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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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Drawing of the week: Feathers

Green feathers Ella Johnston
I’m showing you something different for my drawing of the week – not a finished illustration but some ideas I’m playing with at the moment.

I’m in experimental mode this week, playing with different pens and drawing techniques. I often experiment with illustration but rarely share my playful doodles. However as I’m pushing out of my comfort zone I’m happy to show off my working process, and these feathers, with you.

The ‘playing process’ is so much fun. I get super absorbed with making marks and seeing how shapes and colours interact with each other. It’s a great way of thinking out patterns and new projects.  I’m currently obsessed with feathers – they are a recurring theme for me and an effective way to free up my line and play with colour and shape.


Red feathers Ella Johnston

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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 notebook with Posca pens

Poska Pens pimped-up notebooks (c) Ella Johnston
There are few things more majestical to me than a fresh new notebook and a journal where I can pimp up the front is even better.

That’s why I love this little set of Moleskine mini cahiers – a trio of mini journals in kraft card all ready to be personalised and pimped up by yours truly.
Poska Pens pimped-up notebooks (c) Ella Johnston
I updated these three with posca pens. I love these pens. They provide beautiful colour coverage and have a fab paint-like quality that you can control, meaning you get great detail without fussing with a brush. You can see that with the white in particular (I know a white pen that works!).
Poska Pens pimped-up notebooks (c) Ella Johnston
Hand-rendered type is very popular in at the mo – for a font-loving, handwriting addict like myself it’s always been cool, much more character and fun. A little slogan works well on notebook and I decorated this trio with phrases taking ‘days’ as my theme. I must admit my favourite is OH MY DAYS as I always think of my sister Lucy when I hear or see it. I might send her this notebook actually if I’m feeling nice.

Poska Pens pimped-up notebooks (c) Ella Johnston

If you’re not mega confident in free-hand rendering type then simply print off a slogan in your favourite font and trace it onto the book to colour over.
Poska Pens pimped-up notebooks (c) Ella Johnston

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Make a Mindfulness Gift Box

Little box of mindfulness (c) Ella Johnston
Is there someone in your life that would benefit from practicing a little mindfulness? This box of tricks could be the perfect gift for them.

The concept of ‘mindfulness’ is everywhere now and has been for a while. For anyone who’s feeling a bit cynical about the term, I can understand, but I think it’s worth exploring.
Poska Pens pimped-up notebooks (c) Ella Johnston
Being mindful works for me. After years and years of throwing myself into my work and very little else, stepping back and becoming more aware of being in the present moment and enjoying the here and now has transformed who I am and how I am. It’s also freed me up to be more creative and be better to myself and the people around me.

Poska Pens pimped-up notebooks (c) Ella Johnston
As someone who loves to work and thrives on being busy I really had to learn to be mindful. I mean really learn. At the start I needed it to be ‘project mindfulness’ (I know). So I made myself a mindfulness kit: candles to light in the evening or while I was having a bath to change the mood and unwind; a (personalised) notebook to write thoughts and observations in (and for doodles and sketches); soothing, properly nice hot beverages that I would enjoy sitting down to drink but wouldn’t be full of caffeine (I love tea pigs chamomile tea); colour therapy pages so I could absorb myself into making something pretty that wasn’t my work.
Poska Pens pimped-up notebooks (c) Ella Johnston
In those early days I really appreciated this ‘mindfulness kit’ but, regardless of whether you subscribe to the concept or not, it also makes a great gift in itself. I put together a personalised gift box for new mums, friends who are working hard with an all-consuming project or a busy period at work and mates who simply need someone to tell them “I’m rooting for you.” I’ll sometimes swap the tea for hot chocolate for sweet-toothed friends and change the message on the notebook for something a little more rude for certain mates of mine who share my love of curse words (have I not told you that yet?). I’ve also been known to slip in a favourite book to read, which may not totally embody the mindfulness thing but is nice to have nonetheless. The box itself is just a shoe box covered in my scandi leaf paper. I’ve designed the colour therapy/colouring in sheets myself which you can download next week so watch this space. You can find out how to pimp up your candle votives here

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Bird of the Fortnight: Chaffinch

Chaffinch Illustration (c) Ella Johnston

Earlier this week I posted some super quick sketches of a chaffinch. Here is my finished worked up colour version using watercolour paint and a selection of black ink artist pens.

Wonderfully, chaffinches are one of the UK’s most common birds and, brilliantly, they’re not believed to be in decline. Chaffinches are gorgeous birds and add a real splash of colour to our woodlands, hedgerows, fields, parks and gardens. Unlike a lot of birds in the UK you can actually spot these in most parts of the country; from the parks of central London to the birchwoods of northern Scotland. And I read that they have been found to have regional accents, with slight differences in the typical song depending on where in the country the bird lives. I’m a massive fan of different accents (believe me there is no voice I don’t like) so this pleases me greatly.

Find out more about this fabulous creature at the RSPB website.

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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