Updated: Mar 8
Here is a detailed step by step method to creating creative and beautiful mermaid bras for your photography sessions or if you just want to become a mermaid for the day.
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The first question everyone always ask is what shells do I use.
I use a variety of shells but I find that the Brown Lion's Paw Shells work great. I usually go for the 5 inch sizing but if I find them larger I grab them up for my larger bust sizes. I usually pick these up on Amazon now because in stores it is harder to find two matching shells. The ones that I buy on Amazon usually are perfectly matched. Not always but usually. This is where I get the majority of my shells. BRA SELECTION
You can use a variety of methods for mermaid bras but for this tutorial we will stick with the bra based method.
I recommend bras similar to the one in this picture. It doesn't have to be expensive. I frequently grab bras off the clearance rack just for making these.
I try to get an "average" size bra based on the tail size I am matching the colors with.
For example if the tail is an XS or S I will look for bra sizes in the A and B cup range. If someone is signing up for a mermaid session though I always ask their bra size or for them to take measurements and then if I have to I will just whip up a new bra that fits them best.
One thing to remember when using this method is that the paint usually makes the bra more stiff and gives it NO flexibility. I just add a ribbon on each side where the clasp are and make it a "tie" on option. With the adjustable straps you don't have to really worry about the shoulders. BUT make sure to paint behind the plastic pieces and on the back side of the straps in case they get turned around.
You can also use a bathing suit top but I personally don't like these because there is little support. Plus most need to tie behind the neck and if you are using wigs it can get tangled up together. I also don't recommend any option that has removable bra or pad inserts. These just never sit right. Avoid them.
Take your shells with you and lay over the bra to see how they will look together.
Color selection for the bras are totally up to you.
I usually will use a white bra to start with if my tail is light in tone and paint to match.
I never use nude/beige colors if I am going to paint over them because it just makes the color tones look a little muddied or muted.
The only paint I recommend is Plaid Crafts "folk-art"
I have also been using some of their new FX line which is more flexible and so far I am in love with it. But I don't have a full review on it just yet.
The metallic and pearls are truly stunning when working with mermaids. I LOVE their color shift colors but it is really hard to get them so if you find them buy them up!
This set is a great starter set and you can mix and match just about any color combination from them.
Apple brand and Craftsmart are TERRIBLE paint brands to try to paint your shells with. They are thin and watery. I don't recommend these brands at all for these projects. Just don't waste your money on them.
When painting DO NOT paint ANYTHING on the inside. This will make it harder for your shell to attach to your bra later.
Avoid LATEX base paints when possible. This type of paint just peels off of anything and when it gets wet it could cause bubbling from the water getting under the paint.
Peel off any stickers from the inside and keep this area free of paint.
Before you begin painting lightly sand the inside of these so you don't damage the paint later. You are just making the back side slightly sanded so the glue/bra will hold together better. Wipe down the whole thing with rubbing alcohol and paper towels to remove all oils so you can start painting. Don't paint on the inside of your shell at all.
If you are planning on doing major mermaid gigs and swimming and need it to hold up longer I recommend at this stage you take a Dremel and drill holes in at least four places on your shells. I usually use a pearl to sew through and create a almost locking method. I don't use my costumes for long gigs or long water use so I haven't really had to worry about this.
Use a heavy weight stretch elastic thread (the kind that you make children's stretch bracelets out of. This is really good and doesn't break as easy.
After firmly securing with the elastic thread you can add some E6000 over the holes but it's not really needed.
As you can see in the picture I use about an inch wide flat brush. These are cheap at any craft store. You don't have to have a pricey paint brush for this.
I like using this size because it allows me to work pretty quick but also blend a bit as I go before the paint dries. You can use any size brush and brand that you like.
I use dabbing motions for painting the bra because brushing in strokes just takes forever.
You can paint in any way that you are comfortable with though so try different ways and see what you love. I do however recommend going from the top down or the bottom up and not side to side if you are using multiple colors because doing both sides at once will allow for a more even coloring.
Just dip your brush from the darker tone to the lighter tone and go back and forth if you need to. Dip in both colors if you need to.
Part of my painting is just free painting. If it doesn't look right I can paint over it. I don't really dilute the paint with water but if you are wanting a much softer paint design.
You can see in this picture that they are blending really well together. This is because the blue is still wet enough to blend with the purple.
I just keep dabbing away until I am pleased with the blend.
Here is the shells almost completely painted.
DO NOT CLEAR COAT YET.
If your clients are going to be in salt water or chlorine pools you will want to seal them with marine grade clear sealant.
But don't apply the sealant until you know you are done painting and don't apply any sealant to the back side at all.
My clients are not in these situations often and most of the time just in the sand or fresh tap water.
How I choose to paint and set my shells though is with Plaid Crafts Gloss Modge Podge.
Leave to drive overnight.
At this point I also like to just get away from them.
Which is exactly what I did and the next day when I saw them I decided that they needed a darker more magenta tone added.
