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Monthly Moodboard: September, Simplicity

Monthly moodboard, September Simplicity

Although my art is quite intricate I actually strive for simplicity. The bravery and beauty of making a few gestural lines to shapes to convey a subject for me is an incredible achievement. It’s building up to becoming an obsession of mine, as this September moodboard illustrates.

While my desire for simplicity is a long held one, it was compounded this summer by Dr James Fox’s documentary series The Art of Japanese Life where Fox featured Sesshu’s ‘splashed-ink’ landscape (see below), dating back, unbelievably, to 1495.  Let me say that again, 1495!

I think this is a glorious painting. I see so much energy in it and I find it exquisite in composition and atmosphere. I’m also drawn to the simple black and white colour scheme (I would be though wouldn’t I?).

Sesshu's 'splashed-ink' landscape
Sesshu’s ‘splashed-ink’ landscape

It’s also coincided with me getting some brush pens (which I used to create my new header btw), so I’ve been playing around with them try to make simple, gestural images. I find minimalism and knowing when to stop more difficult than adding clever little details and additional descriptive strokes – it’s a real challenge for me. I’m using the work of Toko Shinoda as further inspiration as well as ancient Japanese brush painting of bamboo, birds and butterflies.

What do you think of this style of painting? Do you like those simple strokes? The black and white? Or do you need a little more colour and detail? I’d love to know.

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Monday Moodboard: Birds

Monday Moodboard Birds

Well it was only a matter of time before I treated you a Monday Moodboard of birds.

As you know an awful lot of my drawing practice centres around birds. So much of my time is spent trawling and taking images of birds to study and illustrate. This is absolutely no hardship for me. I could honestly spend all my time looking at my feathered friends.

Recently I have been  focussing on heads and shoulders to create bird portraits for my show at the Over The Sofa Gallery at Wivenhoe Bookshop. It’s a small space and I wanted to do it as a site specific piece, the show is called Family Portraits so it has a kind of homely feel. It consists of nine A6 watercolour and ink drawings and four A6 pieces.

The show is on until April 30.

Birds at Wivenhoe Books

Wanna know what each bird is? Well here they are…
Top row from left: Puffin, Long Eared Owl, Starling
Middle row from left: Lapwing, Peacock, Pigeon
Bottom row from left: Cormorant, Robin, Crested Grebe
On shelf: Black Redstart, Budgie, Goldfinch, Dartford Warbler.

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Drawing of the week: Flamingo Head

Flamingo (c) Ella Johnston

This week’s drawing of the week is of a bright pink flamingo head.

I must admit it has taken me a little while to warm to the flamingo bird, although really fun to paint and draw (you can really go to town with pink watercolour here), it was a bird that never really got under my skin like a puffin, lapwing or curlew. I suppose I was put off because they have been so popular as a motif in homewares and stationery design.

Perhaps I also thought they were show-offs of the avian world – to me they were just a bit too lairy with their pink plumage. Maybe I was jealous – no one could accuse me of being leggy and it’s rare that I splash out with colour in a sartorial sense (I leave that for my illustration).

Of course I was wrong. I mean these birds are magnificent creatures and when you find our about these birds they really are fascinating. Here are some fun flamingo facts…

Special bills
Flamingos beaks  are specially adapted to separate mud and silt from the food they eat. The bills are uniquely used upside-down. Don’t know what I mean? Take a look here…

In the pink
Their distinctive pigment comes from carotenoids they eat in animal and plant plankton which are broken down into pigments by liver enzymes.

Flam Fam
Flamingos are very social birds. Their colonies can be thousands strong. This protects them from predators and enables them to nest more efficiently.

What a pair
The birds perform synchronised ritual displays in colonies. The members of a group stand together and display to each other by stretching their necks upwards, making calls while head-flagging, then flapping their wings. Flamingos form strong partnerships although in larger colonies flamingos sometimes change mates (well we’re all allowed to change our minds). Both the male and the female play a part in building and defending the nest. Occasional same-sex pairs have been reported, which makes me happy.

Don’t you just love flamingos a bit more now?


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Drawing of the week: Pelican

Pelican drawing by Ella JohnstonMy drawing of the week this week is of a pelican.

As a prolific drawer of birds, I’ve always wanted to draw a pelican. I like the long beak/bill (with that funky pouch) and squat body; they appear to me as both elegant and bulky at the same time.

This illustration was created with blue and orange shades of watercolour and black uni-ball pin pens. He looks quite stern here but I’m sure this guy is quite friendly when you get to know him.

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Monday Moodboard: Folk patterns

Monday Moodboard Folk pattern

Joyous, colourful and breathtakingly beautiful, my folk art moodboard is perfect for brightening up this grey Monday afternoon. .

Marks, patterns and painting made by ordinary people is a constant inspiration for me. The simple shapes, harmonious composition, strong colour combinations and celebration of birds, flowers and animal life in folk art are timelessly popular in interior design and illustration.  I’ve used them as a spring board for some of the work I created for my Christmas Posca pen workshops and Christmas wrap designs – look out for those next week.

