I had this idea to paint another shell. This time, one eroded in the sand so it was just a spiral. I remembered a shell I had painted before that was silver and orange and wondered if I could use that form and those colors. I could just see in my head this spiral in the sand.

I went online and found the right shell. This is the one I was thinking of – an African Turban shell or Turbo sarmaticus. I picked a photo to use as a reference.

Turbo sarmaticus

I use Arches 300lb watercolor paper – a quarter sheet – and as I want it to stay perfectly flat, prior to painting, I mount it on a drawing board.

With watercolor, you sometimes have to take a break to let an area dry so I commonly have 2-3 paintings going at the same time as I have 3 of these drawing boards.

The best ones I have found are from Dick Blick.

Watercolor paper has a “correct” side to paint on. When you look at the full sheet, there is a watermark in two of the corners. The watermark should be legible on the “correct” side. But when you quarter a sheet, that leaves you with two sheets that don’t have a watermark.

I can’t really SEE the “correct” side so the trick I came up with is to put a small pencil dot in each of the four corners of the full sheet before I quarter it.

Watercolor paper

In order to have a good margin on the painting, I use a drafting tape. If you have a margin, part of the painting will not be covered by the mat when the painting is framed.

Some people use painter’s tape but I worry about any chemical residue that could discolor years later. Some of my college work has been ruined by tape yellowing as I was not as careful in those days. The thing is that you never know when a piece will really “work” and end up being something that you or someone else will treasure for years. One of my best drawings – ever – is on lined notebook paper. Treat your work with respect.

Drafting tape
Wonderful and cheap drafting tape – buy here

After the paper is masked, I use strapping tape to hold the paper firmly to the board. I am going to get this paper very wet and I do not like to have it buckle at all.

While the paper I use is “heavy weight” so you don’t have to “stretch” it before painting, I still want it flat. And I want it to stay flat.

I used to use lighter paper and stretch it, but I found that sometimes after framing, it would buckle – a little – and that just… annoys me.

Strapping tape
Surtape stapping tape – good for what ails ya! Buy here

Yes, this strapping tape is not archival but it never touches the paper. I put it on the drafting tape and then on the board.

The final look – this paper is not going anywhere.

Now maybe this looks like overkill when you want to just sit down and paint, but I find the few minutes of extra preparation saves me so much time and frustration in the long run.

And in a weird way, it provides a few minutes of contemplation and planning prior to picking up the brush. You will probably develop your own “pre-painting” ritual.

Watercolor paper mounted to board

Now with a common pencil, I usually draw out what I have in mind. I do plan out the overall shapes and flow on a sketchpad beforehand but it sometimes changes when I start working it out on the watercolor paper.

I don’t worry about the pencil lines as they rarely can be seen in the finished painting. The only exceptions to this are long straight lines – like a horizon line – for some reason these tend to stand out after the watercolor is applied.

I don’t add in a lot of detail. To me, it is more like a road map. The thing is, if I don’t have this basic map, I do tend to get lost when in the middle of the painting. I can’t just “wing it”.

Pencil on paper

Before painting in the background, I mask out the outline of the shell. I get sloppy with the background washes and don’t want to have to be careful not to get some areas painted on.

Masking fluid on paper

I am trying in my painting to be more conscious of shadows. Even if my paintings are mostly my own fantasy creations, I want a look of reality. The fact is, that as I paint, I lose track of where my “light source” is supposed to me and thus where the shadows would be.

The trick I have developed to fix this is to put an arrow on the masking tape somewhere. That way, as I am painting, I can look over and see where the shadows should be going. Too simple, I know, but once you are engrossed and lost in a painting, it is easy to lose direction, hence all my little tricks to keep me “centered” so to speak.

This is simple but it works.

Watercolor in progress

Since I discovered Fineline masking fluid, my paintings have changed. I feel I have much more control over fine details.

Sure, I maybe overuse it – or use it as a crutch at times – but it is my painting and I sorta just want to do what I want to do, not what some watercolor purist thinks I should do.

I have been told so often that watercolor “should” be loose and unplanned and free, Man, free but, hey. If I wanted to be like everyone else, I would be an accountant not a painter.

Fineline Masking Fluid
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Now I have masked the basic outline of the shell and scattered around some additional shells and pebbles. Time to let this dry well before starting to paint.

Masking fluid on paper

Closer view of masking prior to painting. Mostly random dots of mask but these give texture to the final image.

Masking fluid on paper

Ordinarily, I start a background by choosing the colors to be used, wetting them well then taking clean water and thoroughly wetting the paper. Then I wet the paper again. I think of this as creating a puddle to play in.

This time I had the idea to mask, wash in a light background, then mask again for added dimension to the texture. No idea how this will work.

This is the first wash of sienna and burgundy yellow ochre – notice how wet I get it so the colors float together.

Watercolor in progress

The first wash after it has dried. Watercolor always dries lighter – just like the vivid colors that you see when you pick up a wet seashell versus the pale, dull colors you see after the shell has dried. It takes a bit to learn how dark is too dark when the color is wet.

