Butterflies come in a nearly endless variety of colors and sizes, so they make a gorgeous subject for watercolor painting. Orange and black monarch butterflies are particularly appealing, not just because of their striking color combo but because of their fascinating story: They can travel thousands of miles during their very short life span! 

Monarch butterflies are, unfortunately, threatened by climate change, human development, and industrial chemicals. Paint yourself a beautiful watercolor monarch butterfly and help raise awareness about protecting this special creature.

How to Paint a Watercolor Monarch Butterfly

monarch butterfly drawing
Learn to paint a beautiful watercolor monarch butterfly like this.

Painting a watercolor monarch butterfly isn’t much different from painting another type of butterfly, but its specific color combination and wing pattern mean it’s best to follow some particular steps.

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Step 1: Gather Your Materials

watercolor pallette
Some of the materials you’ll need to paint a watercolor monarch butterfly.

To paint a watercolor monarch butterfly, you’ll need basic watercolor painting supplies plus a couple of extras:

  • Tracing paper
  • Pencil
  • Eraser
  • Watercolor paper
  • Watercolor paint brushes in different sizes
  • Watercolor paints: black, white, and shades of orange, yellow, and brown
  • Fine black pen
  • Mixing tray
  • Two jars of water
  • Absorbent paper or sponge

Step 2: Find a Reference Photo

monarch butterfly
Source: unsplash
Use a reference photo, like this free option from Unsplash.

Because monarch butterflies have a particular pattern on their wings, it’s a good idea to work from a reference photo. Look for a sharp image of a still butterfly without too much visual distraction. Background flowers and foliage are nice, but you don’t need to focus on these for your first project.

Step 3: Trace the Reference Photo

butterfly drawing
Start by tracing the reference picture.

With many watercolor painting subjects, it’s fine to sketch an outline freehand, but because monarch butterflies have such a specific, symmetrical pattern, it’s best to be more methodical.

Place a sheet of tracing paper over your reference photo and use a pencil to trace the outlines of the wings, body, and the compartments of color within the wings.

You’re not going to paint onto the tracing paper, though. Transfer the sketch onto the watercolor paper by turning the tracing upside down and lining the butterfly outline up with where you want it to appear on your page. Hold it firmly in place and draw the outline again, on the back of the tracing paper. The pencil markings on the other side will be pressed through onto the watercolor paper, making an outline you can follow there.

Step 4: Paint the First Wash

watercolor butterfly
Paint the first wash of color.

In your watercolor pan or mixing tray, mix the colors you need. Monarch butterflies are black and a distinctive shade of burnt orange, with white details.

Using plenty of water, lay the first wash of color, letting layers of yellow and orange bleed together organically. This watery effect is one of the best qualities of painting with watercolors! You can paint directly over the pencil lines marking the compartments of the wings, because you’ll go back over these sections in black later. Just make sure to leave an unpainted band around the outside of the wings.

Step 5: Fill in the Wings and Other Details

painting watercolor
Draw in the black parts of the butterfly.

Wait until the first wash is dry, then fill in the body with black paint. 

When that’s dry, take a fine black pen and draw around the compartments on the wings. Color between these compartments with the black pen. If you have great brush control or are painting a large-scale monarch butterfly, you could also complete this step with black watercolor paint.

To complete the edges of the wings, which are dotted with white, pencil in small circles, using your reference photo as a guide. Go over the wing edge with a black pen, making sure to avoid the circles so that they remain white.

Create Paintings That Soar

watercolor butterfly
Student work by Lois Sparks for Painting a Butterfly in Watercolor.

Now that you’ve learned to paint a monarch butterfly, how about expanding your skills and adding botanical details to your paintings? Flowers, trees, and even other animals all fit in perfectly in a scene alongside butterflies. Each subject lets you practice different painting techniques, so have fun experimenting!

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Written By

Elen Turner

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