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Monday Moodboard Rio 2016

Rio! Monday Moodboard

The Rio 2016 Olympics kick off this Friday so I thought it would be a fitting subject for my Monday moodboard.

It is such an amazing source of inspiration. I’ve already created a series of work looking at Brazilian birds and florals. I’m also fascinated by Rio’s fabulous tiled beach fronts and decorative, colourful buildings as well as its dramatic landscapes and glorious carnivals. I’m really looking forward to learning more about this wonderful place over the coming weeks.


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Finished Bee-eater Bird of the Fortnight

Bee Eater Ella Johnston

I told you I’d go for colour and perhaps on reflection I could have been more subtle in my finished illustration. Ah well next time (I intend to draw these birds a LOT).

Bee-eaters do actually eat bees. They remove the stinging part by repeatedly hitting and rubbing the insect on a hard surface, the subsequent pressure to the insect extracts most of the venom.

These birds are mainly native to Africa and Asia but you can see some in southern Europe, Australia, and New Guinea. And I spotted on Twitter the other day that someone had seen and taken pictures of a pair of European bee-eaters in Norfolk (I would LOVE to see them for myself).

The birds form colonies by nesting in burrows tunnelled into the side of sandy banks, such as those that have collapsed on the edges of rivers. Most of the species in the family are monogamous and both parents care for the young, sometimes with the assistance of other birds in the colony, isn’t that lovely? The more I learn about these birds the more I like them.

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Meet Ella’s Menagerie part 2

Meet my menagerie part 2 (c) September I introduced you to some members of the household; our cool animals and characters that ‘guard’ our rooms, our shelves and our surfaces. Here are some more of our friends, with a little bit of their (imagined) back stories.

Rory (c) Ella Johnston
Rory the puffin
This Kay Bojesen Puffin Wooden Figurine is known to us as Rory. I’m telling you this guy is a riot! He flew into our lives last Christmas and my goodness he’s had the whole place in stitches ever since. Lewd, sometimes crude but never, ever rude or offensive, Rory has spent a lot of time in the Orkney Islands hanging out with his fellow puffins,’taking the pish’ out of the seals and enjoying a the odd very fine single malt with the fisherman ‘ma pals’. He has an anecdote for every occasion, is always up for a sing song yet is wonderfully well-versed in literature – particularly ancient folk tales and Icelandic sagas. We’ll often find him with his arm round one of the menagerie giving them a little pep-talk, or simply making them smile. This dude is a legend!

Rory (c) Ella Johnston

Elma (c) Ella Johnston

Stoic, strong, in many ways the rock of the house. Elma has been with us for eight years. We found her where we discovered Ian at Family Tree in Exmouth Market. Loving, caring and fantastic with small children, Elma has been through a great deal in her life as her sad, kind eyes reveal. In her youth she was a pretty wee thing on the late sixties and seventies fashion scene. For a while she very popular with magazine editors, pop stars, photographers and millionaires, but when fashion changed she was rejected by them all. No longer in vogue, she retreated to Ibiza in the eighties. There she lived with her artist lover, who, while very charming, was unfortunately a serial gambler, adulterer and all-round philanderer. She wanted children but knew this was incompatible with his chaotic lifestyle. After 15 years of enduring his infidelities, Elma had had enough and came back to England. She then started working with underprivileged children in inner city London which she describes as the most fulfilling period of her life. Though retired now, Elma still does a lot of volunteering and has expressed an interest in working at the local food bank.

Elma (c) Ella Johnston

John & Paul (c) Ella Johnston and Paul
These Quail ceramic Nuthatch pair are not brothers but very, very old school friends who have been inseparable since they were five years old. It took a while for the pair to get settled here. Having been with us for a year we’re beginning to find out a bit more about them (thanks to Rory). They came from a well-known public school that was apparently quite robust in terms of discipline and had some rather strong personalities in their year, as sensitive boys this really didn’t suit them. When they were 18 they went to a London art college together but that didn’t really work out (we’re not sure why) and for a long time they just ‘worked in bars around Europe’ before spending ‘some time in Berlin’ (?). They wanted to come to Wivenhoe to find their hero Martin Newell and make it with their own brand of pop music.

John and Paul (c) Ella Johnston

Eliza (c) Ella Johnston
Lovely Eliza may look innocent, but this hand-painted Donna Wilson wooden doll is anything but. This girl has lived and loved and is all the better for it. A singer and entertainer on the Northern club circuit and latterly a regular fixture on the cruise liner top bills, Eliza has seen it all. Nothing fazes this chick; scared of no-one, she’s hard drinking, got a mouth like a sewer and a heart of pure gold! ‘I’ve kept my looks, cos my looks have kept me’ is just one of her many sayings (well one I can print anyway). A pure sweetheart, Eliza is very sensitive and kind; she’s great mates with Elma and is often heard joining Rory in a impromptu performance of old rebel songs.

