Snail Art: Making Art With Snails




Introduction: Snail Art: Making Art With Snails

About: I like to make things exist with my mind. And, you know, tools. When I was very young, I remember thinking that crayons were like magic. Suddenly, from the tip of the crayon and my moving hand, my ideas were l…

Hi, and welcome to the "Snail Art" segment of our show! Snail Art. Art with snails. By snails. And for snails. Sort of. Snail Art. ...Snart?

In this segment, we'll cover Snail-based printing processes, painting, and light art.

So in order to make art with snails, the first step is, naturally, obtaining snails.

(Pictured: Marc Shellgall hard at work)

Step 1: Befriending Snails

First, a friendly reminder to make sure to wash your hands well and thoroughly after handling any wild animal, insect, or adorable gastropod. (There is a small chance they carry some disease, as with earth worms, baby birds, bird eggs, and anything you find in the dirt.)


When I decided to set out to make snail art, I spent two days with my eyes glued to every tree and blade of grass and flower patch I saw along my walk to and fro anywhere I was going to and anywhere I was coming from. I scoured the dirt and the leaves and the bushes to no avail. I found evidence that pointed to the existence of snails! But, disappointingly, this evidence was empty snail shells. I found a lot of cool things along the way. Slugs, bird egg shells, mushrooms, acorns, helicopter seeds...

So here's the secret tip I got from my next door neighbor:

Go out at night when the weather's warm and it's just rained, and you'll be hot on the tail of a snail trail soon enough!

Suddenly, there were dozens of snails right there in plain view. They look like little spiral-shaped acorns from a standing height, and are really easy to spot once you know what to look for. I picked up a total of 24 snails before I decided it was probably enough, and I should probably go home, and probably have a cup of tea, and maybe a good lie down before I spiraled down into a mess of mollusc madness.

- Bring tupperware.
- Bring a flashlight.
- Grab some leaves from the plants you found the snails on or near as you go.
- DO NOT DROP THE SNAILS. It may crack their shells and thusly potentially harm them.
- It helps to have a snail-finding-sleuth with you, like my friend's cat, who followed me approximately 8 blocks away and back on my snail-ventures. I don't think she knew we were looking for snails, but that was ok by me.

The little buggers move pretty fast, so I had to be vigilant to keep them all accounted for in the tupperware I brought, or they'd be all over the sides and bottom of the container, and my arm.


I was lucky enough to have an extra large tank meant for reptiles lying around. You need at least a tupperware container with a good bit of room for them to crawl around in, and a mesh top with a weight on it so they can't work their way out. Transparent seems better for them, plus then you get to watch them move along the side walls, and seeing their bodies and muscles undulate to propel themselves forward is incredibly fascinating.

I was also lucky enough to have some pet-store-ready dirt and moss to line the bottom of the tank with. (I have a pet frog.) If you aren't so lucky, you can use earth from outside. I've heard this is a bad idea, but after thinking about it for a moment that doesn't really make sense, because you've just found these snails outside.

You'll want to provide them with plenty of leaves, veggies, rotting veggies and leaves... No salt or sugar. They need calcium to build their shells, and apparently wild snails sometimes eat dirt for this reason. You can give them something like ground egg shells in with their food, for instance, and that should do the trick.

They like to climb. So be prepared to have snails hiding out on the lid itself and the top-most corners of the enclosure. Give 'em plenty of leaves and sticks to play with.

Mist them once a day or so, and start out with nice moist earth.

I discovered the second day I misted them that their mucus trails, which I thought were evaporating, were actually still residually on the glass, and apparently water resistant! (Great news for snail art!)

To recap:

- Large enclosure with lid that lets in air and locks or is weighted
- Dirt, soaked.
- Leaves/Veggies and sticks
- Spray bottle for misting
- Snails. Naturally.

Step 2: Experiment!

