how-to paint a butterfly

with watercolors

take the stress out of painting

Five simple steps you can use to paint a butterfly with less stress.

Have you ever looked at a painting and thought to yourself, "Oh my, that looks so complicated. I don't even know where to start!" I have many times.

Painting can be a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. What we need is a plan.

You have found a painting strategy with a step-by-step procedure of what to do and when to do it.

to people that want to start painting, but are afraid to get started

We have a painting strategy to follow. You can paint a butterfly from start to finish with five easy steps.

No more stress when you start a painting. Paint confidently by following these easy steps.

Painting butterflies is one of my favorite subjects. We will be painting a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly with some artist's flowers.

Take the stress out of painting. Artist Carol May will paint a butterfly step-by-step, so you can do it too.Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

before you start painting

get your reference materials

    where do you get reference material?

  • Paint the subject from life, in the garden, at the zoo, etc.
  • Take your own photos to use as reference material.
  • Use someone else's photos.

There are many beautiful photos in magazines and on line, but we need to be aware of copyright laws. The photographer or artist who did the beautiful pictures owns the copyrights.

We need to look for public domain pictures that have no copyrights. Or an image labeled Creative Commons Zero (CCO) where the person has given up their copyright privileges.

One place to look is on Pixabay.  They have over a million images in a large variety of categories. Make sure the image is labeled CCO or public domain before you use it for your artwork.

get your supplies

We will be using watercolor paints.  Please refer to the watercolor supply page for a detailed description of the supplies I use.

This painting uses a double compliment color scheme of two yellow with their compliments of blue and purple.

  • Lemon Yellow
  • New Gamboge Yellow
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Dioxazine Purple

Use watercolor brushes and your favorite watercolor painting surface.

My favorite watercolor support is Aquabord. It is easy to erase and remove paint when you want to change something.


draw and mask your painting

Draw you subject on a separate paper. Erasures can damage the painting surface.

When you are happy with your drawing transfer it to your painting surface with graphite paper.

masking

Use a art masking fluid (also called, frisket) to keep from getting paint in areas you want to keep light colored. Learn more about preserving the light areas in watercolor paintings, click here.

You may paint around the light areas. But when you apply some masking, it simplifies the painting process. With masking fluid we don't have to stress out about painting over the little yellow spots and edges on the butterfly wings.

I painted around all the white spots on the Monarch butterfly's wings and body. I also painted the orange areas on the wings and the black veins separately. It was very stressful!

  • Now I do it differently, no stress, remember?

On the Tiger Swallowtail you see little yellow spots on the back part of their wings. There are also some yellow edges on the wings. Mask these areas, and then we can paint right over them. Later we will remove the masking and paint them yellow.

You may also mask the centers of the flowers. We will paint them yellow in the finishing step. If purple got onto the yellow center areas, we would have brown centers.

Let the masking dry thoroughly, 10 to 30 minutes depending on your environment.

  • Yay, we are ready to paint a butterfly!

confidently paint a butterfly

# 1 - under-paint the butterfly

After the underpainting is dry, we will do more painting over the top of the dry paint.

Step one of painting a  watercolor butterfly, under-paint the butterflyUnder-paint the Butterfly

Put a combination of warm and cool yellow on the butterfly wings. It’s always good to have a variation in color when paint a butterfly. One straight, flat, same color is boring.

On the back edge of the wings, paint some blue for the future blue spots we will make later.



# 2 - under-paint the background

When you paint a butterfly, it is always interesting to paint them with some flowers. If you have flowers drawn around the butterfly, paint the light background colors right over your flower drawing.

Thin the blue and purple down with water for the lighter colors of the background.

Use a larger brush and paint quickly to prevent hard edges. If you do get a hard edge or a water blossom from a back-run, soften it out with a damp brush.

Under-paint the background with blue and purple.Under-paint the background with blue and purple.

The light source is coming from the upper right side of the painting. Under the left side of the butterfly, put darker purple because that area would be in shadow.

It's nice to have some white space in the painting, particularly when you paint a butterfly. It helps the painting feel lighter.

So don't take the background colors all the way to the edge, particularly on the upper right side toward the light.

