painting butterflies

with watercolor



painting butterflies in six easy steps

Painting Butterflies in watercolor by artist Carol MayBlack-veined Butterflies on Thistle

I thoroughly enjoy painting butterflies. Follow me step-by-step thru the painting process.

draw the butterflies

Do a drawing on a separate paper. Then transfer it to the painting support with graphite paper.

Erasures on the painting surface may damage it.

Place masking fluid around the butterflies to keep them white.

I also put some masking on the flowers and leaves in places for highlights.

Apply masking fluid to the areas you want to keep white.Apply masking fluid

the painting colors

I used tube watercolors for painting butterflies.

  • New Gamboge Yellow
  • Phthalocyanine Blue (called Thalo Blue)
  • Quinacridone Violet
  • Dioxazine Purple / Ultramarine Violet

I mixed the greens from the blue and yellow and used purple to darken the greens when necessary.

the painting support

Watercolor paintings may be done on watercolor paper, watercolor canvas or Aquabord.

Watercolor painting done on cold-pressed paper are very nice.

However I prefer to use Claybord or Aquabord.

This butterfly painting is done on Aquabord.

be ready to paint with supplies on hand.

painting the background

The light in this painting is coming from the top left.

  • I laid in Thalo Blue with a soft wash brush.
  • Make the upper left background darker.
  • The upper background color gets lighter, as you go to the right side from the light source.
  • This is caused by reflected light.
Paint the background dark to light.Paint the background.
  • Lower in the painting, the colors get darker to help ground the painting.
  • Use a smaller brush for the tighter areas.
  • I wanted some violet in the background because the flowers are violet.
  • It is good to repeat colors throughout the painting to give the painting cohesion.
  • Add a bit of yellow in places, to co-ordinate with the leaves.
Darken the background towards the bottom of the painting to help ground the painting.Background colors get darker toward the bottom.

painting the flowers

I am painting the flowers first before the butterflies. The butterfly bodies and legs go down over the flowers.

paint the petals

  • Use a small round brush to roughly lay in the flower colors.
  • Use the warmer, reddish violet on the left side of the flower which is towards the light.
  • Use the bluish violet on the bottom and the right side of the flower away from the light.
  • Roughly fill in the color, don't try to paint individual petals.
  • Vary the intensity of the colors by using more or less water.
  • After the flower color is dry, remove the masking fluid from the flower.
  • Now paint some individual petals with a small round brush.
  • Use variations of light and dark violets and leave white spaces for sparkle.
Paint the flowers before painting the butterflies.Paint the flowers
before the butterflies

Paint more details on the flowers after removing the masking fluid.Extra petals are painted after the masking fluid is removed.

paint the green parts

Mix blue and yellow on your palette for your green to paint the calyx, sepals and stems.

  • Mix the green lighter for the side toward the light (add more yellow).
  • Mix the green darker for the side away from the light (add more blue).
  • Notice the calyx color is darker on the bottom side which is shadowed.

Paint the green parts of the thistle flowers. watercolor art by Carol MayPaint the green flower parts.

painting the butterflies

remove the masking

  • Before painting butterflies remove the masking from their wings.
  • We want the butterfly colors to go out and touch the background colors.
  • You may use a dry finger or a rubber cement pick-up tool.
Remove the masking from the butterfly wings before painting them.Remove masking from wings.

butterfly wings

While painting butterflies keep in mind that butterflies actually have four wings. 

paint the wing colors

  • Mix lavender grey with yellow and red-violet. 
  • Paint the grey where the bottom wing overlaps the upper wing, on the lower part of the bottom wing and the fore-wing peeking out on the left.
  • Put yellow on the top outer edges of the wings. The warm yellow brings it forward of the lavender grey wing behind it.
Shading the butterfly wings with watercolorShade the butterfly's wings before painting the veins.

paint the veins

  • You may use any small, round brush or even a liner brush for painting butterfly veins.
  • Mix a black by using the yellow, bluish violet and blue and paint the veins.

If I make a wiggle-wobble or fat veins, I use a damp brush to pick up the extra paint before it dries.

Paint the veins on the butterfly wings.Use a small brush
to paint the veins

paint the butterfly bodies

Butterflies have three body parts; a head, a thorax and an abdomen.

They have two antennas on their head.

Six legs and four wings are attached to the thorax.

  • Use the same color you mixed for the veins. Make it lighter toward the light source.
  • The butterfly's legs go out over the flower petals because the butterfly is standing on the flower.
Paint the butterfly bodies.The butterfly sits on
top of the flower

painting the leaves

You may want to paint the leaves in more detail. I saved my detail for the butterflies and the flowers.

  • Mix dark and light greens the way you did for the green parts of the flowers.
  • Paint the leaves with a variety of light and dark greens.
  • The leaves toward the light will have more yellow.
  • Paint the shadow side of the leaves and stems a darker green.
Paint a light and dark side of the leaves and stems. How to watercolor paint by artist Carol MayPaint the leaves with variety

final adjustments

Now look around your butterfly painting and see what you might want to touch up.

  •  Values are what really make a painting sparkle!
  • You may add more darks at this time, if you feel the painting needs it.
  • Do it whatever suits your taste. You have an artist's license for painting butterflies.
  • No two paintings will ever look the same. Every painting is an individual.
  •  And every individual artist will do their paintings in their own manner.
Finish your butterfly paintingComplete Your Painting

I had fun painting butterflies. I wish you the best in doing your own butterfly painting.

Many blessings to you in painting God's beautiful gift of butterflies.

Paint a watercolor Longwing butterfly with me.

What types of butterflies do we see in the United States?

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