So I saw this shell and I am not quite over the whole “painting shells” thing yet. Would you believe I have never been a shell collector? Don’t know much about them.

Shell on sand

Really, my paintings are all about color and mood. That’s what fascinates me and shells come in wonderful colors. Sea foam, sand, rocks, waves, it all fascinates me… so… shell paintings. My current thing. Next, I am going to tackle Mangrove trees. Or… who knows.

As noted in previous tutorials, the watercolor paper I use comes in sheets – Arches 300lb. Usual practice is to “quarter” a sheet, that is, tear it into 4 pieces.

Good watercolor paper has a “right” side and a “wrong” side. There is an embossed watermark to look for to show you which side should go “up”. On Arches, you look for the name and it should be “Arches” not “sehcra”. That’s a joke.

The thing is that that watermark won’t end up on all 4 torn quarters so it only took me a few decades to realize that if I put a small, pencil dot in each corner before tearing, I would never again have to wonder which was the “right” side.

I like to work VERY wet at times so I tape the paper down to keep it from buckling. It does take a lot to buckle 300lb paper but you can do it.

Traditionally, you “stretch” watercolor paper. To do that, you soak it in a clean sink or bathtub, mount it on a board, then use brown paper “postal” tape to keep it on the board. You can also reinforce with thumb tacks but as the paper dries to a taut, drum tight surface, it can contract enough to not only pull the paper off the tape but to tear it off the tacks.

It’s a pain, so with smaller sheets, I have devised a method that works for me.

I like the white margin you get with using drafting tape around the edges of a painting but good drafting tape won’t stick the paper firmly enough to the board. I know a lot of people use house “painter’s tape” or even masking tape but I am paranoid about any tape residue that could be left. I have paintings from college, so long ago, that have yellowed from contact, even briefly, with tape.

I tape the paper down with drafting tape, THEN, careful to keep in only on the drafting tape, I use heavy duty strapping tape to affix the paper firmly to the board.

There are probably other tapes cheaper than strapping tape that would work but since this works so well for me, I haven’t used anything else.

Arches watercolor paper

Note the tiny pencil dot to show me which side goes “up”.

Here you can see the watermark:

Watermark on paper

Drafting tape – I used to use other kinds – bought on Amazon – but the quality varied from batch to batch. The tape HAS to stick to the paper but not too much so that it removes easily and cleanly with no residue.

I finally found this stuff – perfect and cheaper than all the others.

Drafting tape

Just one strip of tape to create the margin. This tape really does not stick to the board but that’s where the next layer comes in.

Watercolor paper being mounted

Heavy duty strapping tape. I suppose other tape might work but this stuff keeps the paper down firmly.

Strapping tape

I stick the strapping tape to to the drafting tape so no residue can be left on the paper.

Watercolor paper mounted

Now comes sketching it all out. I don’t really care if any pencil lines show through the final piece. I know, I have to get better at taking these photos… Give me time – I’m working on it!

Pencil on paper

It is all pretty loose as I am aiming for a flow across the paper as this is going to be sea foam with the tide coming in and the lines should echo that smooth flow.

I now mask the shell outline and the smaller rocks/shells so that the background can be painted in quickly and loosely.

Masking out the design

After the rocks are outlined and I can see the flow, I take the mask and start doodling the bubbles for the sea foam.

Masking fluid on paper

This really is just doodling with the tip of the Fineline mask. The circles connect to each other and kind of go their own way within the loose outline I have pencilled in.

Masking fluid on paper

This does not take as long as it might look and I find this kind of detail work to be very calming.

I ventured out a bit beyond the (faint) pencil lines to give it just a bit more flow. Then it was time to add some sand/pebbles and just texture to the background with additional masking.

Masking fluid on paper

After drying thoroughly, it is time to rock and roll.

I make sure the tape margin is firmly in place. Chose my pigments. Wet them well. Then, taking a larger brush, I completely wet the paper. Quickly, I wet it again. The wetter it is, the more time I have to play with the background and get it the way I want it to be.

While I do plan out the colors, I am really creating a puddle into which I float the pigments and let them flow and interact. At this point, things may or may not look “right” to me and sometimes I completely change my mind about the colors or just throw in something.

Don’t take any of this too seriously. Sometimes it is OK to just have fun.

I usually lay out the wash. Set on a level surface then sprinkle plain old table salt around for added texture. Sometimes I wash in additional pigment on top of the salt. The salt absorbs and distorts the pigments to it can help to give it additional fuel. I did that here with some burgundy yellow ochre in the lower middle right and some bloodstone on the left.

That wonderful glowing blue/green is Amazonite.


Always keep in mind that the pigments will dry lighter and adjust accordingly. I find that the wet pigments tend to look garish and sometimes even cartoonish but they won’t dry that way.

Watercolor in progress

After drying, you can see the salt textures.

Watercolor in progress

After drying overnight, the masking fluid is removed.

Watercolor in progress

Sometimes the mask can leave harsh lines so I usually do a quick pass with a wet brush over the top, not enough to smear anything but enough to just soften any hard lines.

Now, let’s make this a painting. I start adding some shadows and painting in rocks and shells. The Daniel Smith Primateks are perfect for this with the granulation and natural looking pigments.

Watercolor in progress

Next, I do want to mask some small areas inside the shell before attempting to tackle that

Watercolor in progress

I actually have no idea how I am going to paint this but decide to just be bold and to throw in some quin sienna and see what happens.

I’ve added red iron oxide, permanent brown, aussie gold and scarlet hematite. I like creating a puddle and just dropping in the color until it looks as I want it to. This is scary but fun.

Watercolor in progress

I usually place paintings, still mounted on the board, upright on the bookcase behind my worktable. This gives me a chance to look at them from a distance and judge how I am progressing and what needs to be changed/added. You have to get away from your own work once in a while. Here…. The interior of the shell was so wet, the colors dripped.

I am not sure that has ever happened to me before… A big orange drip.

Watercolor in progress

A little gentle sponging with a wet q-tip (always have them handy!). Mr Clean sponges are supposed to work but this is a bit of a tight area. The oranges are staining so…

Watercolor in progress

Let’s get creative.

Can’t hurt to have a deep shadow there…

And the drip is gone.

Watercolor in progress

A little softening of the lines with a damp stubby brush and filling in the rest of the shell…

Watercolor in progress

A few finishing touches on the shell and we are done!

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