With a musician father, poet and artist mother and dancer brother, creative pursuits seemed predestined for Dorset-based painter Ella Squirrell. Before the canvas, though, came ambitions of documentary photography. “I’m interested in social performance, how people present themselves, the clothes they wear and how they behave in order to feel like they belong,” she says. “I love capturing those small glimpses of life, creating a character in my mind of the person I’m observing.”
After school, Ella took a self-initiated foundation in London, a year spent working in cafes, playing gigs across the city and absorbing everything the walls of its galleries had to offer. Though she went to Falmouth to study press and editorial photography, she swiftly switched to fine art having discovered the wealth of paintings at the Royal Academy. “It’s the medium that I feel I can best communicate in,” she says. “I can’t always find the words to express my thoughts or feelings, but painting helps me process the human experience.”
The art of observation, though, remains key to her creative process. Often working from her own photography, Ella’s paintings - portraits and snapshots of nature that use a rich, hazy colour palette to craft dream-like scenes - continue to interpret those snatched moments in time. Her work distills the elusiveness of truth; through portraying semi-fictional beings, it highlights the slippery nature of perspective, the masks we wear and the inability to be truly known. “I’ve always loved playing with perceptions of reality,” she says. “I remember going to parties with a friend at university and scripting conversations that people around us could be having. There’s a comedy in the fact that you can take something completely out of its context and form a new narrative. Life is very theatrical and I do see it as a kind of stage in that way.”
Working with gouache on paper and watercolour on gesso panels, Ella’s craft is process-driven, with the material often revealing its meaning with each stroke of the brush. “Gouache is fast drying, so it’s very immediate and I enjoy the freshness of it,” she says. “I never start with an expectation of my painting, but I’m always looking for a surprise, that small moment that speaks to me and offers a resolution. Sometimes I'll miss it and the painting will become something else.” Experimenting with small-scale canvas during the quiet days of the pandemic, Ella found a new intimacy in her paintings. “I try to replicate that in my large-scale pieces, now, too,” she says. “Larger oil paintings are energy-dependent, though, as it’s almost like a performance, a dance, moving around the space.”
The concept of time in Ella’s work, of a moment captured, contorted and changed, is further articulated in her use of colour. “I feel colour very deeply. They have healing qualities, I believe,” she says. “Someone once said my colours are anachronistic. I’m very inspired by fading frescoes and hues that have the mark of time.” Clouded shades, often paired in contrasts, create a timelessness that belies the moment in which the work was created. Comparisons can be drawn between Ella’s palette and that of the Bloomsbury group, whose use of damask rose, dusky blues and faded greens were inspired by murals seen on their trips to Italy. “I’m hugely inspired by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant,” Ella says. “Creativity just bled into every aspect of their lives, from their furniture to their wardrobe. It was so holistic. I’m trying to think about that more in my everyday life, about how my world and surroundings are in fact an expansion of my creativity.”
Citing American abstract expressionist Richard Diebenkorn as her earliest inspiration - “I fell in love with his materiality, the way he creates a sense of place and time through colour and composition” - Ella also looks to contemporary figurative painters Chantal Joffe, Marlene Dumas and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Each has a unique approach to colour and applies their materials with a generosity and looseness when crafting portraits of real and fictitious characters. “Dumas talks about how materials can elicit meaning, change the way that a painting is created or alter the way you think about the subject matter.”
Though the city inspired her pursuit of painting, a proximity to the sea is key to feeling grounded, Ella says. Having returned to her native Dorset, she lives and works in Bridport, her light-filled studio located in an industrial estate alongside many small businesses. “Bridport is such a creative town, with a lovely community of makers and artists,” she says. “It’s quiet and peaceful, but it gives me the space I need to think.” Did it have the same influx of city-dwellers looking for a change that many coastal towns experienced after the pandemic? “Oh, definitely,” she says. “You don’t really need the infrastructure here that you rely on in a city. You can be self-sufficient, you need less, you can focus on the important things - or at least appreciate the simplicity of life. But I think it’s a good thing. Places and communities need fresh ideas, that flow of energy coming in and out. Change is good.”
Ella’s preoccupation with change continues to feed her work. “I’m constantly thinking about how our identities are forever in flux. Nothing is fixed. Gender, sexuality, connections to our heritage, I love the fluidity of it all.” Through her sliding scale of abstraction and figuration, Ella aims to capture those shifting realities, the many versions of ourselves that we meet at different stages of life. Those moments that reveal something new to us, sometimes missed, often a surprise, like the stroke of a paintbrush declaring a new message on the canvas.
Ella crated the artwork for our Festive Wishlist prize draw. Over 4 weeks, we are offering you the chance to win your festive wishlist. There will be 3 winners each week. To enter, choose your wishlist piece here.
Interview by Georgia Murray.
Photography by Marco Kesseler.