When you are happy with the background, let it dry.



step 3 - paint a butterfly

Mix a black from yellow and purple to paint the edges and veins of the butterfly wings. If your black is not dark enough, add a touch of blue.

You will notice when you are painting a butterfly, the border colors often blend into the main color of the wings. How do you make the colors blend?

Dampen the bottom edge of the yellow on the back wings. Then when you paint the black border the colors run together and make a soft edge.

Paint the edge of the butterfly wings black.Paint the black edge of the hind-wing.
Paint around the blue spots.

When you are painting the border on the hind-wings, paint around some areas of blue to leave blue spots.

Paint the large black areas on the rest of the butterfly wings.Paint the remaining black areas.

Paint all the other large black areas on the butterfly's wings.

Paint the center stripe on the body black. Leave the sides of the body yellow, we will come back and shade them later.

Lightly paint the black veins in the butterfly wings.Paint the black veins with a light touch.

Paint the black veins with a fine touch of the tip of a round brush.

If your vein lines get crooked or too fat, lift out the mistake with a damp brush and then blot it with a tissue or a paper towel.

The wonderful quality of Aquabord is your mistakes can be removed. It works easiest when the paint is still wet, but dry paint can also be removed. I use a damp, stiff angle brush for lifting out mistakes.

Let everything dry, and move on to the flowers.



step 4 - paint the background, including the flowers

Add some darker values to the background for added interest.Add some darker values to the background.

When we paint a butterfly, it is the main focus of the painting, but we also need some interest in the background.

Light and dark are contrasting values. There is plenty of contrast in the butterfly. But the background fell flat.

Darken the background around the flowers with a combination of purple and blue. Adding darker purple and blue around the flowers adds more life and interest to the painting.

Purple is the complimentary color of yellow and it really makes the butterfly stand out.



one way to paint flowers

Remove some paint to make a lighter flower.Remove some paint to
make a light flower.
Negative paint around the flower to make it stand out from the background.Negative paint around the flower
to pull it out of the background.

The background color to the butterfly's left suggested another flower. I used my stiff color lifting brush to lift off some of the dark purple paint. (the first photo)

In the second photo, I did some negative painting to make a couple of flower petals peeking out from behind the butterfly.

Negative painting forms an object by painting around the object, versus painting the object itself.

See how the flower petals came out of nothing, when we added the darker background around them.

Then add a bit of shadow between the two petals to separate the two petals.




a second method of painting flowers

Put dark paint in the center of the flower.Put dark paint in
the center of the flower.
Pull the dark paint out toward the edge of the petals.The dark paint has been pulled out
toward the edge of the petals.

This direct method of painting the flowers is quite simple. All the rest of the flowers are painted in this method.

Add a dark color to the center of the flower, photo one. While the paint is still wet use a damp brush to pull the colors out toward the outside of the petal.

See the finished flowers in photo two. In some of the flowers you may want to leave one side a petal light to separate it from the neighboring petal.

  • Paint all the flowers and move on to the fifth step to finish painting a butterfly.


step 5 - pull it together and finish

Remove the masking fluid to expose the white areas on the butterfly and the flower centers.Remove the masking fluid to expose white areas.

Take the masking fluid off to expose the unpainted areas.

In this painting, the use of a rubber cement pick-up tool may also remove some of the black paint. Instead, rub the masking off with a dry finger.

See how the masking fluid made it so much easier to preserve the white areas.

  • This is the stress free way to paint a butterfly. It sure beats painting around each and every spot.


Paint the butterfly spots, edges and flower center.Paint the butterfly spots, edges and flower center.

Paint the spots and edges on the butterfly wings yellow.

Water down your black to paint the sides of the butterfly body a soft grey. Paint the outside edges of the body darker to show the contour of the body.  Leave a few yellow highlights on the body.

Use the softened black to pull out a couple of antennae and put a dark head on the butterfly.



Put some yellow centers in the flowers.

You may add a bit of light purple or grey on the shadow side of the centers to give them form.



you are ready to paint a butterfly

You may paint this Tiger Swallowtail butterfly by following these easy steps.

Or you may paint a butterfly of your choice with the same steps.

Happy Butterfly Painting!

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