Many adult dragonflies have beautiful iridescent coloured wings that are produced by structural colouration, making them conspicuous in flight. Depicting this iridescence when painting a watercolour dragonfly can be achieved with metallic, pearlescent and shimmer watercolour paints.
Pearlescent or iridescence as a style of watercolour takes a combination of skill, practice, and the right resources, with each being a component to create believable and artistic depictions of gloss and light refraction that is observed in nature too.
A good starting place for painting an iridescent watercolour dragonfly is to make sure you have the right paints and paper, since even perfect technique will be hindered by working on inadequate materials. There are a few brands of watercolour that has a wide sampling of shimmering or iridescent effects. For some, the shimmer that they exhibit is unique and noticeable, with a bright, eye-catching glimmer, but not excessive. Others will achieve a shimmering effect by introducing glitter or other methods, which may make the watercolour paint look excessive and unnatural when introduced to painting dragonflies.
Shimmer and iridescence are best achieved when used delicately, with an interplay of regular colours so that the shine is an effect on the painting, rather than overwhelming all other details. While some people choose to use lustre dust, or applications of glitter on top of the paint while it is dry, it is because of this delicate process that I suggest starting out with iridescent or glossy paint to begin with before attempting to experiment with adding non-paint effects to a painting. While the results can be just as stunning, and sometimes even more so in the hands of a master, it can be difficult to control, as each medium of art demands practice and research.
At this point, you may already have practice with watercolour paint, but relatively little or none with additional materials, so it may be best to learn the skills of adding gloss first with paint before beginning to experiment. With high quality paper and well-conditioned brushes, shimmering watercolour paints would be a breeze to start working with.
For this watercolour dragonfly, we used:
Start with a pencil sketch of the dragonfly with an outline of the body first, then an outline of the wings, keeping both sides as symmetrical as possible. Then fill in the body and wings with a scale-like pattern.
Once the pencil sketch is complete, you can go over it once more with a drawing pen.
We started with a watercolour splash in the background. The key to getting a soft watercolour effect is using a good amount of water.
Another aspect of shimmer painting that can be appreciated in its subtlety is the use of shine or light retraction to imply texture. The use of shimmering paint can imply the very faint lustre of healthy hair, or the velvety glimmer of the fine layer over some leaves. It can be used to represent light glinting off of cresting waves, or the shimmer of glint scales, even the rainbow-on-white colour of mother of pearl.
The application of glimmer paint, when layered and used delicately, adds not only light and warmth to a painting but also a sense of living depth, where none was before, lending further dimensions and implying the way that light breaks over an object.
With this in mind, you can look at the outside world and notice just how many things have natural iridescence or gloss, not just limited to shiny or sparkly items, but just as often found in fibres, types of plants, or beads of water. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can start adding glimmer watercolour not only when you want to achieve a glittery effect, but to many types of painting as a way of adding depth and texture.
You may finish some of the outlines with a metallic gold pen.
You can look at the natural world and start attempting to replicate it using the same shading technique when painting a watercolour dragonfly, with some alterations and a more gentle, sparse hand, incorporating non-glimmer paints with shimmer effects to create a more naturally-appearing painting.
And finally, once you feel comfortable with applying these paints, you can start exploring the breadth and span of expression available to you with light refraction, not only to achieve glittery effects, but for all kinds of ends.