Posted on Leave a comment

Insects – painting techniques from Mustard Seed Garden

Part of a series of articles on painting techniques from ‘Mustard Seed Garden’ manual and encyclopedia of chinese painting.

Cover Picture

Here’s an example of a finished butterfly picture from the Song dynasty (960 – 1279):

Li An Zhong Spring Butterflies 23 by 25 cm Beijing Forbidden City Palace Museum, see:

Song Paintings on Silk Fan

Tips from Mustard Seed Garden

Inkston’s Summary: observe closely how the insects behave and change along with their environment. How they place their body parts with different postures. For example, butterfly is a classic subject in Chinese painting. Their shape and colour change quite obviously in Spring, and Autumn. Maybe it would be a good idea to grow some flowers and attract some butterflies. Then, you can take a close long-term observation on how these changes happen.

To paint insects well, you need to observe many details. Please note the small movements of the insect and how they deal with their body parts for different activities. For example,

  • Wings are mostly open flat when they fly;
  • Wings are fluttered at high frequency when they make noise;
  • Wings are mostly folded when they climb;
  • The body is stretched when they intend to jump;
  • Butterflies and bees mostly have four wings; insects which cannot fly mostly have 6 legs some of which are long while others are short.

Butterflies are a must practice subject for Chinese paintings training.

Here are some notes:

  • Butterfly wings have various shapes and are very colourful. Most butterflies can be expressed with black, pink, and yellow.
  • Black butterflies normally have a pair of large wings in front and a pair of long wings in back.
  • Spring butterflies mostly have soft wings, big belly, and fat long wings. This is because they are newly transformed from cocoon.
  • Autumn butterflies mostly have strong wings, thin belly, and thick long wings in back. This is because they are old in Autumn and will die soon when Winter approaches.
  • Butterflies have mouthparts. When they are flying, the mouth is closed in a round circle shape. When they stop flying, their proboscis is elongated to reach into flowers in order to drink the nectar.

All in all, although there are hundreds of thousands types of insects which have different shapes and colours, all of them change along with the changes in environment. When the plants and trees are green and juicy, these insects are freshly coloured and strong; when the plants and trees become yellow and dry, insects start to have a dark colour and the body is getting thin too. In any case, close observation of insects all year round is the most efficient way to paint insects well.


Mustard Seed Garden Video tutorial by Chinese artist Wu Peng 吴蓬, who was born in 1941 and currently researcher of Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Institute. He is especially famous for calligraphy (Oracle) and flower paintings.
The video is in Chinese but you can see the technique even if you can’t understand chinese well:

【芥子园画谱技法讲座】 26(三)花卉翎毛(05 06)昆虫


Related pictures from the Mustard Seed Garden book.



Posted on Leave a comment
Leave a Reply