Natural History and Botanical Illustration: Creating a Butterfly Bouquet Watercolour

Story posted: Friday, 6. March 2015 by Lizzie Harper

Often I'm asked to combine botanical art with scientific illustration, but rarely as tightly as in a recent insect meets flower art commission.

The client sent over a rough visual, and asked me to combine features of a butterfly with a Victorian style bouquet.  Species and details were up to me.

Well, first thing was to choose the butterfly.  The client is American, so I decided to stick to common species from the USA.  Although the iconic Monarch butterfly worked well, I wanted a species with some blue on the lower wings as I knew I would be including purpley blues in the bouquet.  I ended up morphing the upper wings and body shape of the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) with the lower wings pattern of the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).

Lizzie Harper illustration butterfly flowers reference materials

Pencil rough of the invented butterfly, and my reference materials.

Next, I researched the flowers and found die-cut Victorian scraps to be an excellent source of pretty old-fashioned bouquets.  I chose one which fitted neatly onto the upper wings.

Then it was time to apply colour.  Oranges built up with lots of tiny paintbrush marks into a thick layer of colour.  Blacks with brown marks at the edges.  Areas of white were left in the centre of the wings to make the illustration glow, and I also left white where there are wing markings on the margins.

Lizzie Harper butterfly natural history illustration step by step

Butterfly in progress - now for the flowers!

It's always nerve-racking at this point in a job.  Part of the illustration has taken a long time, and you're pleased with.  But the terror that the next step (in this case the bouquets of flowers) will go wrong and ruin it all is ever present and hasn't faded with age or experience.

Although I worked from the Victorian reference closely, I tweaked certain details so it fitted better on the wing.  The main alterations were a total re-calibration of the colours of the original - I wanted these to be bluer, and for the roses to be a soft pink.  The rose colour had to be a cool pink; there was plenty of yellow and orange going on with the wings, so a light and cool pink was needed to balance things out a little.

Once I'd painted in the flowers I added some tiny tweaks to balance out the colours; a spot of pink in the white spots on the margins; some blues and purples in the thorax.  Doing this helps to unify the piece visually, so yoru eye can move across the whole illustraion instead of getting caught on one jolt of un-repeated colour.

Lizzie Harper natural history illustration butterfly painting with botanical art bouquets

So here it is, the final piece.  I was really pleased with it til my other half said he thought it looked "like  Guns 'n' Roses" tattoo, which rather took the edge off things.  I believe he may have a point.

It seems to be a popular picture too, with plenty of comments and attention on social media networks.  So, for any of you out there who want to do yoru very own butterfly-flower mash-up; now you know how.  And enjoy it, it was a really fun and frivolous piece to work on.

On another topic entirely, I'm afraid I've had to turn off the "comments" button on my blogs due to spamming.  If you would like to give any comments or feedback, please do so on my Facebook page or Twitter account or email me at  Many many thanks; and apologies.

Category:  Zoological step by step   |   Comments:  0   |   Viewed:  1987

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