I started a new botanical project yesterday. I was asked to paint several paintings which would refer to the art of Maria Sibylla Merian – German entomologist and artist who lived in XVII/XVIII century. My paintings will be exhibitet in a hall dedicated to Maria during Museum at Nights 2016 event, in Library of Polish Academy of Sciences in Gdańsk. I am very excited, because it will be the first time I will exhibit my paintings.

I noticed that Maria’s works depict plants and life cycles of specific insects and others, but mostly butterflies. In my first project I decided to paint Echium vulgare and show the life cycle of Melitaea didyma, including chrysalis (pupa) stage, larva (caterpillar) stage and imago (adult butterfly) stage.

Tracing paper

At the first stage, I drew all the shapes I needed on the tracing paper using a black fineliner. I didn’t draw on the watercolor paper straightaway, because if I did something wrong, I would have to erase it and I could destroy the paper. Besides, at this stage I didn’t know yet how my composition would look like.

The tracing paper is transparent which gives us great possibilities when it comes to composition. The sketch on tracing paper can be done with a fineliner. You can also sketch with a pencil first and only when you are happy with the sketch, trace the lines with ink. You can also use the transparent properties of the tracing paper and place it on, for example, a printed image, then simply trace the shapes on the tracing paper.

Why tracing paper

Having drawings on tracing paper, you can cut out each shape and then is much easier to determine the composition by manipulating individual drawings. In my case, at this stage I rejected two leaves, because the composition was already too full. This picture shows my first idea, but eventually my composition looks a bit different. Thanks to the transparency of the tracing paper we can freely arrange individual elements until we are satisfied with the composition.

How to transfer the composition onto watercolor paper

A sketch on the tracing paper should be placed under watercolor paper and highlighted from the bottom, so that the contours are clearly visible and can be traced on watercolor paper. You can for example place everyting on the window if you don’t have a lightpad/lightbox. This is done to minimize the risk of erasing pencil lines several times from paper in case of mistake. Mistakes with this type of transfer are unlikely to happen, and if they are, they will be small.

Instead of this time-consuming method you can also use the Saral Graphite transfer paper which works just like tracing paper, but does not leave oily stains.

Final composition

This is the final composition. I increased the contrast in the photo so that you can clearly see the pencil drawing. As you can see, it’s a bit different compared to the original composition. I placed the pupa and caterpillar on the stem at the bottom right. I wanted to show stages from the bottom to the top: first the chrysalis, then the caterpillar and finally the adult insect on top. Because the wings of the top butterfly are sprea and I wanted to show his wings also from the bottom, because they have completely different color, I decided to add another butterfly in the center but with the wings seen from the side.

Close-up on sketch. After doing a sketch, it is also worth removing the excess graphite with a kneaded eraser. This way we can avoid unwanted streaks and smudges later. You can always add additional lines if the sketch is too bright.

I have already applied first washes on the flower. I used mainly Ultramarine Blue PB29 and Indanthrene Blue PB60.