painting butterflies

enjoy the  confidence of painting butterflies
with a step-by-step tutorial
you will find watercolor is easy!

  • You will enjoy painting butterflies on thistle flowers.
Painting Butterflies with watercolor by artist Carol MayBlack-veined Butterflies

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get ready to paint butterflies

what do you paint on?

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

Watercolor paintings done on cold-pressed paper are very nice. However I prefer to use Claybord or Aquabord.

This butterfly painting is done on Aquabord made by Ampersand.

what colors will you use?

I used tube watercolor paints for painting butterflies.

  • New Gamboge Yellow (A warm yellow)
  • Phthalocyanine Blue (called Thalo Blue for short)
  • Quinacridone Violet (A reddish violet)
  • Dioxazine Purple / Ultramarine Violet (A bluish violet)

Mix your greens from the blue and yellow and use purple to darken the greens when necessary.





draw the butterflies

Do a drawing on a separate paper.

Transfer it to the painting support with "Ad" graphite paper.

Erasures on the painting surface may damage it.

Place "Ad" art masking fluid around the butterflies to keep them white.

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

Apply masking fluid to the areas you want to keep white on your butterfly painting.Apply masking fluid

Be ready to paint with your supplies on hand.





start with painting the background

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

  • Lay 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 of the painting away from the light source.

This is caused by reflected light.

  • You may add a bit of yellow on the right side for the warmth of the 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.

It is good to repeat colors throughout the painting to give the painting cohesion.

  • Add some violet in the background because the flowers are violet.
  • 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.Colors get darker toward the bottom.




painting the flowers

We paint the flowers before the butterflies because their bodies and legs go over the flowers.

paint the petals

  • Use a small round brush to roughly lay in the flower colors.

Don't try to paint individual petals.

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.

Let the colors flow together.

Paint the flowers before painting the butterflies.Paint the flowers
before the butterflies

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.

Leave white spaces for sparkle.

Paint more details on the flowers after removing the masking fluid.Paint extra petals after
removing the masking fluid.


the green parts of the flowers

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.

Add a tiny bit of blue under the edge of the petals for a shadow

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

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, mixed with more blue.

Paint a light and dark side of the leaves and stems. How to watercolor paint by artist Carol MayPaint the leaves with variety




now we get to start painting butterflies!

remove the masking

Remove the masking from the butterfly wings.

  • You may use a dry finger
  • Or use a Pick-Up Rubber Cement Eraser
Remove the masking from the butterfly wings before painting them.Remove the masking

butterfly wings

When you are 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 wings overlap and where they attach to the body.
  • Put yellow on the top outer edges of the wings.

The warm yellow brings bottom wing forward of the lavender grey wing behind it.

How to paint watercolor butterflies with Carol MayShade the butterfly's wings before painting the veins.

paint the veins

  • Mix a black by using the yellow, bluish violet and blue and paint the veins.

You may use any small, round brush or even a liner brush for painting butterfly veins.

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

I forgot to shade the wings before painting veins. So after the veins dried, I went back and did the shading.

Paint the veins on the butterfly wings.Paint the veins with a small brush

paint the butterfly bodies

Butterflies have three body parts.

They have a head with two antenna, a thorax with six legs and four wings attached to the thorax and an abdomen.

  • Lighten the same color you mixed for the veins with a bit more water.
  • The body will be 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.Paint the butterfly's body


final adjustments

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.

  •  Every individual artist will do their paintings in their own manner.
Now you know how to paint butterfliesComplete Your Painting

Painting butterflies is fun!

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more pages to enjoy

  • How to Paint Watercolor

    Learn how to paint watercolor and preserve the white of the paper while you paint a lovely butterfly. Use the paper because there is no white watercolor paint.

  • Paint a Butterfly with watercolors

    Take the stress out of learning how-to paint a butterfly. A five step watercolor tutorial for painting a Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly from start to finish.

  • Gorgeous Butterfly Paintings

    What a joy doing Butterfly Paintings! Butterflies are so awesome! When I see these gorgeous creatures in my yard, I snap photos for more paintings by Carol May

  • Types of Butterflies

    Photos and information about thirty types of butterflies commonly seen in the United States will help you identify the butterfly types you see in your yard.

  • Original for Sale - Monarch on Daisies by Carol May

    Monarch On Daisies original for sale by the artist Carol May, watercolor butterfly painting

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