The Migrant Waders illustrations

Artist and illustrator Ella Johnston created 21 bird illustrations and well as incidental and cover images  for The Migrant Waders book. Here she talks about the brief for the publication and her thinking behind the drawings…

The original brief was to create a collection of wading bird and shorebird drawings on a plain white background.

Woodcock Illustration, watercolour and fine line pen by Ella Johnston for The Migrant Waders
Woodcock Illustration, watercolour and fine line pen by Ella Johnston for The Migrant Waders

The creatures needed to be immediately recognisable and all drawings had to have a consistent style in order to work as a collection, while also being able to be used as stand-alone pieces.

Golden Plover Illustration, Watercolour and fine line pen by Ella Johnston, for The Migrant Waders
Golden Plover Illustration, watercolour and fine line pen by Ella Johnston, for The Migrant Waders

I frequently explore landscapes of woodland, coastlines and marshes, I feel a very deep connection with the different kinds of birds that inhabit each environment. My year now revolves around when these birds are in my space – and me in theirs. 

Dunlin Illustration, watercolour and fine line pen by Ella Johnston for The Migrant Waders
Dunlin Illustration, watercolour and fine line pen by Ella Johnston for The Migrant Waders

The waders are my real favourites. The sense of calm and serenity these birds give me is extraordinary. Time stands still when I’m watching the redshanks and godwits digging around in the mud. I marvel at the majesty of the curlew and elegance of the little egrets that visit our creek and quay. The high-pitched squeal of the lapwing, the pip of an oystercatcher and of course the comforting call of the curlew are transcendental – they take me out of whatever is going on in my life and bring me into the moment. I’m grateful to these creatures – they’ve given me peace. I have to draw them.

The application of colour is very loose, free and instinctive. Each portrait is created on watercolour paper that absorbs the paint and ink beautifully and I believe best shows off the quality of this medium. The birds are first drawn as a light sketch, in pencil, loosely highlighting key areas. Then, layers of watercolour washes are applied, each heavily diluted to gradually build up the colours – this provides interesting combinations of hues and texture. I then apply detailed drawings over this with a range of black felt tips – I love the way the different nibs allow me to work up the texture of each feather and capture the character of the plumage. Some pieces are heavily layered with black fine line ink detail, others only need a light touch – it’s a lovely way to work and, again, it’s an instinctive process.

Greenshank2
The birds are deliberately painted without a landscape. It’s an important artistic consideration for me. I want to emphasise and focus the viewer’s attention on the decorative, sensual elements of the subject itself, allowing the spectator to scrutinise, deconstruct and interact with the portrait. I also don’t feel it’s right to tie these birds down to a particular location: waders migrate across many lands and don’t recognise the borders that humans create and that we see on maps. They are my winter but someone else’s summer.

As well as creating a detailed wading bird illustrations, the Migrant Waders book also required an enigmatic cover illustration and accompanying imagery that gave the reader an idea of the sea and the depth of the oceans covered during migrants. Illustrations needed to be atmospheric – with a simultaneous sense of solidity and lightness.

Original cover image for The Migrant Waders by Ella Johnston
Original cover image for The Migrant Waders by Ella Johnston

This rather abstract image was created by applying layers of watercolour and merging two paintings together in photoshop to create a cover that suggested the sea and the sky. The book also features little watercolour droplets throughout the pages to key in with this sense of ‘journey’

You can buy The Migrant Waders here.

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