What color is a monarch butterfly, really?

Someone recently asked me, after looking closely at one of my drawings, “Do you actually ‘see’ ALL those colors?” I responded that yes, I do, and I think one’s ability to see details and colors is directly influenced by how rested and relaxed one is.  As any art instructor will tell you, drawing is really about seeing; this goes not just for lines, shapes, textures and values, but colors as well.

My monarch butterfly series is a case in point.  Most people think of monarchs as simply orange and black with white spots.  Indeed, if you draw a very simple abstract butterfly shape with just those three colors, most people will recognize it as a monarch.  But if you ever have the privilege of examining a real monarch up close in bright light, you’ll see that there’s a lot more going on, and there’s only a little bit of true black, on the butterfly’s body, antennae and legs.

So, what colors did I use on, say, “Monarch #4”?  You might be surprised at how long the list is (note that these are Prismacolor names):

  • Sand
  • Sunburst Yellow
  • Spanish Orange
  • Mineral Orange
  • Pale Vermilion
  • Crimson Lake
  • Sienna Brown
  • Chocolate
  • Espresso
  • Black 

As a fun exercise, now that I’ve revealed my palette for just the butterfly, if you have a set of Prismacolors yourself, see if you can pick out these colors from my reference photo.

Reference photo for Monarch #4

Reference photo

Monarch #4

The finished “Monarch #4”

While you were examining your real butterfly up close, you probably also noticed that its wings aren’t really flat.  The veins provide a rigid structure for the papery areas, and those papery areas bulge, curl and buckle.  These features result in subtle variations in color, which if rendered on paper help breathe life and dimension into the drawing.

Hopefully this gives you a little insight on how I “see” what I’m drawing, so you can practice doing the same whether you’re drawing or just observing nature!

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