Golden Baby Ear – how I did it…

Sinum perspectivum

I found this little gold button shell and thought it would be perfect to paint lying on the beach with the tide going out. Yes, I love shells and think they are a great vehicle for painting form and color.

This photo that I took at the beach (ignore the crappy, shadowy colors) is my basic inspiration here.

Reference photo of rocks on Honeymoon Island, Florida

I have a few small, white baby’s ear shells but I also checked some reference photos from one of my favorite sites –

I use a regular #2 pencil to rough out the shapes I want. I don’t care if the pencil shows through a bit in the final piece but it is still a rough outline as watercolor can and does take on a life of its own as you go along.

Rough drawing

I know, real hard to see as it is pencil on white paper but I just wanted to show the loose outline of sea foam flowing from one end of the paper to the other.

I use Arches 300 pound rough paper. It is expensive but there is really nothing else that works for me. One week it will be on sale at Cheap Joes and the next Dick Blick so I go back and forth on who to buy it from.

It is heavy paper and does not buckle easily but I still do not want it to go anywhere so I tape the edges with drafting tape as a margin then strap it to the board with strapping tape. I am sure the strapping tape leaves a residue on the paper so I only use it OVER the drafting tape. That way it never touches the paper.

Arches watercolor paper

I start by taking Fineline Masking Fluid and outlining the shell and the larger rocks. Fineline is pale green so it does not show up all that well on white paper but it is the best I have found for this type of work.

The smaller rocks are filled in completely with mask.

Masking fluid on paper

I have been working on getting more realistic shadows and one thing I have started doing is making a little arrow to show the light direction. 

Paper on board

When you are doing little details it is easy to forget where the light is coming from but I can now just glance over at the arrow.

It is just on the drafting tape so no one will know it was there after the painting is done (but you and me!)

I continue masking rocks and start drawing little bubbles for the sea foam. 

You can see all the little blobs on mask on the side of the board where I test it to make sure it is flowing before I start. Yes, you have to unclog from time to time.

Masking fluid on paper

There are no tricks it is just doodling with the Fineline Mask and letting the foam flow and roam. Now you can kinda see what I am doing here – and so can I – if I want to make corrections or add elements.

More foam and a little break. I am not totally happy with the shapes. I added a few little “spurs” of foam to break up the shapes but not quite sure….

Mask on paper

A detail of how it all looks:

Masking fluid on paper

In this case, I have chosen my colors. Things are about to get WET and I want a lot of paint ready to go. I bought this syringe (no needle) on Amazon which is designed for tube feeding and holds a LOT of fluid. I use it to inject clean water onto the pigments in my palette to get a lot of paint ready to go.

Syringe without needle

I take a pretty big brush (for me that is about 1” wide) and wet the paper. Then I wet is again to make sure it is soaked.

Now I just start throwing paint on the paper letting the colors mix on the page. I know the colors I want to start with but sometimes as I am doing this. I think “needs more violet” or whatever and change things up. If you look at the bottom of this image, you can see how the paper is so wet the paint has puddled.

Paint on paper

Now I move the board to the top of a bookcase and pour salt on here and there. Just regular Morton’s table salt.

Here it is dried after a night to dry completely. All the light green spots are masking.

Watercolor on paper

Detail of how the colors run together. This is after having taken off the mask with a “rubber cement pickup”. These are really cheap and last forever – mine must be 40 years old now and still – barely – hanging in there:

Watercolor on paper

Now, time to start painting in the rocks and adding a few shadows:

Watercolor on paper

I want some white details in the shell so I mask that now.

Watercolor on paper

This is the basic “Baby’s Ear” shell:

Sinum perspectivum

I am going to exaggerate some of the colors here.

First wash of pigment inside the shell:

Watercolor on paper

Yeah, no. I am not sure this is going to work. This does not look right at all.

Another wash of colors. And notice I have worked on that shadow. I am hating this less. Maybe.

Watercolor on paper

But it does not really look like a shell.

In general, all paintings go through the “ugly” phase where you think. “what was I thinking?” and want to give up. Sometimes you are right to give up, sometimes not.

But it never hurts to play with the image a bit more. Even if you are going to trash it, you can still learn from it. And I do like how the rocks and sea foam turned out…

More pigment and this is truly hideous. No shell looks like this. What was I thinking?

Watercolor on paper

Maybe if I get more shadow going in the depth of the shell…

Watercolor on paper

Ugh, ugh, ugh. I have removed the mask and going to try to blend the colors and maybe save it that way.

Watercolor on paper

One of the things I use for blending and “softening” the harsh masking lines is an oil painting brush. These tend to have much stiffer bristles than a watercolor brush and they can be perfect for blending.

Brush on paper

Here’s what the brush looks like:

Brush for oil painting

Using this stiff brush, I start smoothing out some lines/areas.


A little closer look. I don’t hate this at this point but I am not loving it.

Watercolor on paper

I have lost the rounded inside of the shell and it needs more shadow. I am adding darker colors little by little.

Watercolor on paper

I feel a little lost at this point and go to google photos to look at the shadows inside a shell. I find a good one and print it out to refer too. I have already shadowed the rocks and such but still, this gives me a better “map” of how to make this more realistic looking.

OK. Scary time. Let’s throw a LOT of browns and greens in there.

Photo of shell
Watercolor on paper

Not quite, but I am starting to like it.

Watercolor in progress

I am inching in that brown – I think this was quin. sienna and trans. yellow oxide – to fill more of the bowl of the shell.

OK. This may be it.

Watercolor in progress

I remove the margin tape and notice that a little color has bled under the tape. But there’s a fix!

Paint on paper

You can buy these white Posca pens on Amazon. The texture is a little different than watercolor but sometimes if I need a little fix on a very small area…

Posca Pen

And that color bleed is all gone.

Watercolor paper

And here you go – all done. I think I am happy…

Watercolor painting
Buy a print?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *