Saturday, 28 February 2015

A Bit of Sparkle! Beautiful Blue Butterflies

Had a busy week dropping off paintings at Westminster for the SBA annual and also picking up from the Brompton hospital exhibition. I also managed a quick visit to the Manchester Museum to see the newly refurbished natural history section and even managed a quick look at the amazing and beautiful gun powder drawing installation 'Unmanned Nature' by Cai Guo-Qiang!  
The whole time I've been thinking about the butterflies! I really want to start the painting of a collection of British Butterflies on a single large sheet of vellum, but it has to wait because I need to finish off the Jade vine first. Monday seems like a good time to crack on with the vine, which left me with today to clean the desk and play about with the paints!

I've been looking at the iridescent paints on the Daniel Smith dot cards for a while and wondering what on earth to do with them, then it dawned on me that they would be perfect for some of the butterflies. So that's what I've been playing with this morning! Not sure whether it's a good idea or not.
Male Chalkhill Blue Polyommatus coridon (Poda 1761) Watercolour on vellum
I decided to try them on one of my favourite butterflies, a male Chalkhill Blue. It's not one of the smallest Blues, which makes it a bit easier,  it's got the most amazing delicate iridescent colour and is so shiny!.....I couldn't resist it!. It seems sensible to paint all of the butterflies individually before trying them on the large sheet anyway.

The beautiful iridescent paints on the Daniel Smith dot card
The wings of this butterfly really do catch the light and the colours on the dot chart offer some  perfect matches. I opted for a wash of  W&N Manganese Blue Hue first with a touch of Lemon Yellow added. Thereafter I used the DS Duochrome Lapis Sunlight to overlay a wash in selected areas and Cabo Blue,  also where there is a slight violet sheen violet pearl and in the more electric blue areas Iridescent Electric Blue. These paints are quite light in application so this is good.

Close up of the wing showing the light catches the scales and hairs.

A quick colour test on paper first was carried out in the Stillman & Birn sketchbook, scaled to x2 to make it easier. This allowed me to work out the drawing and vein patterns in the wings at a more manageable size. The colour will be different on vellum though as it's much more cream in colour. So I will have to make adjustments.

Working out the drawing and colours in the sketchbook

Fortunately I have quite a few small pieces of Kelmscott vellum left over from the skin used for the last Fritillaria painting, these will be perfect for the small studies. I worked life size this time, the butterfly has a wingspan of 35mm so it's pretty small. I tape the vellum to a piece of cream cardboard board using Frog tape, which holds the vellum in position better than masking tape. The bright green colour of the tape is a bit off putting, so sometimes I cover it with ordinary masking tape. It's always better to tape the vellum to a similar coloured background as the vellum because the skin is transparent, a darker or  lighter background will give a false impression of the colours. Taping to card instead of the drawing board enables me to rotate the work for easier access.

Ready! The difference in colour of the sketchbook paper and the vellum is clear to see.
The blue wash was laid down first - As suspected,  I had to alter the blue mix for the vellum, to make it cooler than the original mix, so reduced the yellow and added some Cobalt blue. The veins were lightly painted in on top using a mix of Sepia and Neutral Tint. To be honest I made a pretty bad job of this! but thought it would probably work out as more was added.

Early stages on vellum...hmmm didn't look so great!
 I added the darker markings and started to add the Lapis Sunlight. I gradually built up the iridescent colours and finally strengthened the darker veins and wing tips also adding some titanium white for the white border.

Beginning to add the dark wing markings

The body strange the hair looks almost dyed! the blue is brighter so I used cobalt for this. The iridescent paints were used again and finally the dark veins and leaf tips strengthened. I used a scalpel to create some fine hairs, as a final touch white was added to the wing tips.
 That's about it for now. It was a bit rushed and I'll take more time when it comes to the final piece. I hope the add the underside of the butterfly too, which is equally beautiful or the female, shes is brown in colour and not shiny at all. I might even add the food plant, Horseshoe Vetch Hippocrepis comosa, to the right hand side of the butterfly, but will have a think about it......for now I'm out of time. 

Work in Progress, adding the iridescent paint.

Heres a bit more about the Chalkhill Blue, Polyommatus coridon (Poda 1761):
 This beautiful shimmering butterfly is found on chalk but also on limestone downland. It declined quite dramatically due to loss of habitat from the intensification of farming and although the species has recovered fairly well in numbers its distribution had reduced and so is still designated as a 'species of conservation concern' under the UK BAP ( Biodiversity Action Plan), with unfavourable weather patterns causing the distribution problems. Unfortunately changes in climate present butterflies with a challenge which is altering their distribution and chances of survival. The more specialised the butterfly, e.g. only one food plant,  the more challenged they will be.
 Distribution of the species follows the availability of the food plant,  Horseshoe vetch, which is  found only on the grasslands, so the species is pretty much only found in the south east of England. The Chalkhill blue butterflies can also be seen feeding on nectar from Birds foot trefoil, several thistles and self heal, amongst other plants.
 There is strong dimorphism between male and female, she is a dark rich brown colour and although not so extravagant and shiny, she is equally beautiful,  I hope to paint her too!

The female lays just a single egg on the foodplant. The larva is concealed at the base of the foodplant during the day and as is the case with other  Lycaenid larvae, the Chalkhill Blue has a Newcomer's gland on the 7th segment which produces a honeydue secretionwhich attract ants. A mutualistic relationship is formed between the ants and the larva, which provides the ants with food and the larva protection against predators. Larvae are believed to produce vibrations and sounds that travel underground and communicate with the ants to advertise their sugar rich food source. This relationship is known as Myrmecophily and around 75% of Lycaenid's are believed to have such an association.

For more information on our butterflies, refer to
 The State of Britain's Butterflies 2011
JNCC The Butterfly Red List for Great Britain

There is also an excellent site called UK Butterflies


  1. I liked this idea to use iridescent paints for the butterfly paintings! And I love your blog very much! Thank you, Dianne, for always interesting information!
    Your FB friend Antonina Shesteryakova.

    1. Thank you Antonina, funny how a purpose is found for all the bits and pieces of material :)

  2. Beautiful! Butterflies! They are one of my favourite subjects to watch outside in my garden.

    1. Thank you Carmelle, lovely to watch aren't they.

  3. Lovely, informative blog post Dianne. great little painting, and the colours look amazing. x

  4. Wonderfully informative post Dianne, and love your beautifully painted butterfly.