Eliza (c) Ella Johnston

Pierre Luigi (c) Ella Johnston
Pierre Luigi the pigeon
Ah Pierre Luigi, a flamboyant Bitossi Rimini pigeon of the very vintage variety. We found him in Blitz just off London’s Brick Lane because he ‘needed to see what the beautiful kids where doing’ but he was very disappointed. He would be. Pierre Luigi is only used to the best of things, having hung out most of his life with  Italian, French and Spanish sub-aristos in some of the most beautiful chateaus and palaces in the world. He ‘lives for beauty – even when it is ugly’ and is a massive fan of Puccini and Rossini, often blasting out their operas at full volume when in need of inspiration.

Pierre Luigi (c) Ella Johnston

Pierre Luigi (c) Ella Johnston

Alvin (c) Ella Johnston the house bird
Pierre Luigi adores Alvin the Eames house bird describing him as ‘so sleek, so elegant, so kind, so gentle but with a broody, intense edge’. It’s not actually a bad description. Although we found him at First Site in Colchester, his journey to us has been rocky. A rich boy, he was hot-housed in education and fast-tracked through a string of very high profile corporate gigs but, as is often the way of things, he burned out, reached rock bottom and was left with nothing. He describes this fall as a ‘liberation’ and he now devotes his time to reading political history and theory. He’s just applied for an MA in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity at the University of Essex. I can’t tell you how he broke his beak. Alvin (c) Ella Johnston

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Creative ways with watercolour… birds

Watercolour by Ella Johnston

I’m treating you to a sneaky preview of some illustrations I’m working on at the moment. They are not finished by any stretch but I thought you may be interested in seeing them in their ‘raw’ state.

I’ve been trying out some creative ways of adding texture and colour to my avian drawings with watercolour paints for some time now. I feel that this painterly method creates further interest and depth when illustrating the individual bird’s plumage than a line drawing. I also think it imbues a sense of vitality and movement in the composition. It’s also really simple to achieve.

Watercolour by Ella Johnston

My illustrations are made on non-textured watercolour paper – it has a lovely quality that absorbs water and ink really well. I first draw a light sketch of my subject in pencil, loosely highlighting key areas in pencil. Then I apply layer of watercolour washes to the illustration. Each layer is very watered down and I like to build up the colours gradually – this gives me more interesting colour combinations and a pleasing overall texture. Once I’m happy with the colour, I leave this to dry before applying a detailed ink drawing over the top.

Watercolour by Ella Johnston

You’ll be able to see the finished drawings in a book of wading birds published by Dunlin Press next year.

Watercolour by Ella Johnston

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5 coffee table books that make me happy

Neubau Forst Catalogue Urban Tree Collection for the Modern Architect and Designer via http://www.ellasplace.meBooks. Beautiful books. Books you learn from. Books that transport you and books that transform you. Books that speed you through a train journey. Books by the side of a pool. Coffee table books. There’s room for them all.

Our coffee table here at Ella’s Place has been starting to groan under the weight of new books that have arrived at recent birthdays. But I love them being there, ready at hand, supplying instant inspiration at unexpected moments. I’m sharing a few of them here.

Above and below is the cloth-bound Neubau Forst Catalogue: Urban Tree Collection for the Modern Architect and Designer. It’s basically a book of trees in Berlin, starkly photographed, stripped of context on a white background (rather like my own drawings), and then pictured in silhouette. It reminds me of how wonderful the conjunction of nature and the city can be – and how I began my own journey of drawing birds and flowers while living in London’s Square Mile and watching a pair of blue tits flit from tree to tree, and balcony to balcony, along our city-centre street. It also reminds me of how I love Berlin.

Neubau Forst Catalogue Urban Tree Collection for the Modern Architect and Designer via

Mary Schoeser’s stunning and sumptuous volume, Textiles, is a real feast for the eyes and huge inspiration and resource for pattern, colour and illustration. It juxtaposes historical pieces with contemporary design and I can lose myself for hours in it.

Mary Schoeser Textiles book via

Mary Schoeser Textiles book via

Weeds & Aliens – An Unnatural History of Plants, by B.A. Huseby is a treat for any student of book design. It’s embossed, foil-blocked and cloth-bound. It uses different paper stocks and the typography is both elegant and quite radically laid-out. It’s a collection of minimalistic photography of ‘wrong-placed plants’ (as Dr B likes to call them) and their culinary uses. It’s not exactly a book about foraging for food – there aren’t any recipes as such – but from reading it you can learn about what plants are growing under your feet, or at the side of the road, and how you might use them.

Weeds & Aliens - An Unnatural History of Plants by B.A. Huseby book via

Weeds & Aliens - An Unnatural History of Plants by B.A. Huseby book via

There are two large yellow books in our living room. One is a collection of drawings by Aubrey Beardsley and the other is this big book of textiles by Knoll. Tracing the period 1945-2010 it’s a history of fabric, furniture, interior design and advertising with plenty of evocative photography that captures the high points of mid-century modern.

Knoll Textiles book via

Knoll Textiles book via

In 2012, an original edition of John James Audubon’s giant, outsized The Birds of America sold at Christie’s in New York for nearly $8 million. My version might be considerably cheaper and smaller, but still manages to capture the timeless quality of his paintings. As an illustrator who loves drawing birds, it’s a real treat.

John James Audubon Birds of America book via

John James Audubon Birds of America book via http://www.ellasplace.meSo, what are your favourite coffee table books?