Painting Realistic Butterflies in Watercolor & Gouache | Alice Rosen | Skillshare

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Painting Realistic Butterflies in Watercolor & Gouache

teacher avatar Alice Rosen, Scientific & Natural History Illustrator

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

8 Lessons (1h 10m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Supplies

    • 3. Drawing a Realistic Butterfly

    • 4. Painting a Butterfly in Watercolor

    • 5. Painting a Butterfly in Gouache

    • 6. Summary & Your Project

    • 7. Gouache Butterfly Timelapse: Part 1

    • 8. Gouache Butterfly Timelapse Part 2

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About This Class

This class will show you how to paint a realistic butterfly using either watercolor paints or gouache paints. You can have a go at both, or just pick the medium that interests you most.

  • Learn to draw realistic insects by studying their morphology
  • Try a new style of painting
  • Develop your skills in watercolor and gouache
  • Decorate your own cards and crafts with beautifully painted butterflies

This class is suitable for anyone who has some painting experience, even if it is quite limited. Maybe you want to attempt more detailed paintings, or a different style of artwork from what you're used to. Or, you might be familiar with watercolour, but you'd like to step out of your comfort zone and work with gouache instead. If you're a complete beginner, or need a bit of a refresh, feel free to check out my class on Painting Bumblebees, which is a quicker painting exercise and will break down the process even further.

We’ll be using butterflies as an example, but this class will be packed with tips and demonstrations to help you take on your next painting with confidence, as well as add another skill to your creative toolkit.


Let me know if you have any questions. I hope you enjoy the class and I can’t wait to see your project photos!

Don’t forget to follow me on Skillshare. Click the ‘Follow’ button next to my name and you’ll be notified as soon as I post a new class.


If you're new to watercolor or gouache, you might like to check out my class on painting bumblebees, which is suitable for beginners and improvers:

Or, check out my first Skillshare class to learn a super versatile, easy to learn technique that requires very little equipment:


Meet Your Teacher

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Alice Rosen

Scientific & Natural History Illustrator


Hello! My name is Alice Rosen and I am a 25-year-old science & natural history illustrator. I live in a small town near Bristol in the UK where I spend my time drawing, painting, creating and working on my illustration business. Head over to to see more of what I do.



I use watercolours, pen & ink, and graphite to create detailed and scientifically accurate illustrations of animal and plant species, habitats, and anything else that aids natural science communication and education. I also work on decorative designs for posters, cards, gifts and stationery. You can check out my shop here.



Follow me on Instagram to see my latest works-in-progress and more!<... See full profile

