Seashell Butterflies

By Ginger Bowman

painted seashell butterflies on driftwood stand

On painted wings

On my early beachcombing walks I enjoy finding different things. That’s the fun of it. What will I find today?

I love sea glass, fossils, driftwood, and shells on the beaches of Northern California. Sand dollars and clam shells are abundant here. I would pick up the small clam shells that were open. I’m sure those were a seagull’s breakfast. I would pick up the ones that were open but still attached. I would say “hello butterfly,” as the shape was perfect as I turned it around in my hand and smoothed away the loose sand. My husband Mark suggested that I paint the clam shells. 

santa cruz beaches and monarch butterflies

There are hundreds of beautiful butterfly species from which to choose. The monarch is my favorite, and its majesty relieves stress upon sight. They are also a local favorite: each year from late November to mid-January, monarch butterflies migrate to my hometown of Santa Cruz, California. Monarchs choose this area to shelter from colder weather in the winter. They arrive in the fall and stay just past the new year. I remember taking field trips to the eucalyptus grove when I was in elementary school. All the children had a great time and were in awe of the thousands of butterflies. I still enjoy the feeling when I see them now.

I began the project and painted one butterfly, quickly choosing to make two dozen butterflies on a driftwood display. In just a few steps, you can learn to make your own monarch butterfly, your own favorite species, or an imaginary one.


shells paint pliers

driftwood tape glue wire spray

Use paints, glues, and sealer in a well-ventilated area.

Create your wings

glue and paint shells for butterfly wings

  1. Lay your shells over the sticky side of the blue painter’s tape. Even if they are still attached this will help hold the “wings” in place.
  1. Put a pea-sized spot of E6000 glue in the middle where the shells are attached. Let the glue dry. When it is dry, turn over and do the same to the back. Let the glue dry thoroughly.

Paint your design

  1. Use your acrylic paint pens to do a base color. If you want to keep the back unpainted for a more natural look, that is also fun. Let the paint dry. You can paint just the front, or paint the front and back of the shells.
  1. When the paint is dry, use the spray sealer in between each color layer to protect each layer as you work.

wing design for painted butterfly with seashells

  1. When the sealer is dry, start from the top and add some shading of the colors. For example, on my monarch butterfly, I add red to the top and yellow on the bottom. Let the paint dry and then seal again.

painted monarch butterfly wings on seashells

  1. Now you can add the wing shape using dark paint. Look at photos of butterflies to get an idea of the typical markings, how the veins radiate from the butterfly’s body, and what the colors are. First, I paint the middle where the wings meet. Then I paint the outside edge, using the black paint to define the shape of the wings, with a notch between the upper and lower parts of the wings.
  1. If you don’t like something you have painted, just go back and paint your base color over it, let it dry, and then repaint your lines. Multiple layers of paint sometimes make the butterfly look even more natural.
  1. Add white dots and any other typical markings found on your type of butterfly. Or, make them any way you want. That’s the fun of it!

Make the body and antennae

make seashell butterfly antennae with wire

  1. Cut a 6– to 8-inch piece of stainless steel wire. Fold the wire in half, then hold the pliers on the fold and twist the wire tightly in a spiral until the twisted part is about an inch long. 
  1. Pull apart the two ends of the wire to make the antennae. Check to see if you like the length, cutting off extra wire if needed. Add a little loop at the end of the wires with the pliers, and shape the antennae however you like.
  1. Turn the painted butterfly wings over and curve the wire body along the middle where the shells meet, making sure the wire is snug against the shells. Use E6000 glue to attach the wire to the shell and blue painter’s tape to hold it in place while it dries.

Make a driftwood stand

blue seashell butterflies on a stand

  1. You can display your butterfly by itself, or create a stand for a single butterfly or a whole swarm. Attach another piece of wire around the wire “body” to create a “flying” butterfly, curving the wire in a fun shape.
seashell art

    monarch butteflies made with clam shells

    1. To attach the butterfly to a piece of driftwood, I drill a small hole in the wood. I then bend the wire that is attached to the butterfly at the bottom end and insert it into the drilled hole. I adjust the wire until I like its position and then secure the end of the wire in the hole with E6000 glue to help keep it in place.

    monarch butterfly sculptures made with shells

    1. Once the glue is dry, make any adjustments to the wires and your driftwood display is ready to be hung on a wall or set on a table.

    I hope you have fun making these cute butterflies. 

    Enjoy your daily dose of vitamin sea!

    This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2021 issue.

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    1 comment

    These butterflies are absolutely beautiful. How do I buy one? Are they for Sale, please say ~ yes?

    Allison j Reeder July 14, 2022

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