I didn't know what would and wouldn't work, so I gathered a bunch of materials I suspected might have potential, and tried them out. At this point, I thought that the snail trails would stick around. That would've been cool. But they don't. Instead, they seemed to evaporate.

(That first picture looks kind of like the snail is looking at itself in the mirror. In fact, when I first put it on the acrylite & mirror, it spun around in circles until I put a piece of paper beneath it. Given that they navigate by smell rather than by sight, I'm not sure why this happened, but it was cute.)

So then I tried guiding them by drawing with expo marker on a piece of acrylite that I had lying around. This little snail followed the path down the line....around the bend....and then forgot about it. They navigate by sense of smell, so I think it was because the marker had a strong chemical smell when it was freshly applied. I'm sure something could be done with this information! Someone should do that something. (/nude nudge, dear reader!)

I then tried to create a barrier with a few writing implements, but as you can see, apparently I collected only REBEL SNAILS.

Lastly, I was hoping to get the snails to bravely pave the way through a path of dirt. The snails seem mostly confused by any dry, powdery substance with a discernibly sized particle. And it sticks to them and looks rather frustrating.

I was hoping they'd act more like little state machines. Nope. They don't give a single care. "What's that in front of me? A predator? A leaf? My friend? REBEL SNAIL IN ACTION! I'mma just crawl over them."

I still wanted to figure out how to use their "tracks" to make art...It was at that point that I went home and delightfully discovered the snail tracks which had secretly remained inside of the tank.

(Warning: Image #2 may be NSFW. I'm still not sure and I've been staring at snails for a week. They're...cuddling.)


RANDOM SNAIL FACT: Snails are hermaphrodites. : )

Step 3: Art Form One: Dust Prints!

With this information, you can make...

Snail dust prints! Think of it like dusting for fingerprints, but a far less accurate science. I'm trying to imagine a crime scene murder mystery where my newfound ability to dust for recent snail tracks somehow solves the case.

When I was still thinking of having the snails carve out a path through a dirt-substance, I made eggshell powder so that it'd also be nutritious for them! This didn't work well for those purposes, but it worked AMAZINGLY well for dusting surfaces after the snails crawled around for a bit. (Better than both chalk dust and flour.)


I bought a carton of 12 eggs, so I made a giant omelette and some chocolate chip cookie dough. This is need to know information. You know. In case you needed ideas for how to use 12 eggs in one sitting. You can very very effectively crush the eggshells in a spice grinder, but it's recommended that you remove the membrane stuck to the inside of it. This step was surprisingly easy. I also didn't do a 110% job of it.


I used the orange piece of acrylite and some various coloured plastic sheets from the local art store, as well as two small pieces of soft-carve linoleum that I found on the shelf there, meant for printmaking. You are going to want a smooth, non-stick, static-enducing surface though. Paper and board will not work.

So to begin, just let the snails move around a bunch on your surface of choice! They'll just crawl off, mostly, and onto other random things nearby. You have to sort of corral them and occasionally pick them up and put them back on your work surface until you think it's sufficiently slimed.

Now for the fun part! Put your snails back into their container/holding cell. You get to be a snail forensic scientist! Take your crushed up egg shell and cover the surface in it. Shake it a little to get an even coating. And dump the dust off. All the trails will show up immediately, and depending on the material, you might get some awesome weird little shapes and kinks from the static build-up on the plastic as well. (If you don't want that to happen, use less flexible plastics.)

I wanted to see if I could use the snails to create a discernible image, but if you recall, these are Rebel Snails. It was not easy. It took a lot of patience. They pretty much wanted to go in any direction other than the one I desired, and trying to block them with 'items' or 'my hands' resulted in snails trying to crawl onto 'items' or 'my hands.' Moop. But there you go!. Exhibit A. We have a rudimentary smiley face and a quick little "Hi."

Last step is to spray the trails with some sort of fixative. You can get a canister at any local art store. This will help to ensure the egg shell dust doesn't just brush off. It's normally used most frequently for preserving charcoal drawings.

