Zinnia and Butterfly – Using Layers for Easy Depth in Watercolor

Watercolor Painting by Deb Watson for watercolor tutorial - Zinnia and Butterfly - Using Layers for Easy Depth in Watercolor

While color is vitally important for painting flowers/zinnia and butterflies in watercolor, it is actually value and depth that creates watercolor realism. By working in layers, artists create an illusion of depth on the flat watercolor paper for easy watercolor realism. Remember – Color gets the credit for a great painting, but value does the work.

Downloads for Zinnia and Butterfly in Watercolor

Suggested Colors for Easy Depth in Watercolor

These suggested colors are the ones I used but feel free to substitute your colors for these.

  • Yellow – any good yellow
  • Blue – Phthalo Blue for mixing greens
  • Orange – Transparent Pyrrole Orange
  • Purple – Dioxazine Purple
  • Greens – yellow + blue (add orange is your green is too bright)
  • Dark Green – Phthalo Blue + Orange or Perylene Green
  • Dark Brown – Purple + Orange

Step by Step Painting Instructions Layering for Easy Depth in Watercolor

Step 1 – Draw or trace your outline onto your watercolor paper using graphite paper.

Your outline can be as complex or simple as you like, but be sure the lines are dark enough to be seen through the first layer of color.

butterfly reference photo for Zinnia and Butterfly - Using Layers for Easy Depth in Watercolor tutorial

Step 2 – Paint the entire paper yellow, wet on wet for the first layer of color.

Wet the paper with clean water and paint the entire thing with yellow. Use as few brushstrokes as you can, try to just drop it in and let it spread or not.

If you feel brave, drop in some orange (trans. pyrrole orange or red + yellow) where the darker zinnia are and let the color spread.

Lift the color from the middle of the two lightest zinnia flowers by dabbing up the still wet color with a paper towel. Dry.

Step 3 – Paint everything that isn’t a zinnia or butterfly with light green.

First layer of green for Zinnia and Butterfly - Using Layers for Easy Depth in Watercolor Watercolor tutorial

How can you tell what all those lines mean?

Don’t be confused by the detail – you’re layering for depth!

Follow along with this photo in progress for your second layer for easy depth.

Remember, as few brushstrokes as possible – just lay on a wash.

Step 4 – Paint a first layer of color on the centers of the zinnia and the butterfly.

There are several different types of centers in these zinnia – some dark brown (almost black), some light brown and some light brown with tiny yellow flowers in the center! I did three of each.

You can paint the centers any way you like but try for some variation.

Leave the center in front of butterfly unpainted – I decided it looked better without it and took mine out at the end.

You can finish the centers now or just paint on a first coat of color – up to you.

Butterfly – Paint your butterfly with a light wash of whatever color you want for him.

Step 5 – Paint around the light colored leaves with darker green for your 3rd Layer for Easy Depth.

2nd layer of green for Zinnia and Butterfly - Using Layers for Easy Depth in Watercolor Watercolor tutorial

This step is where you begin to see how layering works.

Mix a puddle of darker green and carefully paint around the lighter leaves and the zinnia petals.

Your painting doesn’t have to be as complex as mine. If you are unsure about an area, just paint bits you are not sure about darker green and leave a few light leaves.

Just as you’ll find in nature, there is a lot of overlapping in flowers and leaves.

We’ll build in depth and realism by painting the parts that are overlapped and farther down a little darker in the next layer.

Step 6 – Adding Detail to Watercolor Leaves and Zinnia Flowers

Watercolor Painting by Deb Watson for watercolor tutorial - Zinnia and Butterfly - Using Layers for Easy Depth in Watercolor
Adding shading to a watercolor holly branch leaf
Leaf detail demonstrated on a holly leaf.

Best Leaf detail

(for more tips on painting leaves, check out the Holly tutorial.)

Use a damp brush to rub a line in the middle of a few leaves, then dab with a paper towel to lift up the paint and leave a lighter line.

Dry.

Rewet the side of the leaf beside the lifted up line. Add green paint to the side of the line and let it spread out into the damp leaf.

Graded washes like these are the best detailing to add to leaves.

Of check the finished painting or reference photo to see more details.

Zinnia flower details

(for more tips on painting flower petals, check out the Purple Coneflower tutorial.)

The zinnia that are behind other flowers can be given another coat of color to push them back – yellow orange works well.

Outline some of the petals with the same color as the flower, so the outline is visible but not too dark.

Add a few lines in some of the petals, like you see in the reference photo.

Flower Centers – Paint the flower centers with gold (brown + yellow), brown and/or black. Once dry, dot in a darker color.

Step 7 – Simple Butterfly in Watercolor

butterfly reference photo for watercolor tutorial zinnia and butterfly, layering for easy depth in watercolor by Deb Watson

The butterfly is orange with dark brown spots.

Paint darker orange coming out from where the wings attach to the body but leave the outside edges of the wings the initial wash color.

Dot in dark brown or black doing two rows of dots around the outside of the wings and some darker spots/areas, especially on the tops wings.

Paint the middle of the body brown, leaving a lighter area on either side.

Add two tiny antennae with a pen, pencil or paintbrush.

Summary for Zinnia and Butterfly – Using Layers for Easy Depth in Watercolor

It is always surprising to new paintings how effective layering is to create a painting with depth. Painting in layers of color rather than one leaf at a time usually yields far superior results. Getting your value and color established before adding detail is quicker, too! I hope your zinnia and butterfly turn out great!

Don't think about making art, just get it done. - Andy Warhol