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1. Introduction: Hi, I'm Alex and I'm a self-taught artist with a science background. For the last couple of years, I've been working as a science and natural history illustrator, so we work with a variety of traditional and digital techniques, and a lot of the work I do involves log detail and scientific accuracy. In this class, we're going to paint some realistic butterflies. I'll show you some of the techniques I use when working with watercolor and with garage, and I'll break down the process of tackling a detailed painting in each medium. You can have a go both, or just pick the medium that interests you most is entirely up to you. You can use your painted butterflies to decorate your own cards and crafts, you can add them to your nature journal if you keep one, or simply creates a beautiful painting to hang on your wall, or look at some basic butterfly morphology and how to create a detailed pencil outline. You'll learn how to use different techniques such as stippling with paint, how to paint hair, and the different ways to use garage paints in it's opaque and translucent forms. At the end, there's also a two-part bone is time-lapse of the larger garage painting I've done recently, so you can watch a bit more of my painting process and see if you can spot some of the same techniques that we'll have covered in the class. This class is suitable for anyone who has some painting experience, even if it is quite limited. But maybe you want to attempt to more detailed paintings or a different style of artwork from what you're used to, or we might be familiar with watercolor, but you'd like to try do actually, for example. If you're a complete beginner or need a bit of a refresh, feel free to check out my class on painting bumblebees, which is a quicker painting exercise and break down the process even further. I hope that regardless of your level of experience, everyone will be able to take something from my class. Whether that's having the competence to try on new technique, pushing yourself to include more detail in your artwork, or simply learning a new set of skills that you can apply to your future paintings. I hope you enjoy this class and I'm really looking forward to seeing your butterflies. 2. Supplies: In this video, I'll show you which supplies and equipment you'll need. I'll include brand names and specific details in your project section below this video. For this class, you need some watercolor paper. You can use smooth paper, which is known as Hot Pressed or slightly textured watercolor paper which is known as Cold Pressed. I've got a few different brands, some better than others, but they'll do the job very well. It's best if your paper is 100 percent cotton because that allows the paints to dry quicker because it's very absorbent. You've got this giant pad of paper that you can get it in different sizes. It's just a really good brand, especially for watercolor. I find with gouache it doesn't matter so much, but with watercolor, the better the quality of your paper, the best your illustration will turn out. You'll also need a normal HB pencil. You can use a normal one like this. It doesn't matter what brand, HB will do the job or mechanical one if that's you prefer to use. When you're working on your pencil outline, you'll definitely need an eraser. Just a normal one like this, but also a kneaded eraser like this one can be really helpful for lifting off the excess graphite and lightning your pencil outline so that the pencil lines don't show through the watercolor too much. If you're working on a really smooth pencil drawing an eraser like this can be really handy. You can really get into all the details and just rub out the things that you need to rub out. Another thing that's optional for sketching your butterflies some tracing paper. Some good quality tracing paper, open using this one along with the tracing paper. Another thing that's really useful, but not essential, is an embossing tool like this one. You can use this or just an ordinary pencil to transfer your drawing from the tracing paper onto working surface by pressing this on the other side of your tracing paper and it pushes the graphite onto the page. You'll also need two or three small brushes and they should have short hairs that come to a fine point. It gives you more control with the paint and it'll be much easier to add the details later on. Synthetic carriers are just as good as animal hair and I've used a few different brands that will seem to do pretty well. I'll list them in the project description, but feel free to work with any brushes you have at home ready. For mixing my paints I just use a tile or a plate or something like that. I find that the paint spreads out really nicely on this compared to a plastic palette. I also keep a smooth scrap piece of watercolor paper or small pad like this one nearby so I can test out the colors I've mixed on paper before I use them on my painting so I can see what they look like as they draw on paper. Because quite often it can look different on your palate compared to on your paper. You'll need a glass jar with some water in or a cup or anything like that. Another thing that's super useful is that kitchen paper or paper towel. I use this to adjust how much water is in my brush so I can block the brush onto the paper and that takes up some of the excess water, which is really useful when using gouache or watercolor because you want to have control over how much water is in your brush. For the watercolor paint tutorial, you need a small set of watercolor paints, preferably artist or professional quality is these are more pigmented than the student quality paint, so you can get darker, richer colors in your paintings. I'm using a set of Winsor and Newton patterns, but you definitely don't need a huge section of colors like this. You can also get them in tubes, which is absolutely fine as well. If you want to tracing gouache then I'd recommend that a basic set of Winsor and Newton designers gouache or your favorite brand. In summary, you'll need some small paint brushes, watercolor paper, a pencil and eraser, and mixing palette plate or tile, a bit of scrap paper, glass or jar, some kitchen paper or paper tile and some moist color paints or gouache. If you want to know exactly what brands I use, you can find them all in the information below this video. 