Watercolor in progress

Adding another layer of masking – again, no idea how this will work.

Watercolor in progress

After allowing this layer of masking to dry, I again wet the paper twice and layer in more color.

I always plan out the colors that I am going to use but then as I watch them interact, I usually decide on adding more or changing something. It is just a time to play.

One thing that I really like about Daniel Smith pigments is that it is hard to make them “muddy”. But then again, as I am painting dirt and sand here – in effect – mud, that is not a major concern.

Usually, after I have laid out the puddles of pigment, I sprinkle table salt around for added texture. I have found that it also works to add salt, THEN add a few more brushes full of pigment for the salt to absorb and distort.

And this is how it looks dry. You can see how the salt has distorted the pigment, particularly in the upper left.

Watercolor in progress

I start adding in a few little shadows. With the pebbles, this is easier to do before I remove the mask. I love using Daniel Smith Zoisite for shadows. It is a weird, granular greenish gray. I also use Daniel Smith Rare Green Earth which is very similar but a bit heavier.

Watercolor in progress

Next step is to remove the masking fluid. This also removed any salt left on there.

Using masking fluid can sometimes leave a sharp, jagged line that can be distracting. I like to take a very well worn brush, dampen it, then just soften those sharp edges a little.

Watercolor in progress

Here, I have softened those edges just a little. The difference is subtle but this can avoid that almost “cartoon” or “cutout” effect you can sometimes get with watercolors – and it only takes a minute.

Watercolor in progress

Painting in some of the little rocks and shells. Little tiny details but I think it adds to the overall look.

Watercolor in progress

Detail of some of the little pebbles and shells… That gorgeous purple/gray is Daniel Smith Bloodstone.

Watercolor in progress

With more of the background details done, I am ready to tackle the spiral shell. I have no idea why, but since beginning to start painting, I always paint the easiest parts first then save the hardest until the end. Yes, that means that if I screw up, hours of work are wasted but it seems to spur me on in some way. If I had to tackle the spiral shell first – and I have no idea how I am going to do it! – I might not ever even start the painting.

Now, I am actually not sure what to do next. I have no idea how I am going to go about this but… too late to stop now?

Watercolor in progress

I decide to mask out some areas of the shell. I have a silver Daniel Smith pigment I think will mimic the marks on a Turban shell. Then maybe do the rest of the shell in Quin. Sienna, not the darker browns that are in the reference photo.

So here goes:

Watercolor in progress

Now here is where it turns out that I totally screwed up. But it works out. Like many “screw ups”, I learned something and made an accidental discovery. On my palette, I have Quin Sienna, Quin Burnt Orange, Aussie Gold, Permanent Brown (which is really orange) and Red Iron Oxide – the colors I planned to use amongst others.

You can’t tell them apart!

The thing is, the pigments don’t “go bad”. I have several palettes and I don’t wash them regularly. I pull this one out when I need oranges.

Watercolor on palette

Using “wet in wet”, I layered in what I thought was Quin sienna with permanent brown in the shadow and some Aussie gold. Over the top, I layered – still wet – red iron oxide and was amazed to see how it “broke up” and granulated. In a few areas, I floated in some sodalite – it is deep blue but it granulates so wonderfully, that it makes a nice shadow effect.

The thing is, Quin sienna is much harsher and more orange than this. Turns out I used Quin Burnt orange by mistake which is so much softer. I learned this when I decided to do another version of this painting and got a totally different look with the quin sienna!

Watercolor in Progress

After this has dried, you can see how the red iron oxide has granulated. I love this totally accidental effect!

Watercolor in progress

Really, how cool is this color!?

Daniel Smith Red Iron Oxide tube
Buy here

Here is a touch of the sodalite. What I do is get an area wet, then touch the brush with the dark blue sodalite to the water and just let it spread…

Watercolor in progress

Daniel Smith Sodalite –

Buy here

After this area had dried, I notice that the very wet pigments bled a bit into the background. Again, out comes the brush that I have worn to a nub to just clean that edge up a bit.

Watercolor in progress

I think I may have lost a few progress photographs here. What I had in mind was to remove the mask and paint those areas silver. I have Daniel Smith Iridescent Moonstone which looks silver but… UGH. It turned out looking gray and dingy. I also have Daniel Smith Pearlescent White so I went over the silver with that and used a little Daniel Smith Bronzite to add a little “grunge” to the silver.

And there you have it. I am not sure if this looks better oriented this way or upside down.

But the truth is, while I am happy with the colors, the image that I had in my head was a larger spiral and not quite this… So, I am going to do this one again.

It’s funny, when I started painting, I would paint something, not be happy with it and then move on. One day it just struck me that nothing was stopping me from trying it again.

One painting, I actually painted four times until I liked it, then I decided that I liked version 3 best. Shrug. It’s all practice and you never know where the journey might lead you!

Finished watercolor
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