Shell art, also known as shell work, is likely one of the oldest decorative crafts in the world. Primitive peoples who lived near the oceans would collect sea shells and use them to decorate their homes, their clothing and themselves; in some cultures shells were used to adorn the dead before burial. Sailors were known to collect shells during their voyages, and came home with shell art so often it became known as "sailor's valentines." Some of them may have indulged in the craft to relieve the tedium of long voyages, but most of what they brought home was probably purchased during island stops. Islanders around the globe are masters of shell art, which they still use to create souvenirs for the tourist industry.
Shell art became hugely popular during the Victorian era, when it was fashionable to decorate picture frames, embellish boxes and vases, and create grottoes. Ladies would collect shells, dip the back side of them in hot wax and attach them in artful designs to whatever they were decorating. Her Majesty Queen Victoria was also very fond of shell art, which she often commissioned to make portraits and gifts for her favorites at court. A shell art portrait of King Dick, one of her favorite dogs, reportedly still hangs in Buckingham Palace.
Unfortunately the Victorian love of shell art was not always a good thing, as with the case of a magnificent, secret underground grotto made of over four million shells, which was discovered in Kent in 1835. Victorians who toured the grotto kept it lit with gas lamps, which unhappily deposited a great deal of carbon that blackened the shells.
I grew up by the sea, and I've been collecting sea shells since I was a kid. Some collectors and artists harvest "live" shells (sea shells found in the water that are still being used by various mollusks and other sea creatures) but this hurts the sea's ecosystem. When you hunt for shells do take care to collect only "dead" shells, or what washes up on the beach, and only hunt in areas where shell collection is legal.
Today I'm going to show you how to make a traditional Victorian shell art picture, for which you'll need these materials:
small sea shells
beads, pearls, raffia or other craft materials suitable for your design
an old pair of tweezers
a large sheet of black construction paper
quick-bonding, clear-drying glue (tacky glue, jewelry or bead glue; I'm using Quick Grip permanent adhesive.)
a shadow box or deep picture frame
a base for your picture (this can be cardboard or any material sturdy enough to support your shells and sized to fit into the shadow box.)
background for your base (pretty fabric, painting, scrapbooking paper, wallpaper remnant or whatever you want to serve as the background for your art; should be of a size to completely cover your picture base.)
The first step is to sort and arrange your seashells on your sheet of black paper to work out the design of your art (and if you're not sure what to design you can find lots of interesting examples of shell art by doing an image search online.) The reason you use black paper is that it's easier to see the different colors of the shells and group them accordingly. My piece is a traditional "vase of flowers" design, so once I sorted my shells I experimented with different flower shapes and arrangements on my paper.
Once you've arranged your shells to your satisfaction on your practice paper, prepare your shadow box base by glueing or taping your background material to it. Let this dry before you do more work so it doesn't shift around or wrinkle.
Once your base and background are dry, begin building the shell art by gluing your shells, beads and other materials to your base. Use your old pair of tweezers to hold the materials while you apply the glue and transfer them to your background; this will help keep your fingers glue-free. As you see here I started with a single scallop shell (my "vase") and some dried, gold-painted wheat grasses I saved from an old floral arrangement (to serve as the "flower" stems.)
If you're not sure how something will look you can lay out the shells without glue on your background first to see how it works in your design. Also, if you're planning to work in a layered design, let the first layer of shells dry before you add more shells on top of them so they don't shift or get knocked askew.
Once you have all your shells and beads in place, let the piece dry completely. Before you place your base in your picture or shadow box give it a gentle shake or stand it upright to make sure everything is glued down securely.
Here's my finished shell art:
These make lovely gifts for family or friends, or a interesting memento of a beach vacation. This craft is also fun for older kids (sea shells are a choking hazard, so it's not suitable for the very young); just be sure to use child-safe glue and supervise the construction.
Fine Shell Art Blog
Particia Davidson's Victorian Shell Art page and Myko Bocek's Antique Victorian Shell Art page on Pinterest
Shell Artists: Peggy Green, Bill Jordan and Blott Kerr-Wilson.