Learn How This SF Artist Explores Life And Death With Watercolors


painter ellen little in studio with watercolor paintings

Paintings decorate the walls of artist Ellen Little’s studio, including Backyard No. 405, Nocturnes 27, Backyard No. 434 and Backyard No. 454.

Although watercolor might not be considered a groundbreaking medium, painter Ellen Little’s work suggests otherwise. “I love breaking the accepted rules of watercolor,” Little declares, gesturing toward pieces that can measure almost 7 feet tall and more than 4 feet across—a scale more commonly associated with oils.

watercolor butterflies painting by Ellen Little

Noctures 27.

floral watercolors painting by Ellen Little

Goat Hill 32.

dead insects, flowers and leaves in the studio of Ellen Little

During walks, the artist collects dead insects, flowers and leaves to inspire her work.

goat-hair calligraphy brushes that belong to Ellen Little

Ellen Little uses goat-hair calligraphy brushes as well as traditional watercolor brushes.

watercolor painting in detail by Ellen Little

A detail shot of Goat Hill 32 showcases regional flora.

Ellen Little holds her paintbrush over watercolors

The artist uses traditional watercolor brushes for her work.

Little’s botanical portraits line the walls of her sun-washed Dogpatch studio, while jars filled with wild irises, native grasses and magnolia dot the worktables in the middle—along with a tin of dead moths. A master at capturing nature in every stage of bloom and decay, Little forages for flowers, branches, weeds, insects, dead birds and “anything I feel drawn to on my daily walks,” she says, to use as artistic fodder. Starting with a blossom or a tangle of grass, she gradually layers elements into her composition—over the course of days, weeks, even years—to capture the immersive experience of lying in a meadow or strolling through a sea of wildflowers.

Little paints spontaneously while standing over a table. When the paint is dry enough to prevent drips, she hangs the work on a wall and photographs it. Using printouts, she choreographs next steps, drawing directly onto the images to plot perspective and new elements. But not everything is in her control. “As the water evaporates, an alchemical process takes over, causing pigments to separate, move and settle in unexpected ways,” she explains. “The results are unpredictably magical.”

The artist’s past life as a graphic designer is discernible in the composition of her “Backyard” series of flowers and moths culled from her garden as well as the visually dramatic “Goat Hill” collection, which captures the view from a favorite spot in all seasons and climactic conditions—including mist, haze, smoke and drizzle.

Little doesn’t fret about making mistakes or dipping her brush into dirty water: “The muddier the better!” she insists. When the artist erases something, she relishes the smudges and marks that remain as beautiful, ghostly memories. “I embrace the darkness as well as the light,” she says, pointing out the shadows in one piece and a dead sparrow nestled into the foliage of another.

“There’s a subtext of death in all my work,” Little continues. “I want my paintings to reflect all the stages present in nature—from the full fragrant bloom to the shriveling and dropping of petals.”