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Adventures in washi rice paper

Hope, ink on rice paper Ella Johnston

Wish, ink on rice paper Ella Johnston

Over the past two years I’ve expanded my artistic practice into ink drawing. I’ll be sharing lots of posts on this over time but I wanted to talk about a wonderful discovery made during this new and continuing phase of my work. So here’s an intro to my adventures in washi rice paper.

Goat willow ink on washi rice paper Ella Johnston
Beautiful, beautiful paper

I have a real love for all kinds of paper, both as an artist and in my ‘other past life’ working as a magazine editor. I can talk for hours about the virtues of weights, textures and paper pressing techniques. Don’t get me on shades of ivory, cream and white!

Normally I have always opted for heavyweight art paper, and for certain works I always will. However, one day, meandering around an art shop in search of some inspiration I saw a pad of 80gsm rice paper and thought ‘hmm, where’s the harm?”. I think I subconsciously needed a new challenge, something to expand my practice and challenge me a little bit.

Now, if you’re not familiar with ‘gsm’ (grams per square metre) a simple guide is something like 80gsm is really thin, fragile and delicate when something like a 300gsm is thick, robust and heavy.

Hope, ink on rice paper Ella Johnston

Washi paper and the art of sumi-e

Having already experimented with lots of mark making tools in ink I had already been working with Japanese calligraphy brushes. Another accident really as my sister got me some when she was away in Japan. They are an absolute joy to work with and I am going to write another post concentrating on those, so look out for that.

I wanted to have a go at using the brushes (and some of the traditional ink pens) with this very delicate paper. I decided to record this first foray into working with this super fine surface and you can have a look at the results here.

At the time, in my ignorance, I was calling this paper ‘sumi’, I was completely wrong. The art of sumi-e is the practice not the paper. My bad, I’m always learning.

As you can see in the video the paper is so very delicate and super absorbent. Which means it is completely unforgiving – the mark you make is the mark you make. I love the spontaneity of this, and having bought some more washi rice paper at a range of higher gsm weights, the paper still holds on the ink immediately so you have to work quickly and with conviction.

Zen buds harmony, compassion Ella Johnston

A moment in time

I love the fact that you have to work quickly on this surface – to be the paper feels like it really captures a moment in time. It sounds silly but I work with this paper with a view that it’s the artistic equivalent of amber. Any little ink drop, drip and accidental ink mark or line is absorbed and preserved. You can also be creative with it and draw with water, before seeing the alchemy that takes place as you touch the water marks with ink.

Ink flowers Ella Johnston

While you have to work quicky, I have had to think slowly when working on this surface. It’s an incredibly therapeutic process as I have to really consider my marks and be deliberate in your artistic choices. I think this results in very mindful work. Though I started with black ink, I’ve expanded to explore various forms in colour with this paper, again with quite pleasing results.

Golden Allium ink on washi rice paper

I am delighted by the spontaneous nature of the pieces I’m also pleased by their quietness. In my opinion they are very gentle, considered pieces and I like this. I feel that the work reflects the contemplation and mindfulness I utilised when making them.

I’ve made both abstract ink works and botanical ink drawings with this practice and I’ve used some of the work I’ve made in this manner for some of my cards and prints.

I’m keen to explore further the creative possibilities of working with what is a relatively new material for me.

I’ll sign off with my latest rice paper video (I’m going to do some more soon) but you can see how I’m progressing…

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Monday Moodboard: Japanese prints


More pattern research this week, this time I’m trawling through traditional Japanese prints. It makes such a lovely Monday moodboard.

My original passion for these designs started many years ago when a good friend of ours sent me some patterned washi paper from her home town in Japan. Ever since I’ve been stashing away more washi papers, collecting affordable prints and illos as well as gathering lots of visual examples on pinterest.

Whether it’s floral, avian or geometric in their themes, the delicate designs, intricate composition and sensitive use of pretty, coordinated colour is sure to inspire me. I wonder how its influence will show in my new work?

