Watercolor Coneshell Illustration

A step by step tutorial

This little post was first published in Xenophora, the bulletin of the French conchological Association, and is dedicated to all those who still like seashells illustration.

Photography and the development of digital tools give us beautiful, sharp pictures that are faithful to reality. But the quest for mimesis lacks expression and soul, and it is sometimes important to bring to the scientific images a personal artistic claw. I like to represent the shells my own way.

Here are some very personal advice which I hope will inspire some to take their brushes and colors.

Let's talk about it: do not overload yourself with too much supplies, painting a shell in watercolor on a small paper does not require much. A soft pear-shaped brush (type marten or small gray) in sizes 8 to 12, and a straight brush a little harder (beef hair) size 0 or 00 should do the work. Choose a thick watercolor paper, smooth enough to allow making the details. For colors (purists will probably be angry) all water-thinnable paints can be used: watercolor, gouache, acrylic. If you are starting out, do not hesitate to train with the gouaches sold by 12 in supermarket, you will go to fine watercolor later. For the sketches, choose a dry pencil (type HB or more), a clean white gum and a kneaded eraser to blend the too heavy lines. Finally, a small glass of water (think of changing the water often, it is one of the secrets of the bright colors), some paper towels and a white palette (a plastic plate is perfect).

The steps showed here are indicative and you can operate in another order if you always follows the only rule: clearer and more diluted colors are always put first.

Standing Cone Shell

  • Step 1: Frame

In two dimensions, the cone is schematized by two triangles having a common base, their opposite vertices passing through the axis of the shell. This "frame" is useful for drawing the curves and inclination of the spirals.

  • Step 2: Contours

Once the structure is in place, the frame is erased and the curves are corrected to obtain a fine and continuous contour. At this step, observation is more important than mathematical rigor. Do not try to get a symmetry that would not appear natural.

  • Step 3: Shadows

The inside of the contour is slightly wetted with a brush, then the shadows are accentuated by passing a black or gray. Working on wet paper (soft brush to spare the paper fibers) makes possible to obtain continuous gradations.

  • Step 4: Patterns

The zones with different patterns can be marked with a pencil in step 2. On a very dry paper, the pseudo triangles are drawn on a white background using a very thin and medium soft brush.

  • Step 5: Background

A light yellow is passed over the free zones in step 4. The orange is put in fine layers. The irregular superposition of these layers on the yellow creates transparency effects. The brown lines are drawn at the end.

  • Step 6: Lights

If you want to give your shell a little more expression, you can add reflections using white gouache on dry paper.

Lying Cone Shell

  • Step 1:

The cone, from this angle, undergoes the effects of perspective. A spiral in plan is inscribed in a circle. In perspective, the circle becomes elliptical, and the spiral follows the lines of the concentric ellipses. To form the spire correctly, first draw the entire spiral, then erase the curves hidden by the viewing angle.

  • Step 2:

The perspective overwrites the shapes, which has the effect of widening the base of the spire and reducing the length of the last lap. Curves are also accentuated. Place the model in the desired position and draw what you see from your point of view, not the idea you have of the shell.

  • Step 3:

Once everything is dry, the light yellow can be passed over the pattern-free zones. Drawings based on triangles can be sketched to avoid errors in the placement of shapes due to perspective.

  • Step 4:

The patterns are drawn on dry paper, gradually diluting the pigments from the coil to the base. The color, less and less sharp towards the base of the cone, creates an optical effect of distance. Do not forget that patterns become denser with distance: the lines become thinner and the triangles smaller.

  • Step 5:

The orange zones are made by superimposing layers, always from the lightest to the darkest to maintain the transparency of the colors. For a more realistic effect, wait for the brown lines to dry, then slightly dilute their edges with a wet brush.

  • Step 6:

If you want to give your shell a little more expression, you can add reflections using white gouache on dry paper.