3. Drawing a Realistic Butterfly: In this video, I'll show you my process for drawing butterfly. Starting with doing a little research into my subject, then getting together some good reference material. Then putting this together to create a detailed pencil outline. As a scientific illustrator, I need to understand my subjects before I can start painting it so that my illustration is as accurate as possible. I'll usually start by reading about my subject and then learning about its anatomy so that my pencil drawing makes sense. Like all insects, butterflies have three main body parts. The head, the thorax, which is this bit in the middle, and the abdomen down here. They also have six legs which are attached to the thorax and two pairs of wings. Top ones are the four wings and the bottom ones are the hind wings, and they're all attached to the thorax as well. Just having a quick look at a diagram like this can really help when you're putting your pencil outline together and make sure everything's in the right place as well. Butterflies are some of the most diverse coloration in the animal kingdom, which is another reason they make such interesting subjects to paint. Butterfly wings are made up of membrane layers overlaid with tiny scales, to interact with light in different ways to produce a particular color. When you look closely at butterfly wing, you can see that these scales give texture to the wing. If you want to paint a realistic detailed butterfly, we want to include some of that texture in our painting using tiny brush strokes. Something else to consider when you're doing a butterfly is the positioning of the wings. If you come across a butterfly in your garden settled on a plant with its wings open, you should see that the top of the wings will be raffle level with or below the head of the butterfly. The four wing will slightly overlap the hind wing. Or if you're looking at the underside of the wing, the hind wing will be overlapping the fore wing. But if you're looking at pin specimens or some id guides, you might find the fore wings are positioned too much higher because the wings have been spread out to minimize the overlap. You can see the entire fore wing and hind wing. It's up to you whether you choose to do a butterfly in one of its natural resting positions or something more like this. In terms of preferences for your drawing, you can use your own photographs and field sketches, you can use specimens, you can use photos you find online, whatever you prefer. But remember that if you are using someone else's photos, they may be copyrighted unless you get them from websites like Pixabay, Pixels or something like that. But it's always useful to look at a combination of references so you can see the variation between individuals of the same species, which will then guide what you want to include or exclude in your final illustration. Quite often my paintings are on actually a direct copy from single reference image or specimen. Instead they use bits from a variety of different reference materials to make up a whole illustration. That might be the general shape of the animal taken from a study with few different photos and videos and then details and colors from other photographs. There are a few different approaches you can take to start drawing your butterfly. First, I want to say that it's perfectly fine to trace from your reference photo and in fact, that's the best way to ensure that your outline is as accurate as possible. If you don't want to trace or if you're working from specimens of multiple references, you can measure out some guidelines which will help you with drawing your outline. Another option is to draw half of your butterfly, including the wing details, then trace it and flip over your central line for symmetrical butterfly. I'll use a combination of these methods so you can see how they work and then you can draw your own butterfly using the approach you prefer. I'm going to start by drawing a horizontal line across my paper, making sure it's wider than my butterfly is going to be. Then I will another line perpendicular to the line I've just drawn, again, making sure it's longer than my butterfly will be. Next, you can measure your references to find the length and width of the widest parts of your butterfly, scaling up or down depending on the size your drawing is going to be. First, I'm marking out the furthest edge of the wing and the height from the top to the bottom of my butterfly. Now I know to keep my drawing contained within these lines that I've plotted out, so the proportions are correct. To start with, I'm going to roughly draw the shape fore wing, and hind wing before finding the edges to match the wing of my chosen butterfly species. Make sure you only press very lightly on the paper with the pencil so your lines are easy to rip out afterwards. Next, we'll draw the body and start adding in the wing details. You want to include as much information as you can for yourself when it comes to painting. So lightly mark out different areas of color, as well as the wing veins and other details. There's no need to add any shading or texture and pencil. Now you can carefully trace your drawing, flip the tracing paper over, line it up with your horizontal and Vasco guidelines so everything looks good and symmetrical. Then transfer the pencil marks onto the paper by going over the lines again with a pencil or a boxing tool like I'm using here. At this stage you can add the details on the body and the head of the butterfly. It might also be necessary to go over some of the wing lines in details to make the middle clearer. Once you are completely happy with the butterfly drawing, you can use the putty eraser to lift off some of the excess graphite and then your outline will be ready for painting. 