- Various plastic surfaces of choice
- Patience
- Egg shell powder
- Fixitive

Step 4: Snail Trail Window Hanging


I don't know! I'm excited to see what you all do with snail-path-dustings-on-coloured-transparent-materials.

I chose to make a quick little window hanging by cutting up my snail path plastics, re-assembling them like snail path puzzle pieces, and then putting them together using a needle to poke holes and a spool of tiny wire to connect the squares. It's pretty neat, but from a distance admittedly it just looks dirty because the remaining dust isn't thick enough to block out enough light.Still, there you have it! A rudimentary window hanging embellished by snails. I was still hooked on the notion of them creating art actively as they moved, though. So let's move on.

- Snail dustings
- Needle
- Thin wire or fishing line
- Windows

Step 5: Art Form Two: Chalkboard Drawings & Water Reveal Paper

This one's real straightforward!

I've conveniently covered a few walls in my studio with chalkboard paint. Basically, I chalked it up, brushed it off, and stuck a few snails to it.

I think it looks spectacular. : )

I also purchased a sheet of special water-reactive paper. The only colour the store had left was "black." It basically reacts to water in that you can draw an image which dries and completely disappears within 10 minutes. So this was not an effective method for capturing a snail trail image, but it was fun to play with.

But these methods weren't super compelling to me. Too simple, and not easy to use in a larger off-chalkboard work, or add colour to, both non-permanent... I also wished that the path remained as dark as it is at first, but the trail dries and lightens in both of these techniques, one completely.

So the venture continued on...

- Chalk board
- Chalk
- Fun water-reactive papers

*CHALK & SNAILS: There was some debate within myself and online about whether or not it's ok for snails to ingest chalk dust. Sidewalk chalk and chalkboard chalk are not made of calcium carbonate (which you can feed to snails for shell-building calcium), but instead formed using calcium sulfate. Sulfur is apparently bad for snails, so I am told. Other people toss pieces of chalk into their fishtanks and let it dissolve into the water to get snails calcium. Others yet claimed that chalkboard chalk is effectively gypsum, or plaster, and that snails in the urban wild deciding to eat plaster is a common problem, which would indicate that it's fine for them. Ultimately, I decided, I found these snails outside in the urban wild, and I'm sure a snail or two has crawled over some chalk drawings in its day. All of my snails are alive and accounted for, seem to be doing just fine.

Step 6: Art Form Three: Lighting the Way!

I imagined this being a lot more dramatic than it was, a little snail carving a bold path of bright light that comes out of nowhere.

Still, it's very pretty. I'm drawn to light like a moth. The above pictures show acetate covered in charcoal dust, on top of my light box. Look at that little snail, hard at work!

I still want to try it with butcher paper, and low-quality cafe-snack bag-paper, which becomes transluscent when exposed to large amounts of grease. I haven't yet experimented with that.

Tracing paper wasn't a notable enough difference. the paper towels worked alright. Ultimately, a piece of acetate (like an overhead projector transparency sheet) covered in Soft Vine Charcoal dust, worked best.

This is my personal favourite, mostly because it involves two of my favourite things. (Art dependent on glowing light, and adorable snails.)

- Acetate/Transparency sheets
- Soft Vine Charcoal
- Light box

Step 7: Art Form Four: Snail Painting!


I used food colouring and put a ton of it in a tiny amount of water. I mercilessly dipped the snails into it. I was hesitant at first, and mindful of not drowning them, but they were all just fine, if a little shy and scared at first.

Technique: It's best to dip them when they're in a crawling mood, as they're less likely to just dive back into their shells and more likely to go "Oh, I'm more wet now. Okay. I can keep painting. Sweet."

Problems: They kept trying to eat the first paper I put them on. That seemed especially true of the dark green dye. I guess some dyes are tastier than other dyes. I also had a sheet of palette paper (wax paper would also work) for them to crawl on continually just to let the coloured water leave their systems. I also tried to be mindful of which snails I'd already manhandled and abused, and give them a nice break back in their carrier.

