Meet Ellen Mae Williams

Meet Ellen Mae Williams

With a background in textiles and a passion for natural dyes, Ellen Mae Williams is a London-based artist pushing the boundaries when it comes to sustainable art. Ellen’s fascination with natural dyes began during an artist residency, where she started using dyes made from surplus fruit and vegetables leftover from the local market. Since then, Ellen has continued to develop her technique, creating dyes from food waste, plants and more. The range of colours Ellen is able to achieve is truly impressive, and her pieces are a beautiful testament to what we can achieve whilst preserving the world's resources.




Firstly, thank you for having us at your studio - it was amazing to see the process behind your work and meet you in person! Can you tell us a little bit about your background before becoming a fulltime artist?

You’re welcome! It was great to have you visit the studio. My route to becoming an artist was probably quite similar to a lot of creatives. I studied textiles at BA level then during the summer I graduated I was the artist in residence at Bamford, where I stayed on the Daylesford estate in Gloucestershire. While there I created works using dyes made from surplus fruit and veg from their market garden. Luckily I had a place on the Textiles Masters course at the Royal College of Art in the autumn, and this was where I developed the processes and ideas started during my BA and on the residency.
My time at the Royal College allowed me to explore my practice further, using natural dye inks and dyes to create paintings rather than textile homewares. Since graduating from my Masters I’ve completed two more residencies, both in different countries, each experience brought new learnings and, most importantly inspiration. I’ve also been the recipient of an Arts Council England ‘developing your creative practice’ grant which significantly helped establish my career in the arts, as well as help fund a studio space, exhibitions and a residency.
Now I have work for sale across a handful of platforms and have exhibited in group shows, as well as a solo exhibition in collaboration with Toast at their Mayfair store. These experiences have all in some way helped to get me where I am today, making work in a little studio space in Deptford, London. I must add that I’m not a full-time artist, like many creatives I have various freelance roles and have had part-time jobs to help fund my career as an artist, because especially at the start of a creative career it’s very hard to earn enough to live solely on selling work.




Your process and style are both very unique and recognisable - can you talk us through the steps required to create any one of your pieces?

Thank you! That’s lovely to hear. It’s a very lengthy process and one that surprises many when I tell them. Firstly I have to prepare the linen that I paint on, this involves scouring it to wash away the oils and dirt that occur during the manufacturing process. This usually takes an hour and 30 minutes, using soda ash powder dissolved in boiling water. Next I mordant the washed linen using alum, which takes another hour of soaking, this allows the natural dyes to stick to the fibres of the fabric, meaning that the colour is lightfast and won’t fade. After prepping the linen, I go on to make up a selection of natural dye inks in my chosen colour palette. This is usually decided on in advance, depending on the inspiration/season/exhibition I have coming up. Once the linen is dry and ironed and the inks are made, I then start my painting process. Lying the linen on the floor of my studio, I dampen the surface with water to create a watercolour affect with the inks. I use a selection of brushes which give different marks and also have natural pigments on hand to layer up textures. The process is quite spontaneous and intuitive, using expressive strokes to create movement and energy. Once I think the painting is finished I hang it up to dry, maybe going back to it in an hour or the next day. Finally I frame the linen on wooden frames using a staple gun, sign with ink, step back, smile. Repeat!




What inspired you to decide to work with only natural dyes?

It was during the end of my BA studies in textiles that I was first introduced to natural dyes. I became aware of the damage the textile industry has on the environment after watching the documentary The True Cost. From the extreme amounts of waste, to polluting waterways and habitats with synthetic dyes. This changed my outlook on creating textiles and prompted in- depth research into alternative ways, natural dyeing was an obvious choice. My first experiment was with the skin and stone of an avocado, which surprisingly made a beautiful peachy pink colour. From that moment on I was hooked and have been using natural dyes ever since. The colours you can achieve from natural sources are wide and varied, from using food waste like onion skins or avocado stones, to foraged plants like madder root, coreopsis and weld, each produce unique tones and have a story behind the colour.


Where do you find inspiration for the colour palettes in your pieces?


It’s a mixture of a few components; landscapes I’ve experienced, from recent to past, looking at the micro and macro elements within a scene. The colour of a sunrise in Oxfordshire to the peeling fresco of an Italian church. However, I’m very influenced by the seasons, watching the natural rhythm of the environment, meaning that my colours change in accordance to my surroundings. I want my paintings to convey the feeling of a place, using colour combinations and expressive movement to evoke feelings of nostalgia for a wild, natural setting, be it from dreams, or a physical location. Although I’m quite limited on colour variation, as I can only make certain shades with the natural dyes I have in the studio at the time – rather than being a negative I think this helps keep me focused, giving my paintings a simplified yet recognisable style.



What has been your proudest moment to date?

I don’t think I have one big proud moment but a collection of lots of small proud moments. For example, walking into my studio in the morning and remembering that this is my little space to be creative in. Or when I’m on the plane or train home after completing a residency, feeling exhausted but exhilarated and buzzing with inspiration. In May I will be exhibiting in a group show, alongside artists that I’ve admired and have looked up to for a long time - to be included in a show with them is a proud achievement! And something that never gets old is selling work! I will never stop feeling proud every time I sell a painting, to think that it will hang on someone’s wall, gives me so much pleasure. 



What advice would you give to someone wanting to make art a full-time career?

That’s a very good question - one that I’d love the answer to as I’m still trying to figure it out! The phrase that I always have in the back of my mind is, ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’, if you’re in it for the long run, have patience and stay motivated – it doesn’t happen overnight. They’ll be the years in art school, figuring out your niche, then the years struggling with various part-time jobs, finding the balance, the rejections from galleries, open calls, residencies and awards. However, it only takes one yes, be it from a gallery, curator, or award, to propel you forward. So stick at it, believe in yourself, your practice and work. Once you’ve found what you want to express within your work, share it, tell the world, connect with artist friends and artist friends friends - grow your circle, network online and in real life. Never stop being authentic and humble. Things will snowball from there, and as the sales slowly increase so will your presence in the art world.



Which is your favourite Pink City Prints piece and how will you be styling this?

My favourite is the Alpine Meadow Sierra dress, which I plan to wear everyday this summer! I will be on a residency in France for most of May and will wear it wandering the streets of a little French town, carrying a baguette, with a basket bag slung over my shoulder and my dusty old Birkenstocks on my feet.



Instagram: @ellenmaewill

Letters from the Pink City

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