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Seashells: Loose Layers and Painting with Watercolors

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

I've always like collecting shells - it's a bit of a treasure hunt combined with a bit of luck and serendipity. My jacket pockets always have a dusting of sand and maybe a tiny sand dollar or piece of purple urchin shells. I also like leaving behind patterns and designs formed with shells to be found unexpectedly by the next child or beachcomber before the tide changes.

For this project, seashells are the source of inspiration for color, texture and patterns. Capturing their beauty using watercolors seems fitting for these sea creatures. Keeping the color palette fairly simple lets all the wonderful nubby texture become the focal point.

Let's get started. If you are lucky enough to live near the coast, take a beach walk to collect a few shells that catch your eye. (Alternatively, browse the internet for your favorites). Focus on interesting shapes and colors more than prize specimens.

Take a few close-up photos on your phone then enhance/crop your photo and print a copy in the size you want to paint. In this example, a 1-inch limpet shell is transformed into an 8"x10" print. It's fun to enlarge a small shell to really see all the textures and patterns.

This project is all about layering. The first layer is a loose sketch using carbon copy paper and various pens and tools to quickly capture the basic outlines, shading and shapes. Using a sheet of your favorite watercolor/mixed media paper, layer a sheet of carbon copy paper between the watercolor paper and your printed shell. Trace the image incorporating as many doodles and details as you like. Try different marking tools such as pencils, brush handles, combs, etc. to vary the marks and textures,

Note: Carbon paper can smudge a bit so watch where you apply pressure while drawing but don't stress out - it's all part of the loose approach.

Once the sketch layer is complete, mix your watercolor paints to reflect the shell and coastal palette. Using the sketch marks as your guide, start layering colors and textures working from light to dark washes. Don't overwork the details and be sure to leave some white areas.



  • Carbon Copy Paper - Michael's usually stocks it and larger quantities can be found on at office supply stores or on Amazon.

  • Various watercolor brushes...I recently discovered Rosemary brushes from the UK. The Designer series uses a nice combination of sable and synthetic bristles and have delightfully fine points. I'm hooked!

  • Watercolor paper (140# cold pressed) or a large sketchbook (I'm using a large format Charvin "Carnet de Voyage" sketchbook I picked up years ago in Paris.)

  • Watercolors - I'm using a set from Kuretake with rich colors and packaged for easy transport in my art bag for plein air beach projects.

Below are a few other examples of shells featured in my website Galleries painted using this loose layered method.

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