Amiria Gale: shell paintings

Last Updated on September 10, 2023

This is the official collection of shell paintings by Amiria Gale (me). I am an artist and teacher from New Zealand. I create semi-abstract acrylic and mixed media paintings of shells.

CONTENTS:    Ideas and meaning    |    Inspiration    |    What techniques, mediums, and materials does Amiria Gale use?    |    Why does Amiria Gale paint shells?    |    Famous shell artists    |    How to draw a shell    |    Learn more

Ideas and meaning

My shell paintings play with ideas about memory, stories, and truth. The artwork explores perception, blindness and the veil across our eyes. These ideas are explored through the interplay of organic form (the boundary between shell, land, sea and sky) and are captured in memories of diving deep and holding your breath; exploding through the surface in need of air, the splintering of sunlight and salt in your eyes.

Amiria Gale shell paintings
This is my most well-known shell painting. I painted it a long time ago, over four weekends. After a crazy hectic week at school I holed up in my bedroom and painted non-stop, taking five minutes for lunch, and not stopping until the light from the window was too dim to see. It was completed in 2004 (titled 1999). The painting was sold privately and now hangs in a private collection in Australia.

It is the broken, worn, incomplete shells that provide inspiration. The shell that inspired the painting above has little pock marks in the surface where bugs have gnawed at it and faded brown lines that dash across the surface. The composition sketch in black pen has scribbled notes reminding me what the work was about. The compositional drawings of shells I produce while planning an artwork are not overly detailed, but depict the basic structure of the work; the placement of the shell, landscape, and the main water lines extending out from the curves of the shell.

This is one of the first paintings that I ever really planned. Up until that moment, paintings had spontaneously occurred without much prior contemplation, but with this one, I knew what I wanted it to be like before I began.

Note that the representation of the shell is not entirely realistic, but has been slightly simplified / stylised. This painting of a shell has been built up with a very thick layer of modelling compound – at its deepest, this protrudes 20mm out from the painting board. The lower stripy section of shell is covered with bumpy, textured handmade paper. A layer of gesso has primed the work before painting with Atelier acrylic. The water has been painted using many translucent layers, with gel medium and Atelier artist acrylic paint. The finished work is 1000 x 1000mm and depicts a semi-abstract shell tumbling within the ocean, with a landscape visible through the shell.

Sometimes, when you swim in the ocean – especially when young – the waves grab and haul you under, tumbling you head-over-heels, snatching oxygen and pummelling you. Captured glimpses of the shore – coastal landscapes – fractured and distorted through a lens of brilliant, whirling salt-water.

Textured shell painting by Amiria Gale
Shell art by Amiria Gale: One of the first shell paintings of shells that I completed, this is a mixed media piece, created using string, textured paper, modelling compound and acrylic on framed MDF board. Titled Shells, this artwork is 300 x 300mm, and was painted in 2005. It was sold through Parnell Gallery and now hangs in a private collection in Auckland, New Zealand.
Organic form: shell paintings by Amiria Gale
These semi-abstract shell paintings by Amiria Gale break down the barrier between land, shell and sky. Water pours around the shell and spills across sand, The top right work (untitled) is 400 x 800mm and was painted on MDF board in 2003. The bottom painting, Shells, land and sea, is a large work, 800 x 1000mm, created using acrylic and mixed media on framed MDF board in 2005. This piece was also featured on the front cover of Spectrum 4, a collection of New Zealand short stories by graduate writers from the University of Auckland. Both works have been sold and are hanging in private collections in New Zealand.
Shell artwork by Amiria Gale
One of two tiny seashell paintings by Amiria Gale, completed in 2010. Little Shell is 200 x 150mm, created using acrylic and mixed media on framed MDF board. This shell artwork was sold via auction. As with my other works, the composition was sketched out, with abstracted landscape and water forms pencilled in before I began painting shells.
Mixed media shell painting by Amiria Gale
The shell that inspired this painting has pencil scribbles inside it. I was playing with this board a lot, before it became this shell painting, which took me nearly a year. I kept returning to it, over and over again, burying the form with paint, and uncovering it again some more. Titled Dive, this contemporary shell painting by Amiria Gale was completed in 2010. It is 300 x 650mm and was created using acrylic and mixed media on framed MDF board.
Shell painting by Amiria Gale
This small seashell painting by Amiria Gale is titled Fragment. Completed using acrylic and textured paper on board, in 2010, this shell painting is 200 x 150mm. Sold via auction.

