones

For me, I want a sense of finding some sort of peace in this chaos, or beauty out of chaos. It has to feel harmonious but have a real sense of visceral life. A lot of that is established in the first layer of black. If that’s wrong, it won’t work. 

Water Meditations Sea Glass II, Ink on Awagami-Factory Bamboo washi paper, Ella Johnston
Water Meditations Sea Glass II, Ink on Awagami-Factory Bamboo washi paper, Ella Johnston


I’m also very conscious of colour and colour density, and of what remains still against the eruption of other shapes and lines. The pieces are all very spontaneous, and yet in some ways not, too. Ink needs to dry before you add colour. One colour needs to dry before you add another. 

Of course, all the colours have connotations. A deep, vibrant red. A grey. A green. A strong, clear blue. There’s a multitude of stories associated them. You can say so much in what tone of grey you use and how it’s placed against something as visceral and solid as a black or a red.

Memory of days past, Indie, ink on Surrey Cartridge Paper, Ella Johnston
Memory of days past, Indie, ink on Surrey Cartridge Paper, Ella Johnston

If you put a red and a yellow together, you may suddenly feel more hopeful or invigorated. Putting orangey pinks, blues and yellows together can feel joyous. Some colours give a sense of opulence. But then I might add colours that relate to mid-century design and the London housing estates I’ve lived in or buildings I’ve worked in. Colour and form can be incredibly autobiographical. There’s a whole psychology of colour.

 Brutalist Asemic III, ink on Fabriano UNICA Printmaking Paper, Ella Johnston
Brutalist Asemic III, ink on Fabriano UNICA Printmaking Paper, Ella Johnston


I have no idea what people see when they see my work, or what they think about it. I’m not in control of it and I’ve no desire to be in control of it. That’s not up to me. It’s none of my business. I wouldn’t be so grand as to think I make any particular kind of impression.

Ella Johnston art studio photography Nathan Jones

That’s why I can’t really offer any practical advice for fellow artists. And there is no real reason for me to make the work I do. There is no practical reason for anybody to make art. But when I see other people’s work that excites me, it gets my brain going. I get all itchy. And so regardless of whether people like my work or what their reaction is, it’s that as an artist, and as a community of artists around the world – musicians or visual artists or dancers or writers – we are a network of people that provide a kind of alternative universe, or a reflection, or an opposition. Our function is to unsettle, to reward, to excite, to question, to spark. And if I’m part of that, then that’s cool with me.