Coloured Pencils: Two Cowrie Shells (demonstration)

Time for another little coloured pencil demonstration. My Nan has several jars of sea shells that she and I have collected over the years, including numerous cowries, so a while ago I got a few out and used them as the inspiration for this still life. A lot of coloured pencil instruction books recommend Prismacolor Premier pencils, and since I had a full set that I purchased many years ago from America (when the Australian dollar wasn’t crap), I figured I should see what they’re like. As it turns out, they are definitely not on my list of favourite coloured pencils (I explain why in my linked review above), but at least I got a half-decent drawing out of them. You should be able to find the equivalent colours in your preferred brand, but if you can’t, just go with whatever’s closest to that colour.

Also, apologies for the changing light in my photos; sometimes I worked on it at night under my desk lamp, while other times I worked in natural light during the day.

Prismacolor Premier Pencils:
-PC1026 Greyed Lavender
-PC1008 Parma Violet
-PC1007 Imperial Violet
-PC132 Dioxazine Violet Hue
-PC945 Sienna Brown
-PC944 Terra Cotta
-PC1081 Chestnut
-PC947 Dark Umber
-PC948 Sepia
-PC1083 Putty Beige
-PC1074 French Grey 70%
-PC1052 Warm Grey 30%
-PC1056 Warm Grey 70%
-PC1059 Cool Grey 10%
-PC1063 Cool Grey 50%
-PC1065 Cool Grey 70%
-PC1067 Cool Grey 90%
-PC935 Black
-PC1077 Colourless Blender

Art Spectrum Gouache:

Note: The white gouache is optional; if you reserve the highlights and you’re using pure white paper, you probably won’t need it. However the paper I used was a yellowish off-white and therefore wasn’t as stark white as I wanted it, so I added a little gouache to finish the piece.

Any very small round brush will do. I used a size 20/0 cheap synthetic brush. (if you’re not using gouache, you won’t need a brush at all)

-A sturdy paper is recommended. I used a Strathmore Bristol Smooth ATC, but Stonehenge is another good choice.

Step 1
Draw the outline of the cowries and their shadows, then start applying the first layers of pencil (very lightly). Leaving the area around the ‘mouth’ white, put a light layer of Putty Beige on the speckled cowrie, then add in a few freckles with Sienna Brown and Dark Umber. To colour the shadow inside the cowrie shell, start with Warm Grey 30% on the left, Cool Grey 70% on the right and Cool Grey 90% in the middle, blending into the other two greys. On the purple cowrie, colour the ‘dome’ with Greyed Lavender and put a light layer of Cool Grey 10% around the bottom edge, adding a little Cool Grey 70% for the shadow inside the cowrie’s ‘nose’ (I have no idea what the technical terms for bits of cowries are, so hopefully I’m making sense). Colour in the shadow with a faint layer of Warm Grey 30%.

Step 2
Start adding more freckles to the speckled cowrie, using similar colours you did before: Sienna Brown and Dark Umber, plus Terra Cotta and Sepia. Overlap some of them and make some of them darker. Use Sepia to colour the dark area near the nose of the speckled cowrie, then use Warm Grey 30% and French Grey 70% to create the serrated texture along the opening of the cowrie on the lower side. Lightly go over all the freckles with Putty Beige, but leave some of the ones near the edge of the white area so they remain darker.

On the purple cowrie, add a small, light patch of Terra Cotta under where the main highlight will go, then lightly layer Parma Violet over the whole of the purple area aside from the highlight. Use Dioxazine Violet Hue to darken where the purple meets the white, then add more to the side touching the other cowrie and a little on the top right. Try to make your pencil strokes follow the curve of the shell.

In the shadows under the cowries, add Dioxazine Violet Hue to the darkest areas, then merge out into the rest of the shadow with Greyed Lavender, then go over the whole lot with a light layer of Warm Grey 30%.

Step 3
Using French Grey 70%, lightly colour in the underside and the very top edge of the speckled cowrie to create shading and depth. Now we need to darken the shadow inside the cowrie. Starting from the left edge, add another light to medium pressure layer of French Grey 70%, leaving a little white at the very edge for the ‘lip’ of the cowrie, then do the same from the right side with Cool Grey 70%. For the darkest part in the middle of the cowrie, add a medium pressure layer of Black, then go over this with Cool Grey 90%, making sure you blend gradually to show the shadow getting lighter towards each end. With Cool Grey 50%, lightly colour in the recessed area on the lower lip of the speckled cowrie, to differentiate it between the shadowed interior and the outer shell, then use Warm Grey 30% (ideally with a blunt tip) to show the slight grey discolouration in the middle of the lower white area.

On the purple cowrie, add a few more patches of light Chestnut and then put some Black in the darkest areas using medium pressure. Gently go over the whole purple area with various purples, making sure to concentrate darker purples in some parts and lighter purples in others (I used Greyed Lavender, Imperial Violet and Dioxazine Purple Hue. Use Black and Dioxazine Purple Hue to darken the outline between the purple and white areas. With Warm Grey 30%, add a very light layer over the white area of the purple cowrie; the pencil should barely be touching the paper. Make it a little darker along the bottom edge, and where the speckled cowrie casts a shadow on it. With Cool Grey 50%, make the cast shadow cast onto the purple cowrie by the speckled one a little darker again. Though the white area of the purple cowrie is pale, it still needs to be differentiated and separated from the pale ‘nose’ of the speckled cowrie.

I should note here that I had been intending to reserve most of the white highlights on the cowrie by simply leaving those areas of the paper blank. However at this stage I realised two things: first, I had not left enough white in the correct areas, and second, because the paper I was using was a cream colour and not pure white, a reserved highlight would not look bright enough to accurately depict the light shining on the smooth surface of the shell. This is why I covered most of the purple area at this stage, deciding I would just put the highlights in with white gouache at the end.

For the shadows, add some Cool Grey 90% directly under the cowries (focusing under the speckled one and where the two cowries touch), lightening your pressure as you move out. Layer in Cool Grey 70% over the whole shadow with medium pressure; it should now look mostly dark with just a violet tinge.

Step 4
Using your Colourless Blender, go over the whole shadow under both cowries, with a medium to firm pressure. This will help smooth out your pencil lines and merge the colours together a bit better. Do the same for the shadowed interior of the speckled cowrie. Add a final layer of Cool Grey 90% to the darkest areas of the ground shadow, lightening your pressure as you go out towards the edge.

Scribble the Colourless Blender pencil on some scrap paper to clean any black/grey off the lead. With a medium pressure, go over the whole purple area aside from the light area where the highlight will go. Again, this will burnish the shell and make it look smoother. On some of the lighter purple areas (ie. the highlight area and at the lower front), use White to burnish it. Now take Black and Dioxazine Purple Hue and go over the darkest areas again, with a light layer of Black first, followed by Dioxazine Purple Hue over the top. Let some of the Dioxazine Purple Hue cross into the highlight area, then go over the highlight area again with White.

Depending on how detailed or fussy you are, you could probably keep adding more layers. However at this stage I feared overworking it and ruining it if I kept going, so I called it a day and got out my white gouache. Put a main highlight in the top centre of the purple cowrie, then add smaller ones beside it. Add another one in the discoloured grey area on the front of the speckled cowrie. Water down a little of the gouache, then paint along the upper right of the purple cowrie to show reflected light from behind. Now all that’s left to do is sign your name under the shadow.

Thus concludes today’s demonstration. Building up layers may seem intimidating, but just remember to use a lighter pressure to start with and make your pencil strokes follow the shape of the object as much as possible.

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