The inspiration for Amiria Gale’s shell paintings

These are photographs of some of my favourite shells – many of which inspired my paintings. Most of these are broken, providing glimpses within the cavities inside.

Photographs of shells by Amiria Gale
Amiria Gale: shells. Fragmented pieces, beaten by the sea. Clutched inside my palm, dark, wet, sandy fingers. Turn every which direction and the result is the same. Pieces of magic.

What techniques, mediums, and materials does Amiria Gale use? Shell paintings with acrylic mediums, modelling compound and texture

Students who study my artwork often search for “Amiria Gale shell facts.” One of the most common questions students have relates to the practical processes, mediums, materials, and techniques used when completing my shell artwork. I have thus provided detailed information about the process undertaken – using acrylic paint and modelling compound (and other acrylic mediums and mixed mediums) to create textural surface effects in my paintings of shells.

Amiria Gale: shell painting process
Amiria Gale: painting seashells with acrylic and mixed media. This work, titled Boundary, is 700 x 700mm, and depicts a semi-abstracted painting of shells, land and sea. It was painted on a framed MDF board, in 2010. This semi-abstract shell artwork was sold to a private collector.

Like many of my shell paintings, I started by selecting an object or scene that had relevance to me. In this case it was a weathered seashell that I had found on Pouawa beach (near Gisborne, on the east coast of New Zealand). I noticed it hiding away in the corner of my box of shells and lifted it out. It rested in my palm, warm against my skin, and when I unfurled my fingers, it sat there, ugly and brittle, tiny holes and pock-marks in the surface. I blu-tacked the shell to a painted board in front of me and photographed it; brushstrokes creating a gentle background of horizontal lines.

I then used graphite pencil to turn the shell into art: swallowing the seashell in a mess of lines, weaving the curves of the shell into the land and sea. I this drew directly onto a MDF and pine board pre-painted with a layer of gesso (to make the surface less absorbent). Lines were initially drawn lightly, but were darkened or semi-erased as I established and refined the composition; my eye gauging whether forms were balanced and the composition cohesive.

This shell painting above explores the illusory boundary that exists between physical objects…and how this boundary seems clear, but upon closer examination erodes away. The land, shell and sea all appear in the painting to merge together. It is difficult to tell where one stops and another begins.

Once the initial line drawing was complete, I began to apply impasto medium and modelling compound to create a textured shell surface. The shell form was masked at the edges with removable tape and impasto medium was spread across with my fingers. I then purposefully textured the surface, using a dabbing motion. In some areas, where a thicker consistency was required (and a rougher surface) modelling compound was also used. When the masking tape was removed, clean edges were left around the texture. (Applying tape to curved edges take practise, but is not as hard as it looks).

Blocking in areas of the painting using acrylic washes occurs next, as I started establishing the positioning of tones and colours. Often many layers are added before colour choice and tonal definition is successful. I use gel medium and/or liquefying medium to thin the paint in places, creating glossy, transparent layers. As colour choices are determined, areas are painted with increased care, applying thicker layers of paint and dry-brushing to exaggerate texture.

I spend days (and sometimes weeks) applying acrylic paint, defining tone, adding detail and creating focal points. Smooth blending is achieved both through wet-on-wet and dry-brush painting techniques. Forms merge from shell to land to sea, helping to reinforce the ideas behind the painting.

Composition study: shells by Amiria Gale
A composition study created using black biro pen on a black and white photocopy of a seashell. Photocopying shells (placing the entire shell in the photocopier, being careful not to scratch the glass) is a particularly satisfying activity, often resulting in beautiful deep shadows and cavernous spaces.

Why does Amiria Gale paint shells?

I have collected shells since I was a tiny child. I spent hours at the beach, waiting for my father to come home on his fishing boat, across the ocean. I also love the idea that shells are a lifeform’s home, an exoskeleton, fragments of bone, spun loose by the sea. In essence, I paint seascapes and shells because these are important to me. They are the stuff of my childhood. I also love them in terms of aesthetics: their meandering curving, organic natural forms.

Shell drawings by Amiria Gale
Here are some of my random shell drawings. These drawings of shells were completed as examples for my International GCSE Art students (IGCSE). The lefthand example is charcoal; the righthand shell artwork is a mix of graphite and white Chinagraph pencil over acrylic wash.
Contemporary shell painting by Amiria Gale
A faster, more gestural shell painting of mine, titled: I know nothing stays the same (2005). This seashell artwork was completed in conjunction with a range of other abstract paintings.