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Stash-busting How-to: Make Paper Banners

Banner display I don’t know about you but I’ve got a big stash of plain and patterned paper from previous projects and from when I’ve taken advantage of bulk offers in art shops. It seems like a waste to have them languishing in drawers and boxes so last week I took action and turned some of them into stash-busting banners to decorate our study with a simple wall display.
Banner display I had some lovely light blue card that I’d been waiting for something to do with and some left-over summer swallow and butterfly designs that I had created to decorate a friends wedding. I thought the colours all worked really well together and I had some Posca pens in a lovely slate grey that would lift the blue card and unify the whole scheme once I’d added some simple text and design.
Banner display Making these banners is a synch. It just requires a ruler, a length of doweling, a craft knife, twine, double-sided-tape and the paper(s) of your choice. I measured my doweling at various lengths and cut to size (I could easily snip mine with a craft knife but you may need something more ‘robust’).
Banner display I then trimmed my papers into rectangles making sure I had about a 2cm allowance to wrap them over the doweling and leaving room at the bottom for cutting the bottom into a ‘v’ or inverted ‘v’ or at an angle while not compromising the main design.
Banner display the blue card was cut, I could draw a bespoke illustration on it. I thought I’d keep it some with a hand-scripted ‘hello’ and some simple laurel leaf and flower motifs. Let me know if you’d like me to talk through hand scripting and drawing these leaves and flowers – they’re easy to master and you don’t have to be a great draftsman/woman, I promise .
Banner display With everything cut to size I applied lengths of double-sided-tape to the doweling and, in the case three out of the four banners, I attached the ends of my twine before rolling the edges of the rectangles over the doweling to fix.

I’m pleased that I was able to give my old stash a new lease of life and I’m delighted to be able to add another bit of quirky handmade styles to a little corner of our study.

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Discover lost art of letter writing

writing a letter So when was the last time you wrote a letter or indeed sent out anything handwritten that wasn’t a birthday or Christmas card?

It’s alright. I’m not berating you – it wasn’t really until I started producing my own stationery that I began to think about the lost art of letter writing.

Although I’m at an age when we used to write letters as teenagers (and I still have Dr B’s letters to me from our very, very early days), in the age of email, twitter, facebook, snapchat and a load of other ways of connecting, the letter seems so quaint and old fashioned. You can dash off a message in minutes now, safe in the knowledge that your recipient will get it straight away and probably respond in quick time too. And you can Skype too – I bloody love Skyping!


Be bold be brave Ella Johnston

While the joy of contacting people (friends, family, famous people) spontaneously and immediately is a wonderful, wonderful thing there is something to be said for the letter and a handwritten message. Let me give you a recent example…

Ella Johnston Handwriting

When I left my job at the end of last year I had some beautiful emails and tweets from people I’d worked with that I was really touched by. As well as my big leaving card I also received three handwritten notes. Last week, while having a bit of a drawer declutter I came across the trio and reread them, I felt the love all over again while not really looking for it. The physicality of the messages made the sentiments expressed permanent and real, months after the event.

This sense of permanence is very special. We take selfies and write blogs to mark points in our lives nowadays but letters have been doing this for centuries. You only have to visit the website Letters of Note to see this for yourself.

Loving Budgies Stationery Set

Now Letters of Note comes with a warning – visit it and you will lose HOURS. I discovered the site some years ago and it is a treasure trove of correspondence that will make you laugh, cry, think, get angry and marvel at the beauty of the human spirit. It is my one of my favourite things on the internet.

Choice picks include author John Steinbeck advising his young son on love, Bertrand Russell elegantly refuting Oswald Moseley, Iggy Pop giving a fan going through a tough time some encouragement the fab battle of the bitches spat and George Harrison providing tips on how to wash a car.

After reading these letters and many more (honestly I could spend all day on that site), you see how wonderful a hand-scribed or typed missive is. It becomes an artefact, a physical record of a moment in time (you’ll see the writing, the typewriter ink and the paper it’s on – it’s all amazingly evocative). It was getting into Letters of Note that made me design writing sets for people to give their letters a bit of panache. I mean, if it is going to be around for a long time, you want it on nice paper don’t you?

This is a truly analogue medium in a digital age. But the humble letter or handwritten note is one that speaks to our hearts, shows someone you’ve taken some time and given them some thought. For the price of some paper or card, an envelope and stamp you can give someone a item to treasure and love for years, one that may outlive you both.

Ella Johnston Stationery collection (c) Ella Johnston

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#Stationery made with love

Stationery by Ella Johnston

As you know I’ve been blogging a lot about stationery this week for National Stationery Week. It’s really got me thinking about my own work over the years.  Shown above are my illustrated greetings cards, handprinted notelets and tags, plus a 40-page notebook.

