Art Blog

Even Beginners Can Paint These Gilded Watercolor Butterflies

Butterflies with a touch of sparkle are a perfect project to decorate a notecard, or create a unique gift to frame for someone you love. They are simple to draw and so much fun to paint in any color combination that you choose.

The finished butterfly.

Painting butterflies is a perfect project for beginner watercolor painters.

Follow along with me and create a whole rainbow of these beautiful and iridescent winged creatures!

For this project I used a tiny box of handmade watercolor paints in a neutral palette. Any brand of watercolor paint will work. Just choose five colors, plus an iridescent gold, silver or bronze watercolor paint. Most manufacturers make iridescent paints, but you can also use gold acrylic paint with lots of water added to it. You will achieve the same effect.

How to paint a watercolor butterfly step by step

What you need:

  • Watercolor paper (I used Stonehenge Aqua Hot Press in a 9×12 sheet)
  • A No. 2 pencil
  • A size 6 or 8 pointed round watercolor brush
  • A jar of clean water
  • Paper towels
  • Watercolor paints in 5 colors, including raw umber or another dark hue (I used colors similar to buff titanium, yellow ochre, Venetian red, raw umber and burnt sienna)
  • Iridescent watercolor or acrylic paint in gold, silver or bronze. If you use acrylic, water it down to the fluidity of watercolor.

Step 1: Sketch the butterfly

Line drawing.

First, I made a light line drawing of our butterfly. You can use a reference image if you would like, but any simple line drawing in the shape of a butterfly will do.

Keep it simple, no details. The charm of this little painting is in the washes of colors and the sparkle of gold. Keep your drawing light and use a kneaded eraser to lighten it up if you need to.

Mine is about 3″ across and would fit perfectly on a 5″ x 7″ notecard.

Step 2: Paint the first layer of color

First wash.

One of the tricks to this project is to paint one wing section at a time.

I painted the upper wing sections — first the left and then the right. I allowed them both to dry completely before moving on. If I had painted the lower sections too soon, the paint would have run into the next section. Just be patient and wait until each layer of each section is dry before moving on to the next step. 

For my first layer, I used pale wash of buff titanium, a pale ecru color. You could also use any color mixed with plenty of water to get a wash the strength of weak tea. I worked on one section at a time, covering the wing with the pale ecru and then using a stronger mix of raw umber to line the edges, defining them. I also added a dot of raw umber to each wing to give it a little detail.

Don’t worry if the darker paint bleeds a bit into the lighter base; that is the desired effect. Once the top sections were dry, I moved along to the bottom half.

Both sections with first wash.

Step 3: Paint the body of the butterfly

Once this layer was dry, I painted the body of the butterfly. Take a look at the image below before you begin.

The body of the butterfly.

For the body, I used two strengths of raw umber: one medium and one dark.

First, I painted the medium-tone wash all over the body, using feathery strokes at the edges. Then I applied the darker raw umber with the tip of my brush to drop paint all along the edges, giving a sense of roundness to the form of the body.

Once this was done and almost dry, I dropped in a tiny bit of the gold paint to bring some sparkle along the center of the body. When completed, I allowed the painting to dry completely before moving on.

Step 4: Add color to the butterfly wings

Second washes complete.

This is where the color fun begins! We are not trying to paint the wings, but instead deposit little bits of color here and there for a mottled effect.

On my palette, I made juicy puddles of my other three paint colors. The colors were a medium strength so they flowed beautifully on the paper.

Next, I used a clean brush and clean water to make a water glaze over one wing section. Taking my to distribute the clean water evenly, I paid close attention to the edges, keeping them crisp. If it was too wet, I simply dried my brush and mopped up the excess water. I wanted the water glaze to be a smooth surface like a frozen pond, so my paints could glide across it easily.

Once the water glaze was in place, I dipped the tip of my brush in one color and touched it to the wet paper, letting the paint flow onto the water glaze. I dabbed the color where I wanted it, leaving some areas lighter and unpainted. Again, I worked one wing section at a time, taking a break to let the top half dry before beginning the bottom half.

Study the reference image above to see an example of how it might look when you are done with each wing section. I used Venetian red on the top wings, and burnt sienna and yellow ochre on the bottom wings.

 When all four sections have been completed, I let the painting dry before moving on to the next step.

Step 5: Add the gold paint

The finished butterfly.

The final step is where the gold comes in. There are two reasons for this step: One is because the pale layer of paint unifies everything. The other is to give our butterfly a beautiful, luminous glow.

I wanted to make a pale wash of the iridescent paint, about the strength of iced tea, so that I could see the color but still see through it. All I did was used my brush to paint the entire butterfly with a wash of gold.

When this layer was almost dry, I used a stronger mix of the gold to add a few details around the brown spots on the wings, and down the little tails at the bottom of each wing. 

Step 6: Draw in the wing details

My very last step was drawing light pencil marks on the wings to depict the details. Just a few did the trick and gave a nice direction of form to the wings. I also used my pencil to darken the little antennae. 

The beautiful shimmer on the finished butterfly.

So wasn’t that fun and easy? I hope you will try many color combinations and paint a whole rainbow of these glimmering winged creatures.

One Comment

Karen McNeil

Such a fun, simple and lovely project! Thank you – I really have enjoyed this tutorial.

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