Week 3: Shell Studies in Watercolor

Now that I have my new watercolor palette worked out I am feeling more excited about exploring what it can do for me and how the change will impact my work as a whole. I did add 1 more color in the end, a beautifully subtle and versatile “Titanium Buff” by Daniel Smith… it’s a disease.

The past two years have been filled with a lot more focus on coastal environments and shells in addition to the more typical subject matter I am drawn to (botanical illustration, decorative patterning, birds, dead things…). I believe that the increase in warmer colors to my palette was in large part due to the types of shells I have been collecting. It is certainly the reason I inserted Titanium Buff…



I do not have experience painting shells… or really drawing them much, for that matter. While they are very organic at times, their overall geometry requires me to focus a bit more on the preliminary drawing than I might normally for a watercolor. As I also wanted to avoid working with a grisaille layer this time around, I found myself sketching a lot to get the general feel for the form before I ever began the final piece. Below is the photo I chose to work from. It was taken before the “toss back” on a trip to Cumberland Island, Georgia, over the holiday during December.



I warmed up a bit with these two olives just to see what kind of colors would result when combined with the new Buff color.


In the end, I worked on each shell individually and built up a palette of interconnected colors as I went without preliminary studies or preparation. It seemed to work okay. Some are better than others. I forced some of them further than I should have (sea urchins…). But a couple really panned out.



In particular, this little piece of drift wood with barnacles was a lovely experiment with Daniel Smith’s Lunar Black. The wet drift wood was very shiny when photographed. When I began I actually laid in some Winsor & Newton masking fluid to ensure that I didn’t wash out the whole area. I quickly realized this was not the right choice and (even though it wasn’t planned) found that Lunar Black was just the right touch. The intense granulation of this pigment ensured that there was enough lighter spots peaking through to give the illusion of shimmer in the wet wood surface.


My favorite was this tiny little Murex – a new find for me and my first of its kind. I’d already warmed up thoroughly at this point and so the color mixing and brush work seemed to flow effortlessly together. The entire shell (which is quite small) only took about 3-4 minutes to complete with a couple of minutes under a heat gun half-way through. I think it is times like this that make me love watercolor as much as I do.


I began this in my watercolor journal and I think that over time I’d like to continue to add to it despite having intended for the whole to stand by itself. I believe that a full 2 page spread would be very satisfying… goals.

Next week I’ll be continuing the shell theme with some lovely “snake eye” moon snail shells.

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