by Linda Brown
“There’s a particular stag I love to paint. I call him Stanley. He’s up at Glencoe near the Kingshouse Hotel. The chef there feeds him raw cabbage but I feed him Cheerios. The stag you mainly see in my artwork is Stanley… he’s in my head. I’ve got a bit of a photographic memory.”
I’m visiting Elaine Johnston of Johnston Art at her studio and gallery at the Monument in Mauchline. She’s busy at her easel painting a stag’s head onto a slate; her angled brush effortlessly applies bronze strokes while we chat. Around us, on the walls and propped up on the floor are stunning canvases of cows, pheasants, crows and sea eagles, plus one very pink rabbit.
Elaine’s artistic background is impressive; painting since she was six years old, she graduated with an Honours degree from Glasgow School of Art, then worked for Peter Howson, the renowned Bosnia and Kosovo war artist. She’s won several prestigious awards, including The Design for Diplomats which she received at Downing Street. One award led to work in Dubai.
“We exhibited at Dubai’s World Trade Centre and met all these amazing business people. It really did give me a leg up in the industry. Another award, I won from the (late) Queen, was the Young Achievers for Scotland. The annoying thing was, I couldn’t go to receive it. I was selling paintings in New York and couldn’t get a flight back. I had to send the Queen a big apologetic letter, but…” she laughs, “I still got the award.”
After working for Howson for four years, Elaine left to study for another degree at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
“I graduated from there as a set-designer and worked all around the world designing sets as far away as Fort Peck Theatre in Montana to Stellenbosch Theatre in Cape Town.”
In 2006, Elaine and her partner, Alan Barnes, relocated to Ayrshire to raise their family in a rural environment. Initially, she set up a studio in her back garden. She recalls a conversation with a local farmer: “I asked, ‘Would you like your children painted? I’m a portrait artist.’ And he said, ‘I want ma prize beasts painted, hen, no ma weans’. That flipped my business overnight, I literally went from painting 80% humans to being lucky if I paint one human a year – it’s all animals. I still paint prize beasts, but I like my eagles, stags and animals that aren’t indigenous to here, like lions and tigers.”
Thanks to her (former) local Councillor, Neil McGhee, Elaine was able to move her studio to the historic Monument building (built to commemorate Robert Burns) several years ago. She has three exhibitions annually.
“My latest exhibition is called Johnston Art Revisited; it’s to do with sustainability, reusing and repurposing – making art out of something that would normally be thrown away.”
We climb the spiral staircase to view her gallery on the second floor. An unusual and striking piece of artwork immediately catches my eye.
“This is a London bus-stop sign,” Elaine explains. “Someone was selling it and I thought, I need to buy that – I’m going to paint a big, black crow coming down through that bus sign. And this…” she points to a framed image displayed below, “was a London Herald newspaper reporting the Kennedy assassination and I thought that’s just wonderful – I’m going to paint an American eagle there. These two items could’ve been something just forgotten about… put in a drawer or put in the bin. The hares…” she indicates a set of pictures on the wall, “are painted on top-grade steel. I got a deep-sea diver to weld the back of them so they fit flush to the wall – they look contemporary without a frame. They are all about the progression of the hare’s movement. And this…” she shows me a powerful painting, alive with movement, of two battling crows, “…is a scrap of wood left over from when we were making up boxes to export pictures abroad.”
Elaine loves to paint on different surfaces, such as wood, slate and steel.
“I feel it sharpens me up as an artist. The level I’m at now I always need to be challenged – it’s no longer acceptable as an artist just to paint on canvas, you need to widen your range and paint on anything. Recently I painted on the side of a house – that was really quirky. And I like doing big murals too. I’m not afraid of scale; I can paint ten centimetres squared right up to ten metres squared. I’m at my happy place if I’m up a ladder with a big paintbrush. I paint fast and I’m happy painting in front of an audience.”
This bring us to Elaine’s attendance at charity events and balls where she’s generous with her time and talent.
“There I am in high heels and a big ballgown, up on stage, painting in front of 700 people. I have half an hour to paint, then the painting is auctioned live.”
Save the Children, Beatson Cancer Charity, Brightest Star and more have benefited from Elaine’s donations. Paintbrush in hand, she will be in action again, at the Ayrshire Hospice Summer Ball in June.
“It’s nice to give,” she says.
Only recently she made a great offer to her daughter’s Scout troop: “I’m no good at baking cakes, and can’t go on your walks because I’m usually working, but I’ll come and teach the Scouts, Cubs and Beavers how to paint.” Elaine supplied all the materials and a kind-hearted client has paid for framing. The youngsters’ work will be exhibited on the ground floor of the Monument in June. What a marvellous way to earn their Art badges and, who knows, Elaine may have inspired a few future artists?
It’s no surprise Elaine exports artwork to twenty galleries worldwide – as far away as the USA and Australia, where her vibrant, colourful paintings are sought after, and Japan, who prefer bold black and white Highland cows and stags. In Scotland, her work is available in a few galleries on the islands although she mainly sells to customers, by appointment, at her Monument gallery.
“People contact me and I make it all about them. We arrange a time and then they can have the run of the gallery while I’m painting in the studio.”
Of course, Elaine is still happy to accept commissioned work and she also exhibits at events like The Royal Highland Show and the Scottish Game Fair.
I take one final look around the gallery before I leave. I’m drawn to a painting of a little cow coorie-ing down.
“That’s a Highland cow out at Boswell’s Coach House,” Elaine says. “She’s just so soulful. The picture’s called ‘Ellie’. You know, I think the Highland cow and the stag are more synonymous with Scotland than tartan now. Certainly, my client base who come from abroad… what they want to take home with them isn’t a piece of tartan, it’s a Highland cow.”
Frankly, I don’t blame them. I could easily have taken ‘Ellie’ home with me.
Prices for Elaine’s artwork range from £185 to £8,500. Her next exhibition will focus on the transference of light. Visit www.johnstonartist.co.uk for more information.