Inspiration from famous shell artists

The depiction of shells in art has a long and varied history, ranging from classical still life to modernist paintings. Shells in art often serve as metaphors for themes like the beauty and fragility of the natural world. In some cultures, seashells are also imbued with symbolic meanings, with drawings a shell representing concepts like fertility or wealth (although I don’t explore these themes myself). Contemporary artists continue to explore shells in their artwork, utilising various mediums and techniques to reinterpret this classic subject for modern audiences.

Many students who learn from my work are curious to know which famous artists painted shells and wish to study shell drawings by famous artists. A sample of artists who draw or paint shells whose work I admire includes Georgia O’Keeffe, Adriaen Coorte, and Robert Hooke.

Georgia O’Keeffe shell paintings
Georgia O’Keeffe, an American modernist artist, is known for her paintings of shells among other subjects like flowers, landscapes, and bones. Her shell paintings often feature close-up views that transform the shells into semi-abstract forms, emphasising their curves and subtle colours. O’Keeffe’s interest in shells was part of her broader exploration of natural forms. Many schools study Georgia O’Keeffe shells alongside mine, which is a great honour. These four famous shell paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe are titled from left to right: Slightly Open Clam Shell (1926), Clam and Mussel (1926), Two Pink Shells/Pink Shell (1937), Tan Clam Shell with Seaweed (1926). © Georgia O’Keeffe
Adriaen Coorte, shells, still life painting
Adriaen Coorte (1665-1707) was a Dutch Golden Age painter known for his small, intimate still-life paintings, often featuring shells. Coorte’s paintings of seashells are celebrated for their attention to detail, simplicity, and the sense of depth he achieved. Unlike many of his contemporaries who focused on grand, opulent compositions, Coorte’s works are often minimalistic, featuring just a few shells set against a dark background. His oil paintings often serve as a type of scientific documentation, capturing the intricate details and beauty of each shell. Coorte’s artwork with shells is considered an important contribution to the genre of still-life painting, as well as a reflection of the period’s fascination with natural history. These still life shell paintings are titled from left to right: Still Life of Five Shells on a Stone Ledge (1665-1707) and Still Life with Sea Shells (1696).
Robert Hooke drawing of shells
Robert Hooke, an English natural philosopher, is known for his work “Micrographia,” published in 1665, which includes detailed illustrations of various natural objects as observed under a microscope. Although he is most famous for his drawings of insects and plant cells (he coined the term “cell” to describe the structure of cork), Hooke also included shell illustrations. His meticulous drawings of seashells were not just artistic representations but also served a scientific purpose, aiming to better understand the natural world. Hooke’s work was groundbreaking at the time and contributed significantly to both art and science, offering one of the earliest detailed visual explorations of microscopic structures. Hooke is just one of many famous artists who draw shells. Image source.

I have written more about artists whose work influenced my artwork here.

How to draw a shell?

If you are wondering how to draw a seashell, please avoid the step-by-step formulaic diagrams that populate the internet! Drawing realistic shells involves careful observation of their details, curves, and proportions – ideally working from a shell that is directly in front of you or a photograph that you have taken.

Start with lightly sketching in the shell’s general form, while closely examining the shell, using your eye to gauge the scale and proportion of individual elements in relation to the whole. Then add the spiral lines or ridges that characterise the natural forms of the shell. Pay attention to the way light and shadow interact with the shell’s surface, using shading to create depth if a three-dimensional tonal shell drawing is desired.

Completing sketches of shells is a great activity for high school students, due to their visually interesting forms and the ease with which shells can be carried to and from the classroom. I have written guidance to help students with improving observational drawing which you may find useful. This helps not just with realistic seashell drawing, but with creating realistic drawings of any object or scene.

Want to learn more about Amiria Gale’s shell art?

I have answered many frequently asked questions about my paintings on my About page. More information to help students who study my shell artwork can be found there.

If you are a student and you have reached this page because you are studying my painted shells (or you are an Art teacher) you may also be interested in the Student Art Guide. This is a website that I have created to help high school Art students excel. It contains a range of resources, materials and guides to help high school Art students and teachers – including resources that may trigger many creative shell painting ideas. I would love to have you stop by!