Blue Button

Yes, I have been on a trend of painting shells lately. I love the colors and shapes. I love imagining them in the sand and waves. They are just fun to play with and a good excuse for heading over to the beach to get inspiration. Hard work!

I wanted to try one more of these little baby ear shells. I just like their simplicity and the way they look. I saw one on that was just blue and I have a few little shells in my own collection with that wonderful blue so I got it into my head to try something like this..

Sinum maculatum or common atlantic baby ear

I have a little collection of these shells for reference but truth is, I mostly make it up as I go along.

Sinum maculatum

This was my inspiration for the setting of the shell – a photo I took on a nearby beach of the sea foam curling around a shell.

Shell on sand

I first sketched out the shell and the shapes – the general flow from top to bottom on the paper. Then I outlined the shell with Fineline Masking Fluid. I do this so that the background color does not bleed into the shell. Well, still sometimes a bit does but it helps.

Now that I have the general idea of where I am going here – and yes, I know it can be hard to see in the photo. The pencil lines are pretty light. I have bumped up contrast here as much as I can.

Basic layout

The next step is to outline or mask the little pebbles and start doodling in the sea foam. There are no tricks or shortcuts. I draw a circle with the mask, then another, then another. I enjoy it.

Masking fluid on paper

I do try to stay within the basic lines of flow I have drawn but the foam sort of goes its own way at times. I’ve got the basic design now done so I put in on the shelf (literally) so that I can get some distance from it and review the design and how it is working.

Basic layout

My idea was to try doing a light wash on the background and then mask sand, pebbles and shell pieces. This way the masked areas are not white but a light shade. I haven’t tried this before so just seeing how it will go.

First wash

This is a light wash of burgundy yellow ochre – all paints used are Daniel Smith unless otherwise noted.

Once I tried Daniel Smith, my whole style of painting changed and I never want to go back. There are one or two colors from other brands that I still use sometimes… but not much.

OK, so you have to let the paper dry completely before masking. In this case, I just left it overnight.

I then took the mask and just dotted on little dots for texture and larger dots for pebbles and shells.

Masking fluid on paper

I don’t always clean my palette between paintings as I tend to use the same colors over and over. There are a few colors I am going to use a LOT of for the background so I take the time to add some paint to the well and add water to thin them so that we are all good to go.

I start by wetting the paper completely. And then I wet it again. I want it to be as wet as possible to give me about 15 minutes to add pigment and let it mix. I always mix paint on the paper, not on the palette. That is, if I want a green, I lay down some yellow and then some blue. This adds, to me, dimension and interest to the color. There are a few exceptions to this as one of my favorite “almost blacks” is indigo mixed with quin sienna and that works best to mix on the brush.

Watercolor on paper

This is amethyst, burgundy yellow ochre, terre verte, aventurine green and maybe some goethite. I just throw it all on there and let it blend.

When I am happy, I put it on a level surface and sprinkle with regular Morton’s table salt. Here is a detail of what the salt does:

Salt on watercolor

The thing is, I am not too happy with this. It dries a little pale and washed out. Watercolor always dries much paler than it is when it is wet. It is like picking up a brilliant shell on the beach and the next day, at home, it is pale, muddy and blah. As you paint, what might look too bright and garish, might be perfect when it is dry. There is always that judgement call.

But, why not just be brave and give this another layer of paint? Again, I get it wet, add pigment, sprinkle salt and…

Better? Probably. Let’s see when it dries.

Watercolor on paper

I think this does work better and I have not lost the texture from the salt. You can always add a little paint or sponge off a little. 

Watercolor on paper

This shows the texture of the background caused by the salt. Undersea Green is a great color to use for this as it tends to really separate out. On its own, I think it is quite a harsh, ugly color but it mixes well and cerulean blue softens all that harshness.

Detail of painting

Now, I am mostly self-taught as a watercolorist so maybe there is a fancy term for this but one thing I love about watercolor – and used to love about glazing when I did ceramics – is how you never know what is going to happen when you mix colors on the piece and let them run together. This detail show how in one small area I have blues, greens, golds and violets. If I mixed these on the palette, I would have MUD but here? They look like stained glass now that the mask has been removed. This makes me oddly happy!

Detail of painting

Now I have removed the mask, started to color in the rocks and added a little masking to the inside of the shell.

Mask removed

I want the lines to be distinct on the outside of the shell so I freehand curves to mask them out. I can always paint over them later but once you lose the white of the paper, it is hard to get back.

Masking fluid on paper

Bravery time. I don’t know why but I always do the hardest things last. I stare into the inside of the shell and just dread trying to get realistic iridescence and shadows. I have NO idea how I am going to do it.

But… I get the whole inside area wet and just go for it.

Watercolor on paper

Yeah, that looks horrible. That is not going to work.

But it is a start.

A little more shadow and time to let it dry a bit.

Now, to start on the outside of the shell. Again, just wetting it and floating in some color to see what happens. I have been told the technical term for this is “charging”. I create a puddle of water and then just touch a brush full of pigment to it and let the pigment flow into the water.

Watercolor on paper

One of my favorite things is to draw a line with just water and then touch the pigment to it and let the color run it. This creates such a nice effect and looks so much better most of the time than just painting a line.

OK. More shadow inside the shell. I am scared to do this every time so I do it a little at a time.

Watercolor on paper

Now the shells I have looked at have a crusty brown in the shadows and inside the shells most of the time. Just to see what happens, I try a metallic copper that Daniel Smith makes. I love this stuff in small quantities in the right place –

Daniel Smith watercolor tube

OK. A bit more copper. A bit of Neutral Tint. A little undersea green. It is ugly and rough but there may be hope.

I know, you go on Youtube and someone does a tutorial where they just swirl some color on – sometimes with no words and just lovely music in the background – and it all just comes together in some perfect piece. That is not my life! I fiddle and fiddle and swear and sometimes it all just comes together.

And if it doesn’t, I try to learn from it.

Watercolor on paper

More copper. Some sienna. Some Tiger’s Eye. Some Jadeite. Now this is looking a bit gross.

Watercolor on paper

I do not always do things in a linear fashion so step back and finish the pebbles and work on the shadows.

There is a lot wrong with this but I can see where it is going and maybe pull it off.

Watercolor on paper

After everything is dry, I take the masking off.

Masking tends to create harsh and unnatural lines so it is usually a good idea to “soften” or smooth them out.

One of the tools that I use for this is a brush meant to be used for oil paints. They tend to have very stiff bristles but not so stiff that they will tear the paper.

Watercolor on paper

This one is stained green from having been used for oils in the past.

Using just water on the stiff brush, I go over and over the harsh mask lines.

Brush for smoothing

See what a difference the brush makes? I have heard this called “softening your edges” and it can get rid of that “cartoon” look you sometimes get with watercolors.

Watercolor on paper

All nice and rounded~

watercolor on paper

The final shell interior. Busy, but I think it works.

Inside of shell

And here it is. All done. Not perfect but, as always, a learning experience.

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