Inspired to Paint

AM Talks to Artist, Margaret Johnston

by Linda Brown

Two rocking horses sit in the corner of Ayr artist Margaret Johnston’s conservatory where we are sitting chatting about her artwork. I ask if they were models for her vibrant painting Empty Carousel. She laughs and says, “I took a photograph of a carousel in Florence about six years ago and I thought, I really want to paint that. I love carousel horses and, to be honest, that painting kicked everything off.”

Empty Carousel was submitted to the John Byrne Award in 2020. Over the following two years Margaret also submitted the joyous Wee Ronnie, a portrait of Captain Sir Tom Moore and quirky Lockdown Locks.

Although she’d enjoyed art from a young age, Margaret only started painting seriously in the last four years. After leaving school she trained to be an exhibition interior designer, then worked at Paisley Museum, where she was a designer for the Paisley 500 exhibition opened by late Queen Elizabeth in 1988. Her three children were born in the 90s and for a while painting took a backseat while she was busy with her family. Then in 2010, sadly, her youngest child was diagnosed with cancer.

“We had such a life changing event when our daughter Ailsa passed away in 2011. She was only fifteen and was a fantastic artist; she won her school’s shield for art and had work exhibited in the Maclaurin Gallery at Rozelle,” Margaret explains. “Ailsa is the inspiration behind me achieving, realising life is for living, and starting my art career later in life.”

Taking a position at Costley-Hotels running their art gallery (Margaret ended up being Costley’s Marketing Executive for ten years), she organised over 35 popular art events at Lochgreen House Hotel in Troon (next one in August with Scottish Colourist, Tom Watt.)

“The artists I involved were artists I admired and I learned a lot, watching them. Then I got into oil painting.”

Last year, she attended two intensive courses in Yorkshire delivered by world renowned American artists – portrait artist, Alex Venezia and floral/still life artist Daniel Keys. She says, “The big movement now is Fine Art and that’s the route I’m going down – a lot of the world class painters are from the United States.”

Margaret specialises in painting still lifes, such as her Japanese Coffee Set with Mandarins, and portraits, working both with models and from photographs.

“I paint in layers so my paintings are done in four stages. I do a drawing then I do washes of colour, gradually building up to the detail that you see. Each painting takes me three to four weeks (around 40 to 60 hours of work), but with them being oils, they then take about six months to dry, before I can varnish them. I like to have a bit of a narrative behind my paintings; a little bit of a story. My first Black Swan painting has ballerina, Olivia Pelosi, sitting on the floor, tying her ballet pumps and there’s a rose beside her too. I like people to be intrigued, thinking – what’s happening here?”

I ask who and what her influences are.

“The Glasgow Boys, the Impressionists, Jules Bastien-Lepage and John Singer Sargent; he makes painting look so effortless. When I’ve gone on a city break, I love to visit galleries like Paris’s Musée D’Orsay or New York’s Metropolitan Museum and, of course, the world class art gallery on our own doorstep – Kelvingrove in Glasgow. I’m very interested in Art History. I love all the stories about why painting were painted.”

Currently, Margaret is on the exhibition committee of the esteemed Glasgow Art Club. Founded in 1867 and with a membership history of notable Scottish artists, the Glasgow Art Club has a wonderful exhibition hall on Bath Street where Margaret’s work is regularly exhibited and sold. Last year, her salute to Captain Sir Tom Moore was auctioned off there.

“I donated that painting to the Ukrainian charity, AUGB in Edinburgh. Natasha Raskin Sharp of Flog It! was the auctioneer.”

Recently, four of her paintings were exhibited at Kirkcudbright Galleries and, this May/June through her association with Paisley Art Institute (another historic organisation supporting Scottish contemporary art), Margaret had a taste of success.

“Paisley Art Institute’s 134th annual exhibition came to the Maclaurin Gallery at Rozelle House and I put in three pieces,” she tells me. “I won one of their prestigious trophies – The James Curr Award – a beautiful silver quaich. I was very pleased. I was in good company; Scotland’s leading artists exhibit at this event.”

Margaret shows me a photo of her prize-winning work; her second Black Swan painting, a dramatic portrait of ballerina, Kathleen Hillis, emerging from a lake and striking a pose with her black feathered ‘wings’.

“The photograph for that pose was taken down at Culzean by photographer Anthony Dawson whom I’ve recently started collaborating with,” she adds.

I’m impressed and can see why this stunning painting won. So what’s on Margaret’s easel next?

“I want to refine my portrait skills, I want them to become softer. I’m always trying to improve, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and with every portrait I do, I learn something. My current piece of work is half-finished; I’m painting a portrait of a lovely local girl called Catriona Piper. She’s holding a string of pearls in her hands. Today I’ll be working on her face. When it’s finished it will probably be exhibited at the Glasgow Art Club.”

Towards the end of this year, Margaret hopes to exhibit work at the Society of Scottish Artists exhibition also at the Maclaurin Gallery – an event for all local art lovers to look out for.

With an exhibition on Glaswegian icon, Charles Rennie Macintosh to help organise at the Glasgow Art Club, plus a possible project in the future with Ian Howie, the man who led the restoration of Holmwood House in Glasgow; Margaret will be kept busy.

Our interview over, I’m packing away my notebook when Margaret mentions she is due to pick up the James Curr quaich from the engravers and her thoughts return to her daughter.

“You know, Ailsa and I went to a Glasgow Art Club Open Day back in 2009 – she had wanted to go there. I feel she took me there and has guided me to paint. She was funny, kind, beautiful and such a talented artist, and I thought Ailsa’s name should be on the trophy too. She deserves it, so I’ve arranged for the quaich to be engraved Margaret… Ailsa… Johnston.’

What a fine tribute in memory of an inspirational daughter.

You can check out Margaret Johnston at