My ranges so far have consisted of detailed illustrative motifs and individually handprinted pieces. Whatever style I plump for at a particular time it’s important to me that my stationery offers something that you can only get from me.

So the handmade, handcrafted, hand-drawn element is essential to every collection I create. All the time I’ve been creating stationery I’ve put a little bit of myself in every collection. I really want each piece to be made with love. 

You can take a look at my most up to date stationery collections on my Not On The High Street, Folksy or Etsy shops.

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My favourite stationery

Stationery buys

I love stationery. Of course I do, I create my own stationery collections – so I thought I’d share my favourite pieces with you.

Stationery buys

The book with the Eames quote was given to me by my sister, it’s a dinky little size so it I take it out and about with me for sketching and jotting down any ideas.

The pens are Uni-ball fine line – these guys are essential for my art practice. The various-sized nibs are great for detail and provide excellent ink coverage, and, because they are pigment based, the colour is beautifully black. Gift tags and washi tape are an addiction of mine and key materials for packaging my stationery orders.

Both the scissors and the rather snazzy Tom Dixon ruler were both bought for me by my Dr B – I have used them both but I don’t like to because they’re too nice.

I love my big notebook too, it’s lovely and thick – ideal for my lists of projects and ideas. I adore the marbled edges on the pages.

I’m addicted to pens and pencils too, particularly metallic pens – these Posca and Uni-ball ones give great coverage. The gorgeous red pen was a gift from my colleagues at Homemaker and Make it Today when I left, so it’s a well treasured item. The postcard (I send out many postcards) comes from The Calm Gallery, you can get them here.

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Hack: Pimp up a flower display

Easy carton boxes with Sizzix dies in Ella Johnston Love Heart Paper (c)

It’s a week until Mothering Sunday in the UK. If you’re having a little celebration or gathering with your mum (or indeed anyone – an aunt, a friend, a neighbour) it’s worth making an effort to make the get together more special. Having a lovely little flower display is an easy way to make someone smile and feel like you’ve gone the extra mile.

So this is a really easy and more importantly really cheap way to pimp up a floral display. I used few flower heads, some little shot glasses and sturdy paper featuring my love heart design. I made cute carton style boxes, popped the shot glass in (with around 2cm of water) and snuck the flower bud in to peak above the top of the paper. This method means you can display a single bloom without blowing your budget on a big bouquet.

I used a die-cutting machine (Sizzix Big Shot Machine #660200) with a carton box die (Sizzix Thinlits Die – Box, Milk Carton) to make my boxes but you can make a simple paper cover by simply scoring a paper rectangle so it wraps around the shot glass like a sleeve. So, it’s not just for Mother’s Day, I like to do this for parties and get-togethers when I want an easy decorative touch that I can theme with different paper designs and blooms.

Easy carton boxes with Sizzix dies in Ella Johnston Love Heart Paper (c)

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My Drawing Kit

Ella Johnston's drawing kit

If you listen to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, you’ll know that you get to choose eight music tracks, a book and a luxury, to save your sanity in your new life as a castaway. Well, my music tracks and book selections pretty much change every month, but my luxury has been the same for the past 20 years – namely a never-ending supply of the stuff pictured above; my drawing kit.

Ella Johnston Art & IllustrationEvery one of my illustrations starts with this. I draw my initial motif in pencil on high-quality watercolour paper. I then apply washes of watercolour with a broad brush, adding little touches of detail colour while the wash is still wet with a thinner brush.

(c) Ella Johnston ArtDrawing (c) Ella Johnston

Once I’m happy with the colour, I leave it to dry and then set about putting an inky line over the composition. Years ago I used liquid Indian ink with a nib, but it was a messy process (all the sides of my hands would get covered in ink due to the way I hold the pen) and it also produced some inconsistencies in the final image. So I switched to fibre tips and have never looked back.
Drawing (c) Ella Johnston

Faber Castell India ink PITT artist pens  and Uni-ball fine line pens are my favourite to draw and write with (I love handwriting – more about that later) and I’ve built quite a stash of them – in fact you will find at least one of this type of pen in every bag I own and in practically every room in the house. Dr B sometimes says he sees them in his dreams. I mainly use the fine, small and extra small nib for my work – their precision is excellent and I really like the way their ink is absorbed into the paper. I couldn’t be without them.

Drawing (c) Ella Johnston