Elissa Johnson

PHOTOS BY Birch Malotky
STORY BY Emily Martland

A table in Elissa Johnson’s apartment displays a collection of natural objects.  Dried leaves share the space with pine cones, smooth stones, and several slightly faded lobster claws.  On the wall behind the table, natural forms take artistic shape.  A single bird perches, about to take off.  A skull sits on a table in front of a watercolor background.  A piece of fruit rendered in graphite leans against a wall, a slice cut away.

“When you’re drawing a subject, you’re forced to notice literally everything about it”

Elissa Johnson is fascinated by nature.  Growing up in Boise, Idaho, her childhood was defined by the wildlife and environment around her.  A daughter of two engineers, from an early age Elissa was interested in understanding the world.  Her father had a passion for aviation and would fly the family in a small plane into the backcountry so that the family could camp and hike.  Today, her interest in nature manifests itself through art.  Although she will work from photographs, Elissa prefers to find inspiration by gathering leaves and stones from the local landscape or visiting RISD’s Edna Lawrence Nature Lab, because when “referencing real life, drawings look more three dimensional.”

Elissa’s commitment to depicting life reveals itself through all her work, whether ink, watercolor, or oil, scientific illustration or fine art.   With a biotechnology concentration and a thesis project studying bats in the Swartz Lab of Aeromechanics and Evolutionary Morphology, Elissa approaches the natural world through both art and science. “When you’re drawing a subject, you’re forced to notice literally everything about it,” Elissa explains, while describing how illustration can help scientists come to a deeper understanding of their subjects.  As an artist, Elissa states, “I want my art to inspire people to look at nature more closely.”  She, herself, completed a series of seventeen bat illustrations for a researcher in the Swartz Lab, depicting the bodies and wings of different bat families.  Elissa’s scientific commitment to detail and realism pervades her artistic work as well, resulting in the intricately detailed depictions of plants and animals that decorate the walls of her apartment.

Although she works in a range of mediums, Elissa is most drawn to watercolors.  Usually she begins her work with a pencil sketch of her chosen subject, before using pen over the finished sketch.  Afterward, she applies liquid latex over her drawing, in order to protect it while the background is painted.  Despite her passion for representational art, Elissa’s backgrounds are often expressive mixes of color, created through multiple washes and layers of watercolor.  

Although depictions of flight pervade much of Elissa’s work, the artist admits that the trend’s appearance was “sort of serendipitous” more than any conscious theme.  When first beginning to draw, birds were the one subject Elissa could not grasp.  Their wings were especially difficult.  Once she learned to successfully depict birds, the animals took off, leaving her paintings with owls and sparrows, perched and in flight.  While in college, Elissa began research at the Swartz Lab and found herself studying yet another flying being.  Her detailed studies of bat wings show none of her initial uncertainty in depicting flight.  Each bat is a moment snatched from nature, an animal frozen in art.  Each bat looks alive, ready to leave the paper and return to air.