In this watercolor tutorial I'm breaking down the process of painting butterflies into simple steps that will make the intricate achievable. We are going to gather all our supplies, sketch out our plan, mix up some paints, and add another piece to our sketchbook!
To see the step-by-step for each individual butterfly, check out the video:
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Our first step is to sketch out our butterflies and create a nice design that looks good on the page. I use a lot of heart shapes - sometimes one wing is a heart or both wings make up a heart. They do not need to be symmetrical or perfect, just have fun. To help you get things looking just right it can be helpful to trace your design. I traced mine three times to get the layout just right. Now I am using graphite transfer paper to transfer my design into my sketchbook with good watercolor paper. At this point, we have a clear but light transfer that we can go ahead and paint right over.
This part is very fun, and also very optional. I am painting a little bit of masking fluid onto the butterfly wings to make some fun designs using stripes and spots. Masking fluid is a liquid latex that is very good at protecting areas of our painting so you can paint right over it and leave those areas blank.
I have a color palette of creams, browns, beiges, and a muted blue. I want to use very natural autumn tones but you can use any colors. Now that our masking fluid is dry we can start painting! We have a design on the page so we don’t have to worry about where to paint, the prep is all done, so we just color in the wings with paint. For this first step, I like to use very light colors. I play around with wet into wet but keep the base of the wings light since we will continue to add to them.
Tip #1 The wet into wet gives us some very natural patterns on the wings. I like to paint things in nature because they are hard to mess up, everything is imperfectly perfect. Who can tell you that your butterfly doesn’t look like a butterfly? Just have fun playing with color and form.
Our next step is the butterflies’ bodies. I did use a little masking fluid on one or two of the bodies just to add some highlights so we don’t have to paint highlight. Again, I am using lighter colors. If you go too dark there isn’t much you can do but its always possible to make them darker. I did go fairly dark on the butterfly with lighter wings though because I like the contrast so it’s entirely up to you. I’m adding some cute little antennae and now the butterflies are only missing those intricate details.
Now we get to start adding the designs onto the wings, building on those lighter colors with richer and darker colors. On the first one, I am filling in the bottom of the wings, and its the masking fluid that creates the pattern with the negative spots. Adding a stripe across the top I connected this to the bottom with delicate little lines. With the rest of the butterflies, I a removing the masking liquid first, just rubbing it away with my finger. Now I can add some lighter paint inside those spots, creating another easy pattern. Just get random and have some fun with it. If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry, we will keep adding more layers.
Tip #2 It is easy to look at other people’s work and think it looks perfect and hard to achieve. But you can do it, each person sees the faults in their own work. These butterflies are not symmetrical or perfect in any sense. It is the artists’ curse to look at your own work and see all the mistakes and I see all of mine too.
If you don’t have the brush control to do the lines, try making a stripe of small vertical lines. Or just use spots and polka-dots and random blobs, try different patterns and just have fun with it. They can look intricate but they really are just playful. The best designs are the ones you come up with as you paint because you are enjoying painting and having fun.
Anywhere that still has some negative space, I am filling in with some lighter colors. I was about done but decided to add some tiny little butterflies to bring the whole painting together as a finished piece. I hope that by breaking this down into simple steps you’ll feel that this is achievable. Remember, just have fun and enjoy the process!