Born in 1982, Brightonarian artist, Emma Stone Johnson explores contemporary abstraction using a soft, rich, liquid palette of diffuse and tonal colour. Her lyrical handling and delicacy of controlled strokes result in intricate channels of sinuous and dynamically expressive markings.

After studying a BA in Textile Design at the Chelsea College of Art, Johnson realised that responding to set briefs was not “her thing”. Instead, the artist decided to venture into the world of fine art, being accepted into the prestigious RCA painting school she has gone on to produce a mass of commissioned work and is currently debuting her first London exhibition at Chelsea’s Pontone Gallery.

Ahead of this week’s Frieze Arts Fair London, we interview Emma in an exclusive interview about her practice, inspirations and how she found her distinctive style.

A canvas is like a flickering screen, it’s a huge recording device, it’s a love letter, it's a vessel, it’s morse coding to other worlds.

— Emma Stone Johnson

1. It’s so great to be *virtually* sitting down with you to talk about you and your work. As personal fans of your practice, it would be great if you could introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a little about yourself?

Hi, it’s lovely to virtually too. Thank you! My name is Emma and I live in Hove. I’m an artist and also a mother. I decided quite last minute back on Dec 19 to apply to do a Masters in Painting at The Royal College of Art. I was elated to gain a place. I’ve now just started my final year and already dreaming up my final show…! Due summer 22!

 

2. Tell us more about ‘Elegant Complexity’, your current exhibition at the Pontone Gallery?

It’s a body of work that started in the early summer (2021) at the RCA studios there’s definitely ‘summer’ on the surfaces. ‘Elegant complexity’ isn’t a name I came up with but I’m hugely interested in the complexity of colour. I will never get bored experimenting and learning about colour. As the artist, Winifred Nicholson wrote, ‘Can your eyes see a hint of this unknown colour between the outer bright rainbow and its echo?’ I’m forever on a quest to find a new colour, I often imagine what it would be like, what it would be called and how it would feel. I read a lot of poetry and I write lots too. I write and then I paint and back again. I’m often thinking about films I’ve seen too and childhood memories. My most recent painting is called ‘Elphaba’ I was entranced as a little kid with the colour of ‘her’ skin.

 

3. Tell us a little about your journey into the arts? Did you always know this Was the career you were destined to pursue?

I painted, collaged and drew a lot as a small child. I felt most content creating – but I remember suddenly being able to draw in perfect perspective when I was about 11. From then it was always what I excelled at. Art college was a natural step. I did also like drama and I loved – you could say I was entranced watching figure skaters. This is interesting because I now see the studio as a stage and the surfaces like an ice rink, the colours skid and cut through the canvas like bright white ice.

4. Your work has an incredibly distinctive character and aesthetic, which our team here at PAOLITA can’t get enough of. How did you come to find your style?

Thank you! Style I think you don’t find, it’s within you already. Perhaps you excavate it – which of course takes bravery, you’re then bearing your soul to an audience. I’m a daydreamer. My childhood bedroom was always a soft blue, my childhood cat was grey and white, his eyes were green, bright, iridescent, his delicate paw pads were warm and pink. My grandmother saved sweet wrappers and I collaged with them often. Noticing the colour changing when I over lapped them or held them in front of the sun.

 

5. Do you always have an idea of what your paintings will look like, or is it always a surprise?

I think this was the gateway for me. It has to be a surprise, otherwise, I would be instantly bored. I never particularly got on well with briefs when I was on my BA at Chelsea College of Art doing Textile Design(!) my final show there was definitely more ‘fine art’ rather than ‘print for fashion’ 🙂 It was in fact an installation of my grandmother’s apartment.

A new blank canvas is the best kind of drug. What will happen? I don’t know but as the marks and colour start to appear I think about things. (The canvas), It’s a flickering screen, it’s a huge recording device, it’s a love letter, it’s a vessel, it’s morse coding to other worlds.

 

6. Do you have a particular process when it comes to painting? A playlist, a ritual, a memory that you tap into?

The only ritual really is a good tidy before starting a new body of work. Also on my walk to the studio, I’m thinking about the work, I’m trying to ‘listen’ often. Even as I’m drifting off to sleep I’m seeing colour pools and new brushes making new marks – problem-solving a current painting etc. I do have an extensive and extremely varied Spotify playlist that I can share with you if you’re interested (?!) I do love to listen to desert island discs too.

7. The titles you give your work are nearly as fascinating as the works themselves. How do you name your paintings, especially because of their abstract nature?

Again, as I work the painting talks to me. Colour is so nourishing, healing. it can bring back memories that have been forgotten. A title might come from a line of a much larger piece of writing.

 

8. Where do you find inspiration, and what inspires your work?

The painting inspires the next painting, each colour inspires the next colour, each mark inspires the next… – finding their opposite or their complimentary. I recently went to the Scottish highlands, the grand scale of the sky, the scale of the mountains, the low light – travel definitely enriches my practice. Also, I read a lot of poetry. I particularly love ‘bluets’ by Maggie Nelson a book all about the love of one colour – blue.

 

9. Who are your favourite artists and why?

Cecily Brown her paintings continually move they dizzy the eye they are ambitious and secret at the same time. She’s also a woman, alive and working now!

Helen Frankenthaler – gutsy and brave.

Hilma af Klimt, she was arguably the first abstract painter – her paintings sing, they’re alive!

Laura Owens bold, bright, clever texture. Also a successful woman living now and working now.

The poets Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson – their words lift you to other regions of time! Golden.

 

10. What is your favourite piece you’ve ever made?

Usually just my most recent.

 

11. If you could choose anyone, whose walls would you most like to see one of your paintings on?

Not someone but somewhere – The Tate! Anyone would do but I am especially fond of the Tate Moderns Turbine Hall. To be commissioned to use this space would be the ultimate dream.