Today’s interview takes us to South London, where illustrator Ella Sienna creates some of the stunning watercolor pieces you’ll find on her Instagram feed. One of the things that I enjoyed finding out about Ella was her love of notebooks. As an avid notebook collector myself, I felt an immediate sense of kinship.
While based in London, Ella takes followers of her work around the globe from the wilds of Africa to Hong Kong where she spent her early years. Ella’s attention to detail can be seen throughout the paintings she shares, which include florals, animals, insects, and stunning architectural pieces.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?
I actually remember the moment that I realized I didn’t want to be an artist more clearly than when I first did. I must have been about seven, and we had just come back from a family holiday to Paris. While we were there we’d visited the Musée d’Orsay and I’d been fascinated by one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings. It was behind glass because it was so delicate and I remember there was a little plaque that had mentioned that the paint was cracking off the canvas because he’d applied it so liberally.
After we left my parents bought what I thought was a computer game of the museum – looking back, I’m pretty sure it was a digital walk-through of the Musée d’Orsay. You could click on the paintings and it would give you a description of the painting and a bio of the artist. When I clicked on Van Gogh I was devastated. He had never sold a painting in his lifetime. He cut off an ear. He ate his own paints. If this was the life of one of the greatest artists in history, I was not interested in the job description, thanks very much. After that, I don’t remember saying I wanted to be an artist when I grew up.
Although you do work with colored inks and mixed media, your primary medium is watercolor. What drew you to this medium in particular?
I love how versatile it is. You can apply it smooth or have it granulate; it can be thick and opaque or sheer and translucent. I can’t think of another medium other than oils that has that kind of breadth. It was complete luck that I fell in love with it though – I had the most incredible watercolor teacher for eight months when I was ten. He was an exceptionally flamboyant man – I remember him wearing hot pink shirts and he had rhinestone-studded glasses. He just made learning the basics so joyful. I really don’t think I would have naturally gravitated towards it otherwise. He taught me enough to become confident in the medium, and when I moved away a few months later I just kept painting and developing techniques that worked for me.
What place or places have you traveled to that have inspired you the most as an artist, and how did growing up in Asia influence your artwork?
Asia has definitely been my biggest influence. I grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore, and I think it really sparked my love of mythology. I’m sure I would have always loved the fantastical beasts from Greek legends, but they feel almost nostalgic. In Asia it’s easy to stumble across stone foo dogs guarding doors, golden-winged Garuda watching from rooftops or to find a Qilin on Hong Kong’s hundred dollar bill. That imagery still feels very immediate to daily life.
It definitely made an impact on how and what I painted. I learned all my core drawing skills doodling Chinese dragons with bulbous goldfish-like eyes – which is so forgiving because you can’t really get anything wrong. It’s not like drawing a human face. I only started tackling portraits after I’d anthropomorphized animals – which only happened after a trip to Japan. I came back drawing cats in kimono and dogs as samurai.
Where is your favorite place to shop for art supplies?
I have such a soft spot for Green & Stone in Chelsea, and Cornelissen & Sons in Bloomsbury (both in London). They feel like old-world artists apothecaries with walnut wood shelves filled with every pigment and paint imaginable. Most of the people who work there are artists themselves, so they really know the ins and outs of the tools they’re selling. It’s dangerous shopping there though – it’s definitely like letting a kid loose in a candy store.
What paints, brushes, etc do you bring with you during your travels?
I try to pack light! At the moment my travel kit includes:
- A limited color palette! I obsess over these. I love getting inspired by my surroundings and for the last three years I’ve put together a limited color palette for each trip I’ve taken. I spent a lot of time finding colors that reflected the spirit of the place and ideally using pigments local to that area. A few months ago I started to hand-make my own honey-based watercolors so I could use more unique and hard-to-find pigments. I’ve had so much fun curating and playing with the colors that I figured other people might enjoy them too – they’re available online at artistscompanion.com
- Escoda’s Reserva travel brushes. They’re a joy to use and they’re collapsable.
- A handmade sketchbook by L’atelier Reliure. It was such a struggle finding a watercolor sketchbook I like Gaëlle made one for me using the same paper I use in my studio (Arches 300gsm Coldpressed Paper). I have a second one from her which also has soft brown paper mixed in with the watercolor sheets, so I could do tonal sketches on safari.
- Lumograph pencils from Staedler Mars.
- A collapsible water lantern and putty eraser.
I love the quote in your bio ‘owner of far too many notebooks and not enough pens.’ As an avid paper collector, what has been the most treasured paper or notebook you’ve ‘found’ on your travels?
For watercolors, it has to be my sketchbook from L’atelier Reliure, for sure! I’m currently crushing on the Desmond and Dempsey collaboration with Papier (those leopards though!) and Fabienne Chapot’s beautiful notebooks.
I love the wildlife you painted while in Africa, especially the giraffe (my favorite animal!) What was it like being able to see the wildlife up close while in Africa?
There’s no feeling like being less than two meters away from a lion that’s roaring in the dark. It’s terrifying and exhilarating – you feel it almost more than you hear it. It’s surreal that these apex predators ignore the open-top 4x4s when you’re within pouncing distance. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but it would definitely be between the Wild Dogs (for looks) and elephants (for personality). Elephants are intelligent and curious, and they’re absolutely not afraid to get closer than you might like.
You paint everything from animals and insects to flowers and architecture. What is your favorite subject to paint?
I don’t think I have an overall favorite subject – variety is the spice of life! I’ve found if I do too much detailed work I’ll start to miss drawing, and if I do too many birds I’ll miss my plants. I am having a real butterfly and beetle spree at the moment – I love how luminous their wings are and it’s amazing how much variety there is in their wing patterns.
As someone who has had many places throughout the world as her ‘studio,’ do you have a favorite?
As long as I’ve got my tools with me, and I have a good surface to lean on and plenty of natural light I don’t mind where I am! One of the best things about painting is you can do it from almost anywhere. My favorite painting spot was probably in Kenya though – sitting outside the tent, hearing lions in the distance. Bliss.
Out of all the projects you’ve worked on, is there a project, in particular, that has meant the most to you as an artist?
I love the ones that have pushed me to grow as a painter. I’d probably pick my first printed commission for that reason – it was a poster for a music recital in Cambridge, and I was so afraid of putting my work out there. Everyone was so supportive and it encouraged me to put myself up for the next poster design, and then the next. By the time I graduated I’d done over thirty posters and gained so much confidence in my abilities as a painter.
Website: https://ellasienna.com // Instagram: @ellasienna.art
All photos in this post are via Ella Sienna.