Butterfly and Moth Styles of Art

by Ronald A. Gagliardi

The 23 artistic styles below describe butterfly and moth rendering genres found by Ron Gagliardi in his thesis on butterfly and moths in western art and design.


Various cultures possess prominent lepidoptera artistic styles. The Mexecal style, represented by the Mexican Indian tribes (Olmecs, Toltecs, Aztecs) depict stylized representation of butterflies. Characterized by a basic representation of the wing shapes, with some attempt to depict the body although often with only one or two of the three shapes. Wing designs feature repeated patterns and convoluted lines placed in a semi-concentric fashion. Sometimes the butterfly is represented with little attention to the four distinct wings. Other times, usually in the less ornate depictions, the four wings are distinct. Eyes and antennae are often disregarded in the more ornate versions; they are more likely to be included in the simpler specimens. The curved tails on many examples mark them as probable swallowtails (family Papilio).

The Amerind style, represented by the various American Indian tribes, usually feature a geometric stylization utilizing squares and triangles with varying degrees of adornment.

Haida-Amerind is a distinctive variety of the Amerind style represented by the Haida Indians. The sculpted representation of a butterfly is so stylized, it looks more like a winged chipmunk rather than a butterfly; however, the Haida often ascribed physical attributes to animals which did not possess them in reality such as human eyebrows on ravens and beavers and on butterflies. This style often features curved areas of solid color bordered by bold, black outlines.


A diverse spectrum of artistic styles range from total abstraction through graphic representations of butterflies and moths. Abstractive Naturalism is the depiction of actual leidopteral patterns or outlines in such a way as to appear non-objective. One method of accomplishing this is to enlarge a small section of wing pattern forty or fifty times. Another way is to utilize various wing profiles in overlapping or parallel designs.

The Abstract style of lepidopteral art uses pure, geometric shapes to portray the butterfly or moth. If the viewer were not told the object depicted were a butterfly, it might be taken for a design.

Cubist lepidopteral style is a semi-realistic portrayal of butterflies and moths. Their shapes are more geometricized than the real specimen, often squarish or triangular. Cubism is a geometrical style based on Cezanne’s dictum that the basic forms of Nature are the cylinder, the sphere and the cone. In some works angular forms are dominant. The Amerind style, which also features geometrical figures, is much different from the Cubist style. The latter usually looks more like a butterfly or moth. Cubist art specimens may also differ from the Amerind ones in the use of many overlapping geometric shapes to show one specimen.

Pointillism is a “variety of Luminism; also called Divisionism. In this style, best exemplified by Seurat, colour is applied to the canvas in small dots.” The butterfly is seen as a group of unconnected dots in this style. An effect of movement or vibration is achieved with this method. The specimen almost flutters.

Butterflies and moths done in a Fantasy style may vary greatly in appearance, but all have a common identity–they look like something out of a fairy tale or a dream. The artist’s imagination is most evident in this style as far as shape and patterns depicted. Fantasy style specimens often look nothing like actual specimens.

Psychedelic style usually has a flowing, sweeping quality, often featuring bordered areas of solid color. Peter Max is probably the best known of the Psychedelic artists. The word curvilinear aptly describes his style and that of his contemporaries. Their works are often dreamlike, wild, imaginative glimpses into the creative mind’s interpretations of reality. Some Psychedelic art is an attempt to portray the scenes viewed on a drug trip.

Art Nouveau style is characterized by the stylization of Natural forms for decorative purposes: graceful and sinuous curves are typical of this style. Primarily produced from 1890-1910, this movement symbolized a rejection of the mass-produced items of the industrial society and was an artistic attempt to return to Nature.

Impressional lepidopteral style describes representations of butterflies and moths, depicted only vaguely, like a near-sighted artist would see them with the artist’s glasses removed.

Graphic style encompasses works of recent artists (1900 on) which are primarily illustrations for books and advertisements. Although the works often differ widely in appearance, their use identifies them as Graphic style.

The Cartoon style features butterflies and moths in the caricatured, abbreviated style of the cartoonist. Simplicity of shape and ornamentation characterizes all of the various individual cartoonists’ styles.


Another diverse spectrum of artistic styles are represented by the illustrative depiction of butterflies and moths rather than their intentional stylization. Butterflies and moths executed in the unpolished style of children are done in Elementary style. In younger artists whose work is often identifiable by the hot dog body, the face (usually with a smile) is on the back of the specimen’s head. Butterflies and moths painted in the Primitive style are easily recognized as lepidoptera, but the artists’ representations of them are inaccurate, often owing to the artists’ lack of training. Primitive renditions are realistic but obviously not exact. Wing outlines may curve when they should be straight. Color patterns are not reproduced accurately as far as placement or color.

The Manuscript style was prevalent in the illuminated manuscripts of the 1300’s and 1400’s. The butterflies and moths in these works were obviously done by talented artists, but looked as though they were done from memory and not from life. The forewings were usually narrowed. Undulating lines bordered some of the wings, even though they were not present on the actual specimens.

Most Colonial style works were painted between 1700 and 1850. The butterflies and moths in these works evidence more artistic ability and training than the Primitive style works, but contain too many departures from the actual specimens to be labeled Realistic.

Butterflies and moths were particularly well suited for inclusion in the works of Late Gothic paintings, produced during the 1400’s-1500’s by Flemish court masters and by artists in areas of Holland or France under Flemish rule or influence. These paintings featured several characteristics which reflected the mature Medieval culture of the North and the new Renaissance Spirit: Objective realism – an interest in all details and material facts, whether a pattern on a cloth or the wrinkles in a face; Naturalism – an interest in portraying Nature as realistically as possible; Symbolism – the late Medieval world saw symbolism ripen into an over-complex and endless series of interpretations, both divine and profane, based on almost every material object represented in art.

The Neo-Classical style “stressed line, balanced composition, smoothly modeled figures, muted coloring and ennobled expressions and gestures. “Neo-Classicism was a self-conscious revival of antique forms inspired by the archaeological excavations of J. J. Winckelman.” The themes favored by Neo-Classical artists were those favored by the Academy: mythological subjects and Classical histories.

Specimens painted in the Obtuse style, popular from around 1900 to 1930, are not exactly realistic, and mainly shown show the specimen viewed from the side with wings at an open angle.

The Scientific style of picturing lepidoptera is defined as the technically exact, realistic representation of butterflies and moths. Photographic style exists where the artist draws or paints the specimen as realistically as possible, where the specimen looks almost like a photograph. Pictorial style occurs where the specimen is fairly exact as far as coloration and venation, but is obviously a picture. Linear style exists where line drawing, stippling and shading are used to depict a specimen.

Realistic artworks depict specimens as close to their actual appearance as the artist’s ability permits. It is the same as the photographic type of the Scientific style but is called Realistic when the artwork is not a scientific piece.return