4. Painting a Butterfly in Watercolor: The first butterfly I'll be painting is a Red Admiral. It's quite a recognizable butterfly and there aren't too many different colors to work with, which makes things a bit simpler and means we can focus on the painting techniques and using our small brushes to create these different textures and add lots of detail. I'm going to start by laying down a light wash of orange on any orange areas I can see my reference photo. This is the first layer, so it doesn't need to be very dark. At this stage, I'm just plotting out the different areas of color so it can make sense of my pencil outline. Looking at my reference photo, I can see that there's a gradient from dark orange at the top of the fore-wings, to light orange at the bottom. So we'll just add a bit more of my orange wash at the top to show that gradient. Next I'll do the same thing but with a small areas of blue on the wings. I can also see some blue coming through the tops of the fore-wings, so I want to mark that out as well. Most of my butterflies are very dark browny black, apart from the orange sections and some white patches which we'll leave the color of the paper. I'll still start with the pale brown wash to mark out the areas of brown, making sure I don't accidentally cover the areas of white. Even at this early stage, I'm mainly working between the wing veins one section at a time and moving my brush along the wings rather than across them so that I can still see where the veins are, and it keeps the painting looking much neater with a more realistic texture. Once I've done the same thing on both fore-wings, I can move on to the hind wings. As well as painting one section at a time, I've also lightly marked out the veins themselves so they don't get lost when I add the dark paint. Now the wings are covered with the first layer of paint, I can see more easily what's going on, and where to add layers next. If the brown areas need to be taken much darker. I'm going to use the same color paint but much thicker this time and with a smaller brush, start adding more color and texture to these areas. I'm painting using the tip of my brush and small brush strokes parallel to the wing veins to get that realistic texture. I'll also bring the brown paint right up to the edge of the orange section, sometimes slightly on to the orange itself, because the border between the two colors isn't meant to be a super smooth straight line. Next, I'll use a slightly watery bluish black for the top section of the fore-wing, still allowing some of that light blue to show through. Now the next layer is mostly dry. I'll go back with the same thick paint again to darken the areas that need darkening most. I can also use the tip of my smallest brush with a very small amount of paint to add the dark wing vein lines within the orange section. Then I can repeat the same steps on the other wing, working a section at a time until the whole thing isn't blurred together. Now I'll start working on the butterfly's body and where it joins the wings. Butterflies often have longer hairs around the body. I'm starting with a small amount of pale gray paint on the tip of my brush, moving it in the direction of the hairs which come down slightly over the orange and hind wings. I can then add a slightly darker grayish brown and top of these hairs to add some different tones and make them look more realistic. Now with the right dark brownie black, I'll start adding some of the tiny details along the wing edge. I need to make sure that my brushes just wet enough so that paint slides over the paper easily, but not so wet. I have water pooling on the surface. Otherwise it won't get the fine details that I'm aiming for. This is especially important when painting the head of the butterfly, you only want to be using the tiniest amount of paint just on the tip of the brush so you can add details slowly and carefully and keep your lines nice and crisp. In between adding fine details with dark paint, sometimes you might need to soften things slightly or blend out the hard edges. To do this you can clean your brushing water and then dump off the excess water and some kitchen while use the slightly damp brush to blend the paint that's already on the paper. For the body itself, I'll use the same approaches I used on the wings, starting with the pale color and then building up layers of dark paint. Because the body is hairy, I don't want to completely cover the light paint when I have more layers. I want some of the light a bit straying through as this will add more depth and detail to my painting. Again, I'm using small brush strokes following the direction of the hairs. At the top of the full wings where they join the body, I can see on my reference photo that there are lots of weighing scales of different colors. I'm going to apply the paint and dots using the tip of a very small paintbrush. Adding different colors so that I can see my reference photos. At this point, you want to take a step back and look at your references to see which areas need to be taken darker, which details need to find a little more and finish up your butterfly with the final touches. Make sure an area is dry before attempting to add fine details. Otherwise, your brushstrokes will blur into the wet paint. The same applies before adding a layer of dark paint on top of details. Wait for the paint to dry so you don't smash the details underneath. 5. Painting a Butterfly in Gouache: The next butterfly is appropriately named Painted Lady. This one we're going to paint using gouache. The pattern is a bit more complex compared to the bird admiral, but there are still only a few different colors to work with. So we can really focus on these different textures, like the longer hairs around the body and the short hairs on the abdomen. Also experiment with using gouache with varying amounts of water to get different opacities. I'm starting off with painting the lighter of the two most prominent colors of my butterfly wings. I've mixed a few different colors to get this orange color that mostly matches my reference photo. But as I'm working with gouache rather than what color, I can easily make adjustments to it later on if I need to. I've added a touch of water to a paint to make it a little easier to work with. It's still opaque, but it slides if the paper is more smoothly. Where I want light areas of orange on this first layer, I can add a bit more water to spread out the paint that's already on the paper. Because this is the bottom layer it won't matter, the paint is slightly translucent, more as being diluted. I'm working a section at a time between the wing veins so that the