I forgot to take a photo of it before I started adding the darker magenta color. But to add the darker magenta tone I used a dry brush method. Just get a tiny amount of paint on your brush and then brush it back and forth over a paper towel and then lightly build up the paint on the shell. Go slowly when dry brushing because even though it doesn't seem like a lot of paint it really is and will add up fast.
You can see how it looks completely dry and different from the wet version this is why you want to leave it sit and dry to make sure it is how you want it. After it was dry I decided to add a teal metallic over the top using the dry brush method also, this makes the texture and ridges stand out a lot.
Here I am just checking to see how the colors work on the bra.
I usually don't change my mind with the color palette from when I start but it just goes to show that you can change it and adapt to however you want.
I almost always use some ferns in my designs. They cover a larger area really fast and I also use ferns in a ton of my sets so they go really well together.
You can find pond and pool plants also that that are made for water use and pull in the water vibe. These won't break down as fast because they are made for this environment. They often have a plastic of rubbery feel to them.
Don't skip on quality for the plants and materials it will really make an impact on your images.
The above is the exact faux plant that I use in not only my bra tops but a ton of my sets. The ferns I pick up at random when I find them on sale. Since the ferns are my base layer I usually am not as picky about having those a super high quality.
Here you can see that I am starting to build up the greenery. This step is optional and if you love your bra and shells together without it then skip this step.
I start by adding the same amount on each side. I don't glue anything down just yet. I lay it all out and make sure everything is cut and no metal from the greenery is sticking out or going to poke anyone. I also start to measure the pieces that will go under/behind the shells and around the bottom cupped section. Using E6000 you do have a little time to move your pieces but I don't recommend it because the glue will start to get on everything. So only start gluing when you are 100% sure.
I use ONLY E6000 for gluing down my large pieces. Specifically this size tube and the CLEAR version only.
The downside to this product is that it does take some time to dry. You also need to use in a well ventilated area. Please read all the health and safety instructions.
Start by adding the glue and sticking down your bottom pieces, then add the other pieces on top. Since these are on a flat surface you don't have to really hold them in place. I usually will let this sit over night before I move on and start adding anything else.
Once you have that done you can start going around the cup of the bra. This is another reason I use bras and not bathing suits is that there is more structure and support and easier to glue things onto.
You don't have to use moss but I do. I just start by pulling bits of it apart. Adding the glue to the bra and then sticking the moss down into it.
If you don't want glue all over your fingers get some popsicle sticks to just push everything in place. *You will go through a few of them though, just toss them in the garbage if they get to messy and grab a new one.
Keep your shells close by. You will want to lay the shells over the top and make sure everything is covered and you don't want to add any greenery and moss where the shells will go. But I do recommend adding a little bit so it goes slightly behind the shells.
I use E6000 again to add crystals and beads
I just add a small dot and then apply. It is fine if a little glue comes out around them for me this just secures them better.
Leave those to dry as well.
Note: Your crystals no matter what you do can fall off eventually. They are just small and can get bumped really easy. I just keep them on hand if I need to glue them back on. You can add your Mod Podge Clear coat or marine grade sealant before or after you add your decoration but I choose to add it before because the texture of the shell usually helps hold the crystals or beads, then I just paint the mod podge over it all.
I get asked a lot of times what crystals to use. Honestly this is a decision that should be made on your budget. When I can afford it I will always go with the highest quality of Swarovski crystals but there are other great cheaper alternatives available also. I have ordered these a few times and have always been impressed by the quality.
ATTACHING THE SHELLS
If you didn't lightly sand the inside of your shells earlier make sure to do that now, but be as careful as you can to not mess up your paint job.
I apply a very generous amount of glue to the bra area, I want to add enough that it gets "trapped" inside the ridges of the shell and the bra but not to much that it runs out and down the greenery and all over the table.
Add glue to both sides of the bra as quickly as possible.
Then get ready to add your shells. You have a few minutes to work and move them around and get them placed so don't stress to much. But you want to leave them sit and not move them as much as possible.
Figure out your placement. Lay them down and leave them be. SOME BRAS however are really a pain.
You may have to add a heavy book to the top of the shell to press the bra and shell together. If you have to add a heavy book on top to hold the bra to the shell you can sometimes add a bunch of old paper balled up behind the cup to keep the shape. Again over time the glue can break down but I have only had this happen once and I was using an "off brand" of e6000 so I have to say it was bc I used the cheap stuff and not the real stuff. But just always have some glue in your back up kit just in case.
Leave it for 2-3 days. It probably doesn't need this long but I always leave it just to be on the safe side. That is a lot of glue holding it together so I want to make sure it is very dry.
All my colors are custom mixed together but I do recommend that you try to keep a general concept of the colors you used in case you need to touch up later.
HOWEVER I have found that if something chips in the paint I usually will just grab a metallic silver or gold and dry brush over the entire piece and give it an entirely new look while covering up those imperfections.