Learn to Paint Seashells With This 3-in-1 Step-by-Step Tutorial

I  don’t know about you, but it blows my mind to think of how perfect nature is in all its creations. With seashells, you invite into your home and your art a sense of freedom, of peace and a rich connection to one of the most vast and mysterious places in our planet: the ocean.

Beautiful sea shells collected from the gulf coast ready to be drawn and painted

In this post I’ll guide you step by step through 3 tutorials for painting seashells in watercolor.

Watercolor brings in the same level of peace and softness into your art. Whether you’re new to watercolors or you’re a longtime watercolor lover (or anything in between), you can follow along, learning some great tips and tricks along.

So, gather your supplies, find a quiet place with lots of space and natural light and lets jump right in. 

What you need: 

  • Watercolor paint (either tubes or pans are suitable)
  • Two containers with water
  • Watercolor brushes
  • Watercolor paper
  • Seashells or reference photographs (you can use the ones in this post)
  • Drawing pencil and eraser
  • Masking fluid, white gel pen (optional)
  • Your favorite playlist (optional)
Assorted sea shells

Preliminary sketches

The first thing I do is to sketch in pencil a few subjects and angles. You can definitely skip this part if you want. I find it helpful to get my thoughts in order and get a better sense of what I’ll be drawing on the watercolor paper. 

Sea shell sketches

For example, my sketches here helped me realize that the shells I chose were interesting, but I wasn’t as excited about painting them. So I found other shells to paint before I even picked up my brush.

Another benefit of preliminary sketches is that you get to observe how the subject is shaped by lights and shadows. Believe me — looking at your subject in black and white will help you achieve realism in your painting. 

Shell #1: Using Making Fluid

Step 1: Draw basic shapes

First sketch your sea shell

As always, begin by drawing the basic shape of your shell. Draw any significant marking, lines or areas of shadows. Keep your pencil strokes light and smooth, as they are very hard to erase after laying watercolor over it. 

Step 2: Isolate white areas

Masking fluid

For this first shell, I used of my favorite materials: masking fluid. This liquid mask covers spots where you want to preserve a crisp white area, while allowing you to paint in washes over it.

It’s fun to work with, but I recommend you use either a spatula, toothpick or an old brush because once the fluid dries on one of your nice brushes… let’s just say the clean up isn’t very fun!

Apllying masking fluid

Put a layer of masking fluid over the shiny areas of your shell and let the fluid dry completely.

Step 3: First wash of color

First wash of paint

What is one of the lightest colors on your shell? In my case, I see a greenish-pinkish light brown. Mix the colors on your palette to get this color.

Make sure that your paint is really watered down for this first layer. We want to do a light wash as a base and then work our way up to thicker mixes of watercolors. Let this layer dry completely. 

Step 4: Add details

Adding details to the painting

Using a liner brush or another small brush, mix a reddish-brown and paint the lines on the shell. I also mixed a slightly darker brown with green undertones to add more color and depth to the outer sides of the shell.

Keep building up the layers of paint and thickness of the watercolors as you add in more details. Always remember to let each layer dry.*

*On the other hand, wet-on-wet painting can be fun, too!  Take my instructions more as  suggestions. Have fun and experiment on your own — you’ll be surprised with what you can come up with!

Sea shell painting

Step 5: Remove masking fluid

Removing masking fluid Sea shell painting

Once you’re satisfied with your painting, let it dry fully and rub off the masking fluid with your finger. It will come off easily. 

Step 6: Add the final touches

Sea shell painting finished

Add some final touches to the white areas we just uncovered and there you have it! Your seashell is ready. 

Shell #2: Using white gel pen

For the second shell, we’ll follow the same steps as before but we’ll incorporate a different technique for the lightest areas. Instead of using masking fluid, you can use a white gel pen.  

Step 1: Draw basic shapes

Basic sketch

Draw the basic shapes and any guidelines you might need when you are painting. 

Step 2: First wash of color

First wash of watercolor

Mix the lightest color you see on your shell and, with a big brush and very watered-down paint, cover most of the surface of your shell.

Step 3: Paint the shadows

Paint shadows Painting watercolor shadows

Mix some of the darker colors and paint the little indentations throughout the shell.

Adding more colors to the painting

Continue applying thicker colors after each layer, making sure to always let the previous layer dry completely if you don’t intend on doing a wet-on-wet technique and want more control over your paint.

Adding more shadows

Step 4: Paint the details

Sea shell painting

Mix the colors you need for some of the finer details in a thicker consistency. Using a thin brush, paint your shell’s particular spots and markings, like those burgundy areas you see above. 

As you build up the colors, like in the images above, your painting will slowly begin to gain more depth and realism. 

Step 5: Paint white areas

Using gel pen for light areas

Personally, this is my favorite part of this shell: using the gel pen!

Painting after using gel pen

Because white areas on this shell were smaller and more detailed, instead of using masking fluid, I painted the white areas afterward. To get the most crisp results, make sure your painting is fully dry before using the pen over it. 

Step 6: Add the final touches

Painting with watercolors

Mix the accent colors you want to add as final touches in the thickest consistency and apply it with a liner brush.  

Using a liner brush for details

There you have it! Your second seashell using another fun technique. 

Shell #3: Wet-on-wet technique

Last but not least, we’ll use a fluid wet-on-wet technique to paint our seashell.

Step 1: Draw basic shapes

Basic shell drawing

Just like with the last two tutorials, begin by drawing your shell and any light or dark areas. Do it lightly so you can erase if you need to. 

Step 2: First wash of color

First layer of watercolor

Mix the lightest color with a really runny consistency and apply it in a wash with a big brush. Paint around any light areas you want to leave white.

Step 3: Build up the shadows

Adding shadows to the painting

Mix a color that’s just slightly darker than your base and add some faint shadows as guides for the next step.  

Step 4: Wet-on-wet shadow

Conch painting

Add water to the body of the shell and, while the paper is still wet, load your brush with a brighter color and apply it on this area. Depending on how must water you put on the paper, you’ll have more or less control over what the paint does. In this example, I used only a little water, giving me more control.

Step 5: Continue adding shadows

Watercolor palette Sea shell conch painting

Don’t be afraid to add colors that “might not be there.” With watercolors especially, you can create some amazing things by applying interesting undertones. For example, I saw some cool-toned shadows on my shell, so I mixed a bluish-green gray and painted some shadows with it. Unexpected colors add more depth and realism.

Step 6: Add the details

Adding fine details to the painting Using a liner brush to add details

Lastly, mix a dense brown to add little specks and creases as final details. 

Conch shell painting Final sea shell paintings

There you have it! Remember to use what I say as suggestions and not rules of thumb. I don’t want to discourage you from exploring your own style! If there’s a technique that already works for you, you can stick to those and incorporate whatever piques your interest.

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