don't be afraid
of painting butterflies

with watercolor

to people who want to start painting butterflies, but are afraid to get started

Follow me step-by-step and enjoy the confidence of painting butterflies.

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


getting ready to paint your butterflies

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.

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

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.

what colors will you use?

I used tube watercolors for painting butterflies.

  • New Gamboge Yellow (A warm yellow)
  • Phthalocyanine Blue (For short it's called Thalo Blue.)
  • 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.

be ready to paint with Your supplies on hand.

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.
  • Add 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

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

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.

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 before we paint them.
  • We want the butterfly colors to go out and softly touch the background colors.
  • You may use a dry finger or a rubber cement pick-up tool to remove the masking.
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 parts.

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

  • Use the same color you mixed for the veins. Make the body 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 stands on
top of the flower

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.
  •  Every individual artist will do their paintings in their own manner.
Finish your butterfly paintingComplete Your Painting

Painting butterflies is fun; you see how to do it.

Now you can confidently paint your own butterflies.

happy painting!

Paint a watercolor Longwing butterfly with me.

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


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