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.
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.”