As a young man Ellis moved to El Paso, Texas to start an optometry practice, but it failed almost immediately and he left for Santa Fe, where he got married. Still beset by hard times, Ellis moved to California and found work as a photographer. He returned to Santa Fe in 1921 and continued with his photography, but befriended four local painters: Jozef Bakos, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster.
Soon Ellis was using his photography skills to create paintings, tinting photographic studies of landscapes and replicating the hues on his palette. He and his friends founded Los Cinco Pintores (The Five Painters), a modernist art society that would fall apart after just five years but influence Ellis for the rest of his life.
Ellis took cues from impressionism, post impressionism and modernism in his sweeping, dynamic landscape paintings in oil. His palette was all his own, capturing the fiery spirit of the Southwestern landscape with a mix of modern sophistication and high key vigor.