Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Butterflies for the Useful Calendar -- some works in progress

I've been painting watercolor illustrations of butterflies for the 2019 Useful Calendar, and sharing pictures of some of them on my Facebook page. But as I always have something  to say about my artworks in progress (the back story, you could say), it occurred to me that this blog is better suited for that.

At the coffee shop, on a day suitable for bike riding, to proofread the calendar in progress.
Even though I settled on butterflies for my calendar illustrations several months ago, I'm a terrible procrastinator, so I started actually doing them about a month ago. Each one takes four to six hours to complete, so I really can't do more than one in a day; and I prefer to allow two or three days for the whole process: two days for sketches and studies and painting, then one day to set it aside before taking a fresh look and adding any finishing touches.

I've managed to condense the process into one day by making it my primary occupation (it's very difficult for me to make anything my primary occupation), and by being rather more disciplined about it than is my nature. It being cold and snowy and getting dark early does help, because I don't feel much temptation to get out on my bike in the afternoon these days.

A slightly later version of the calendar, with a few of the butterflies in place.
But a thaw is coming, and I have bulbs and roots (of butterfly-friendly native plants) still to plant, so I will have to muster a bit of extra resolve to finish the last two (yes, two left!) and get the calendar done and ready to go by the end of this weekend (which I am determined to do). Then I will make it available in my Etsy shop and, hopefully, at a couple of local consignment shops.

Now, here are the first few illustrations, with a bit of context and an explanation for why that butterfly for this month. I'll share more of them over the next week or so. 

Monarchs wintering on eucalyptus 
I wanted each month's butterfly to relate somehow to its month, so, being a Minnesotan, I wondered what I should do with the winter months. That led me to think about monarchs migrating. It's widely known that our monarchs fly to Mexico for the winter, but I learned a couple of years ago that those west of the Rockies winter in coastal California, in eucalyptus groves. So my January butterflies are monarchs on eucalyptus. 

I like to think these are in Pacific Grove, a charming city adjacent to Monterey. We stayed in Pacific Grove when our son graduated from the Defense Language Institute a couple of years ago, at a motel called the Butterfly Grove Inn, so named because it is next to a butterfly sanctuary. It was June, so there were no monarchs at the time, but it was a new discovery for me that monarchs wintered there. We hope to go back some winter.

Pacific Grove has a very nice natural history museum, too. I highly recommend it.

A pig and tiger swallowtails enjoying some mud

The Year of the Pig begins February 5, 2019, and I have made it a tradition to feature the lunar new year animal in my calendars, so I contemplated how to combine the two. What do they have in common? Well, as it happens: an affinity for mud! Several species of butterflies, including the tiger swallowtails depicted here, will gather in mud puddles to extract vital minerals from the wet soil, a practice known as puddling.

Question mark butterfly, left (November); zebra longwing, right (December)
I've not been painting them in any particular order, and since I am showing you winter butterflies (well, the swallowtails aren't a winter butterfly, I just put them in February because they "go" with the pig), here are some more of those.

The December butterfly is a zebra longwing (right), which flies year round in the far south including Florida, southern Texas, Mexico and Central America. It is the state butterfly of Florida, and one of its nectar plants is the firebush, on which I placed it to add a little splash of color.  

The question mark, shown perched head down on a spruce branch, could still be active in November in a milder region than Minnesota. Some of them will migrate to southern states, and some will hibernate in the north. Hibernating butterflies tuck themselves into a crevice in a tree or structure, or crawl into the midst of a brush pile, and spend the winter in a dormant state.  This nature museum in Chicago offers a nice succinct explanation of butterfly hibernation.

Butterflies may hibernate at any stage in their life cycle, depending on species. Those that hibernate as adults emerge fairly early in the spring, likely before there are any flowers to provide nectar. Luckily, flower nectar is not their preferred food; rather, they feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, and animal waste. 

That includes the mourning cloak, my March butterfly and another one that hibernates in adult form. I have seen these flying when there is still some snow on the ground — they'll even land on a snow pile to sip a little moisture, and probably get some nutrients from the dirt that's mixed in.

Hibernating butterflies, in whatever life stage they do it, need shelter in the form of leaf litter, brush piles and wood piles, as well as mature trees with gaps and crevices they can crawl into. You can help them out by not tidying up your yard too much in the fall.

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