veins don't get lost under the paint. I'm using the same color but varying the amount of water on my brush depending on how light or dark the area needs to be. Now, I've got my orange sections smocked out, I can start to add a layer of brown paint. Again, I've added the smallest amount of water to the paints that it's still opaque, but much easier to pay personal details with. I'm using a very small pointed brush and I'm painting small strokes parallel to the wing veins rather than in any random direction. This helps to create the impression on those tiny wings scales, which overlap each other along the wing. You can also use a clean, slightly damp brush to drag some of the brown paint onto the orange sections. The brown patches in the wing have more jagged edges rather than perfect smooth ones, which aren't realistic, but make sure you're still moving the brush in the same directions as before. For the veins themselves is important that you only have a small amount of slightly watered-down paint on the tip of your brush and no globs of thick paint, as you want to be able to paint a smooth, fine line. It's a good idea to practice on a scrap piece of watercolor paper before hand, but if you do make a mistake, the great thing about gouache is that is easy to fix. Unlike with watercolor, you can paint light colors on top of dark ones. It's hard to see because of the white paper, but the edges of this particular butterfly have a white pattern, so it could leave them the color of the paper, but I've decided to add some white paint along the edges. Mainly to clean them up a bit and make sure that the areas that are meant to be white are totally white. Now, I'm carrying on with a dark brown on the hind wings and the fore wings as well, using the same brush as before, using small brush strokes all in the same direction and leaving the white areas of the wing unpainted. Where I've let my paint become too thin and diluted, I can just add another layer of a thick brown paint on top to darken it. But don't worry too much about making everything super consistent, having some lighter and darker patches can help to make it look more realistic anyway. Now, I've got my darker color down, I can see that some of the orange areas need adjusting. I'm using a different orange on top of my first layer, starting at the edges and painting in the same direction as before, but leaving some of my original layer to show through. By following the same direction of brushstrokes, you can more easily blend between the two orange colors, as there weren't been an abrupt border between them. You can also use a clean brush with a very tiny amount of water to gently blend out some of your wet gouache paint on your top layer. Don't apply much pressure with the brush, though, otherwise it'll disrupt the layer underneath as well. [MUSIC] I'm using the same approach on the edges of the wings using white grayish paint mixed with water to add a certain pattern that blends into the brown of wing. Next, I'll use white paints in its undiluted opaque form to add this solid white markings along the wing edge. On the head and body of the butterfly, I'm going to use my smallest brush again and follow the same process of adding a layer of color, blending all areas that need softening, and adding fine details on top of dry paint, using a combination of opaque and translucent go rush. Both the head and body are covered in small hairs. So you'll want to look closely your references and paint smooth strokes that follow the direction of these hairs to get that realistic texture. Where the hair is really short though, such as on the abdomen, instead of painting in lines, I'll paint very small dots of different colors. One layer at a time and allow the dots from previous layers to show through. The areas on the wings closest to the butterfly's body are also made up of layers of longer hairs and dots. I start with a dark brown painting in long fine strokes and then use the same color, but this time mixed with different amounts of white paint to add layers of light hairs on top. Next, I can add some more light and dark hairs around the body using a dump brush to soften the lines and make it look more natural. Where the fore-wings joined the thorax, I'll very roughly add in some dark brown paint leaving lots of small gaps. It doesn't matter how neat it is, is I'm going to add lots of lighter dots on top, so you won't be able to see the messy lines underneath anyway, but you'll still have some of that dark brown showing through. To finish off, I'll have more of these dots, blending them into this rounding painting, by painting them closer together to begin with, and then gradually further apart, to allow more and more of the previous layers to show through. This way you'll get a nice smooth gradient, and can use the painted dots in the same way you'd use ink in a stippled illustration. 6. Summary & Your Project: I hope you enjoyed this class and that you'll feel inspired to paint your own butterfly. For your class projects, you can paint any butterfly or moth in watercolor, or in gray ash, or even combine both mediums. To challenge yourself, you can use a media that you're familiar with or choose a butterfly with more complex patterns. For those of you who would like to see more of the techniques we've covered, this time applied to a larger garage painting of the peacock butterfly. You can carry on watching after this video to see the whole two part time lapse. Let me know if you have any questions or comments and please do share your illustrations with me, here on Skillshare or over on Instagram if you're on there. It also means you can get inspiration from other people taking the class as well as feedback, tips and advice from myself. I sometimes show your work on Instagram as well. Let me know and I can tag you. If you enjoyed this class, there are links below to my other classes on painting bumblebees and stippling. You can also leave feedback which is really appreciated and helpful for developing future classes. Let me know what you would like to see in future and make sure to follow me so you're notified when I publish a new class. 7. Gouache Butterfly Timelapse: Part 1: Uh, yeah. - Uh , - no , - No . Yeah. 8. Gouache Butterfly Timelapse Part 2: Uh uh . - No , - no . Yeah.