The Metamorphosis of A Butterfly


A couple of months ago I came across some very beautifully illustrated books about Maria Sybilla Merian , a naturalist and scientific illustrator born in the 17th century, who was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly.

Her artistic skills and careful observations were extraordinary, as was her determination to travel as far as to Surinam to study and record the tropical insects there.

Having fallen instantly in love with her paintings, I simply couldn’t resist working my way through some of them myself, only changing colour patterns here and there.

Usually I start with a light pencil drawing, after which I paint with water colors, going from lighter shades to the darker ones.


First stage of my butterfly painting (water color on paper; July/Aug 2019)


Because I didn’t want to accidentally paint over or smear any parts whilst working on another stage of the metamorphosis, I started with the upper left corner of my painting, a view on the butterfly with raised wings.


Detail Metamorphosis of a Butterfly (water color on paper; July/Aug 2019)


After which followed the pupa, or chrysalis, the transition stage of a butterfly, which of course actually happens before.

It may look like nothing is going on but big changes are happening inside the chrysalis. Special cells that were present in the larva are now growing rapidly. They will become the legs, wings, eyes and other parts of the adult butterfly. Many of the original larva cells will provide energy for these growing adult cells.

Depending in the species this stage can last from a few weeks, a month or even longer.


The chrysalis – the transition stage of a butterfly (water color on paper; July/Aug 2019)


The stage before the insect, in this case a butterfly, turns into a chrysalis, is the feeding stage. The larva, or caterpillar has only one job to do – and that’s to eat and eat and eat! I’m sure many of you remember that beautiful children’s book “The Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, it was my absolute favorite when I was a child.

As the caterpillar grows it splits its skin and sheds it about 4 or 5 times.

Caterpillars can grow 100 times their size during this stage. For example, a monarch butterfly egg is the size of a pinhead and the caterpillar that hatches from this tiny egg isn’t much bigger. But it will grow up to 2 inches long in several weeks.


Version 2
The caterpillar – the feeding stage of a butterfly (water color on paper; July/Aug 2019)


After having painted the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly with raised wings, I added a painting of what the butterfly would look like when seen from above, as those views can sometimes differ quite substantially.

This adult stage is what most people think of when they think of butterflies.

Butterflies look very different from the caterpillar form: while the caterpillar has a few tiny eyes, stubby legs and very short antennae, the adult butterflies have long legs, long antennae, compound eyes, and large and colorful wings with which they can fly. The one thing they can’t do however is grow.


Adding the last detail to my Metamorphosis of a Butterfly (water color on paper; July/Aug 2019)


While the caterpillar’s job was to eat, the adult’s job is to mate and lay eggs. Some species of adult butterflies get energy by feeding on nectar from flowers but many species don’t feed at all.

Flying comes in very handy when the adult female butterfly looks out for the right plant to lay its eggs on as most caterpillars can’t travel far.

Most adult butterflies live only one or two weeks, but there are some species that  hibernate during the winter and may live for several months.


This is how this butterfly looks when seen from above (water color on paper; July/aug 2019)


And here it is: my latest water color painting!

It took me several weeks to finish, not much unlike the metamorphosis of a butterfly. 😉


The Metamorphosis of a Butterfly (water color on paper; July/Aug 2019)


Hope you enjoyed learning about butterflies as much as I did, and next time you see one, why not pause for a moment and remember what a miracle each and every one of those flying jewels is?



Published by Sarah

Artist & Illustrator

77 thoughts on “The Metamorphosis of A Butterfly

  1. Such a gorgeous painting, Sarah. You have a job as a naturalist awaiting you in the wings. What extraordinary detail and so much info about butterflies. Maria Sybilla Merian must be smiling at this creation, knowing how far her inspiration has travelled. I really enjoyed this post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aww – thank you, Shari! I think she would be thrilled at the thought how many women nowadays are free to work in the arts – and also paint with oils as that was forbidden in her day!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Lisa! 😀 ❤ It's one of my favorite mediums as well which is funny when I think of having said this about acrylics a couple of years back. 😀 Makes me curious which medium it will be next. 😉


  2. I just love your water color painting so much! There are many details in your artwork – A monk job that requires a lot of patience. And it’s very pleasant to see your work in progress too. A truly beautiful post, Sarah. xoxo

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks so much, dear friend! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post and the progress involved. 😄 I’d probably have applied to a monastery to illuminate their books in the Middle Ages if it weren’t for the abstinence and all! 😄 Have a beautiful Sunday! Much love! Xxx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol 😄 I agree. Apart from the abstinence, it seems like a nice job: books, writing, creativity and silence. I wouldn’t even mind working on weekend! Have a lovely week ahead.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I LOVE this butterfly and all its accompanying drawings and information. I’ve been collecting butterflies in all forms but the real thing for as many years as I can remember and been to several butterfly gardens and learned so much about them. The colors you used are perfect and it feels so fresh and happy. So glad to see you and your art again.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much, Marlene! I’d love to see your collection, I know it will be wonderful! I haven’t been to a butterfly garden yet but cherish everyone of them I happen to see. I even planted some strong smelling flowers this year that butterflies seem to prefer but so far must have always missed them. 😄 It’s so important to encourage all kind of insects these day and a real joy to watch them. 😊 Have a wonderfilled Sunday, my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sarah this post is wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed seeing this work in progress but love the way you’ve brought the stages together with the butterfly’s story.
    Beautifully done my friend.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aww – thanks so much, Su! I’ve learned quite a lot about butterflies since I started painting them – they’re truly marvellous! But whom am I telling that? You’ve witnessed the whole process for yourself in your garden. 😄 xxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful painting and wonderful post, Sarah! We found a monarch caterpillar on a day lily leaf when cleaning the garden a few days ago…Taped part of leaf with caterpillar to the porch, chrysalis formed within an hour–imago to emerge in 10-14 days. Can’t wait!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice work, Sarah. I really enjoyed reading about your process. You know, before we all had cameras (especially cameras in our phones), people drew pictures to capture what they saw. I think that captures that spirit so well.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks so much, Chris! I’m glad you enjoyed this post! And yes, you’re absolutely right, with no cameras around people were forced to draw and paint things they wanted to preserve. 😄

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Liz! Yes, it must have been a lot more difficult to study insects before photography. Of course, most of the time they caught live specimen in a net or jar to study in more detail. And quite a lot were probably spiked (eek!) to hold still. I much prefer catching and shooting them only with my camera. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Fascinating and beautiful post, Sarah. I knew butterflies lived short lives and that seems such a shame, a flash of exquisite beauty and then gone. I didn’t know many of the other details about their life cycle. A marvel. Your painting is a wonderful celebration of their lives. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much, Diana! It’s truly fascinating and as you said a shame really that these marvellous creatures live only for so short a time. I’ve just read that bees only live for about 4 to 6 or 8 weeks as well. And look what they get accomplished during that time – definitely more than I do! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

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