The two paintings above are from a series of eight paintings of seashells. That assignment was one of the first of my art career.
In 1981, I had just graduated from college. I began my career with a portfolio of watercolor paintings.
My food paintings were my strongest. I began to create “portfolio pieces” that were of food images. Those portfolio images were created in order to sell my style. I joked that art directors would save my image of a Nestlé’s Crunch bar because it made them hungry!
I obtained a list of advertising agencies and began to contact artist representatives in other cities to see if they were interested in my work.
I made appointments to see art directors. That part was quite difficult. Most of them were too busy to make time to speak to a new artist on the phone, let alone see them. I did a lot of “envelope stuffing!” I would follow-up to see if the art directors received my postcard and promotional material.
I also decided to show my watercolors to publishers of fine art prints and posters. I went to see a publisher in Los Angeles. He seemed very interested in one of my paintings. It was a watercolor painting of a medley of seashells.
He said, “I could see this as a series of prints. You would need about eight paintings. These paintings should be done in pairs. Use different approaches – incorporate driftwood on two, and do a pair of large, solo shells. Do some as a medley, and a pair with variations of shell sizes. When you’re finished, bring them in for me to see.”
My foray into the world of publishing began. I began my search for reference.
I found a warehouse that sold seashells. I walked down aisle of seashells and marveled at the exquisite colors and shapes to choose from. I purchased the ones I felt were best suited for my paintings.
I found a “driftwood” furniture maker who had some small pieces of wood I could buy. I brought home my reference and began to take photographs. I set up a sandbox in my backyard, and this was before I had children!
I began my paintings. I worked fairly large on the driftwood paintings. It took me about six months to finish all the paintings.
All of that work didn’t translate into money, for sure. However, as a novice artist I wanted to be published. I asked a friend of mine who graduated with a business major if he could “help me negotiate.” He went to speak with the publisher. The most the publisher was willing to pay me was $125 per painting. He crossed out the $100 he had initially started with.
I believe the publisher became annoyed by the fact that I asked my friend to negotiate for me. After that, he required me to sign another contract with his company, in order to be published. This was called a “Right of First Refusal.” He didn’t want me to go elsewhere and cause any kind of competition for the seashell prints. I was able to get him to agree to a time limit on it.
There was more to my story.
I remember when the prints were all finished. In order to get paid, I was required to hand-sign the editions of prints. The edition for each print was 1,200.
There was a certain smell to a new print. It was intoxicating. I was nervous when I came to see those stacks of prints. I was not that confident about my handwriting, and wanted to have a nice signature.
It took me many hours to earn $125. After many hours of signing my name on 1,200 prints, my hand was very tired.
There were eight seashell subjects I had to do this with!
When I worked on these paintings, I experimented to find a way to create the effect of sand. I practiced splattering with a toothbrush, so that it resembled sand. I loved the effect! My fingers became stained with dark brown.
I started by painting shadows and a light brown wash for the sand area. It was challenging to keep the wash even and paint around the delicate shells. However, covering those areas with splatter would unify and eliminate any imperfections. I tried to indicate some areas where the shell was pushed into the sand, creating a “dune effect.” I allowed for tiny bits of sand to be inside some of the shells.
I didn’t know about friskit yet. I needed to find a way to mask the seashells out. I cut out a cardboard mask for each seashell. I weighted the cardboard down with metal pieces.
I had to concentrate very hard when I did the splattering. If there was any “angle” to the dots, they looked like sperm! In some cases, there were ones that were too large. I quickly tried to dab those up. I varied the colors that I splattered. It was important to cover the entire painting evenly, and to know when to stop. The paintings were in pairs. Both paintings of the pair had to match each other. That was challenging.
Once the sand was finished, I removed the cardboard cutouts. There were a few “bleed-ins,” but I was able to erase them or rub them out with a wet brush.
For many years, I created a demonstration and exercise for elementary school students. I passed out color copies that had the sand shadows and color in place. There was a white area left, which allowed for them to paint a single shell later on.
I had the students cut out the shell mask from a photocopy on another piece of paper. I passed out metal nuts to weigh it down. I gave out a lot of old toothbrushes. The students had the opportunity to experience the splattering and it was a lot of fun to watch!
I enjoyed painting each individual shell. I really wanted to include an abalone shell, because the pearly aqua-purple colors intrigued me. However, the colors on that shell clashed with the others shells. The composition was not unified. I had to find a way to fix the problem.
On a separate piece of watercolor paper, I painted another, larger shell. My plan was to “glue” over my “mistake.” I had heard from another illustrator that sanding the back of the paper with sand paper would help to make it less obvious that something was glued on top. It worked!
Below are some close ups of my paintings of different shells.
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