- Food colouring
- Small water jars
- Water
- Paper
- Wax Paper/Palette paper

Step 8: Bid Your New Friends Goodbye

Thank your snails for all of their art-making help, and set them free on the next rainy day. They go as wet and quiet in the night as they came.

Parting is such sweet, sweet, slimy sorrow.

Run free, little rebel snails! RUN FREE!... slowly.

*No snails were harmed in the making of this Instructable.

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    1 day ago

    Just keep in mind that most food coloring brands have sodium benzoate in them, which is considered highly toxic to snails.


    3 years ago

    Snails eyes can't see well, they can only tell light from dark.
    When the snail was on the mirror it probably got confused either by the very smooth surface, or the mirror reflecting the light.

    Anyway, cool experiment!


    3 years ago

    I was horrified when I read the title, but was greatly relieved to see that that you treated them very respectfully. I wasn't wild about dipping them in food colouring though. . However, I can see you were trying to find the least offensive treatment to them and I can also see that the other art projects were based on an interest and affection for them.


    6 years ago

    this is a highly satisfying and adorable project. I love snails and I thought this instructable was well made and witty.


    6 years ago

    So what are you trying to do...?


    Reply 6 years ago



    6 years ago on Introduction

    The best spot for me to find snails is in the letter box


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I really like this! So cool!

    Where do you live that there are so many snails around?

    I've got slugs where I live, would those work for this project?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Probably! At first I was finding more snails than slugs, but slugs don't move as fast. And aren't as cute. But try it!

    And I live in the northeast at the moment, but I've seen them in the pacific northwest and northern California... Anywhere that isn't too dry has them. However, it was night and day after the rainstorm. As I said, I didn't see a single snail until I went outside at night while it was still pretty wet.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    If there are slugs around there are probably also snails hiding out somewhere.


    7 years ago

    Who would have thought of this? You did WOW very cool.


    7 years ago

    I love your instructables ! You write them in such a way that makes it so fun to read!

    Phoenix Flare
    Phoenix Flare

    7 years ago

    That is cool! Snails are so cute!


    7 years ago

    This is a really cool idea. When making contact with snails or slugs wear gloves, and DO NOT MAKE SKIN CONTACT! If you do you can get extremely sick, people have fallen I to a kind of paraliseation because of them if this happens you will most probably lose movement and become comatosed, them your body will slowly shutdown and die. If you don't believe me google it, be careful these tiny creatures are killers


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction


    I appreciate your concern and warning. It is true, you should wear gloves or wash your hands well after (and before) handling the snails, and definitely before eating. I'll add that to the instructible.

    However, as to whether or not simply handling snails should be cause for alarm, this is what I have found:

    - Giant African Snails (not common garden snails) can sometimes carry meningitis.
    - Eating raw gastropods can sometimes transmit the deadly parasite you are talking about.
    - Handing any wild animal, snails included, could theoretically and potentially transmit disease. So wash your hands.

    Were that a common problem to have with garden snails, I think one of the many snail-experts whose meticulously detailed snail-care and handling guides I poured over may have mentioned this danger.

    In summation, if you'd please be so kind as to private message me a reasonably cited scientific source which also demonstrates the statistical probability of obtaining a deadly parasite merely from handling common garden snails, that would be appreciated. For now, I've amended the instructable to advise hand-washing. Please be more careful in your future posts to not spread mis-information or outrageously fear-mongering potentiality blown out of proportion.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Definitely one of the most creative things I've ever seen. And snails are pretty cute. This a very interesting 'ible. Not sure it's anything I'll ever partake in, but when you become a famous forensic snail trail print expert, I'll be cheering and saying "I 'knew' her when she was just starting out!" :-D

    Amazing Snail Art! i was very interested in the experiment you did by making the snail follow the marker trail and yes i'm "sure something could be done with this information!" i will look further into it.