Ella Doran Turns Leftover Household Paint Into a One-Off Art Piece

02.07.23 | By
Ella Doran Turns Leftover Household Paint Into a One-Off Art Piece

Artist and surface pattern designer Ella Doran has created a one-off artwork piece called “Paint Drop.” The piece took form during the COVID-19 pandemic, inspired by the idea of using leftover house paint as part of Ella’s on-going commitment and passion for the circular economy. The call to action went out via Instagram – “Waste paint wanted!” – and she created the artwork on a reused canvas without a single brush. “Paint Drop” was exhibited in The Barge House over four days and then sold with 10% of the proceeds going to not-for-profit arts organization Core Arts in Hackney, the area of London Ella has always lived and worked in. The piece has since inspired a range of roller blinds.

artist Ella Doran sitting in chair in front of striped painting

Ella Doran

Tell me a little bit about your childhood, education, and background in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design, and sustainability?

I was born in London and spent the first six years of my life moving between various towns and cities because my Dad was at medical school. We then settled in Bristol and I attended a Steiner School until I was 14. Every week we had practical lessons in the arts integrated with our academic work, from needlework to pottery, from woodwork and painting to music – this gave me a very strong foundation and confidence in my own creativity and in making things from a young age. Until I was 18, I mostly lived with my Mum in a community surrounded by creative people. I had the best year of college life on my foundation course and from there I went on to study printed textiles at Middlesex University (then a polytechnic). I quickly learned that I preferred designing for interiors, rather than for fashion and the course focused on developing our own design language. In terms of sustainability in my own business, the size of my company has ebbed and flowed to remain viable, but the values I espouse and the materials I use have not changed – even though the communication and focus of what and how I design has developed over time.

painted dripped canvas with cans of paint in front

How would you describe your project/product?

It’s an artwork piece called “Paint Drop” measuring just over 24 square feet made using waste paint collected from a call out to the public for their leftover paint!

Stacks of paint cans

What inspired this project/product?

It was during lockdown in early 2021 when I was still able to work in my studio as no one else was there. I was searching for a new project and I had already set myself the challenge that anything I created had to be working with old materials that I already owned, or that might be lying around waiting to be reused that I could get from others.

dripped painting closeup

What waste (and other) materials are you using, how did you select those particular materials, and how do you source them?

I had a large dismantled wooden canvas frame in my studio, along with its original promotional canvas that I’d had made for a trade show. It had been collecting dust for more than 5 years, so I built it, primed it, and then rather spontaneously I put a call out on Instagram “Waste Paint wanted!” The response was immediate! Donations ranged from small pots of paint to much larger surpluses – the amount and variety of colors and types of paint handed over, from matte and gloss to vinyls and emulsions, was  overwhelming!

down view of open paint cans

When did you first become interested in using waste as raw material and what motivated this decision?

I’ve been an advocate of the circular economy since I first heard the phrase, but when I look back, I have been passionate about working with materials to give them new form my whole life. I have worked on several projects – notably a live exhibition at the V&A in collaboration with the upholstery brand Galapagos and The Great Recovery Project.  We ran live workshops during the design festival back in 2014, inviting the public to engage with making, and to see with their own eyes and make a connection with the materials that go in and come out of the chairs in the process of renewal. I have since run many workshops and live events around furniture pieces: one Design Milk featured before the Clean Up Camo Chair.

looking down at paint can lids with wet paint

The phrase “take, make, use, lose” coined by one of my circular economy heroes, Kate Raworth author of the Doughnut Economics rings true. We are indeed all losers if we stick to the linear economic model, we need to be reminded every day that we are living in a climate emergency!

looking at dripped paint canvas with ladder

What processes do the materials have to undergo to become the finished product?

The process in my case has been creativity and – the most precious commodity that we all have – time. I gave myself one rule… no brushes! And during lockdown I would just lose myself in the highly organic process of applying the paint by pouring, scraping, and dripping, a kind of meditation in motion.

dripped painting closeup

What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they go back into the circular economy?

This is an interesting question; I’d like to hope this stays as one artwork for a long time. The canvas could be cut up into new smaller pieces or stretched onto new smaller frames, a smaller section could go under a glass-topped table. The possibilities are endless. The wooden frame is of good quality so in its present form it could be reused, again and again, if someone tires of the art.

How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?

It’s taken over a year to evolve in between my teaching and interiors projects, it was a highly meditative and healing process for me, particularly during the lockdown months. I’ve gone through many emotions throughout its creation, questioning whether I should stop at certain times… then I’d drop another color and knock it all out, which meant waiting a good few days or sometimes weeks for me to change my mood, and pick up a new color and slowly bring back the balance. I knew a week or so before I finished that I was getting close … so my color decisions became even more poignant and finite until finally, the piece told me it was done.

dripped painting hung on wall

How have people reacted to this project?

I’ve been thrilled with the reaction – in order to install it at the Material Matters Fair here in London during the London Design Festival, I had to dismantle it just to get it out of the door of my studio, and remount on site. And there is serendipity in the painting being here at the Oxo tower, as I had collected a lot of waste paint from some designer friends of mine, who had literally left it in a doorway under the Bargehouse for me to collect over a year and a half ago!

dripped paint closeup

How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing?

We are at such a critical time in history, with the climate, social and economic crises, with finite materials running out. It’s important for us all to feel part of the change that is required, to feel connected. And to do all we can in the re-use and value of our materials, through repair and restoration, with the last resort being to recycle. There is a much greater awareness now, a regenerative mindset is spreading, and new models are emerging. I’m personally excited about the momentum I’m witnessing from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to the 15-minute city concept and local initiatives like ReLondon and etsaW here in London.

art studio with dripped paint canvas with desk and ladder and paint scattered

What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?

It’s a necessity… and I think it will grow and grow – collaboration will be key for example,  biochemists and anthropologists with the artists and designers to push the boundaries of possibilities – talking of which I see myself as a “Possibilist,” coined by Sarah Ichioka and Michael Pawlyn in their brilliant book Flourish, where they give a whole chapter to what it is to be a possibilist. If there is one book, I would recommend for every designer of any stripe to read right now, it’s theirs – Flourish – Design Paradigms for our Planetary Emergency.

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Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and, podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years' experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.