Milkweed is the favorite, and actually only, food of Monarch caterpillars. I leave stands of milkweed in my clearing and watch for Monarchs to lay their eggs. The eggs are laid one at at time on the underside of the milkweed leaf. An egg is about the size of a pinhead and the color of a beautiful pearl. It hatchs into a tiny caterpillar.
Munching on milkweed the caterpillar grows rapidly. Eventually, when the caterpillar is fully grown, it will stop eating, crawl to a suitable location, like the eave of my house, and form a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis the caterpillar undergoes the amazing transformation to a butterfly. When the chrysalis turns dark, the transformation is complete and and the butterfly emerges.
The butterfly is not ready for flight yet, as it must dry its wings and pump blood through them, strengthening them. I picked up this Monarch on a chilly evening, when it was a bit too cold for it to fly. I kept it safe overnight, and when the morning came released it. It headed SW, the right direction for Mexico. Amazing!
A lot of what I learned from observing the Monarch, became the background I needed for creating illustrations for Wings of Light. In many ways I am grateful that Steve Swinburne, the author, chose to write about the migration of the Cloudless Yellow Sulfur. First of all there are a lot of books already published on the Monarch, and secondly, the yellow butterflies are a lot easier to draw than the monarchs with their complex black wing patterns.
I see these butterflies in my clearing as well, but not nearly as often as Monarchs. Cloudless Yellow Sulfurs are also very fussy about which plants they lay their eggs on. They prefer cassia, a plant which does not grow in my clearing. Here is an illustration of the yellow butterfly laying an egg on a cassia plant.
One of the illustrations called for a scene in Central Park in New York City, in the rain. Since, at that time, my three grandchildren lived in NYC, I thought it would be fun to put them in the illustration. First I went to New York and took some photos of Central Park from one of the most scenic spots. The building in the center of the picture with the dark fancy roof is The Plaza Hotel, where Eloise lives. She a fictional character in a famous children's book.
Then I photographed my grandchildren posing, more or less, as if they were looking up at butterflies.
From that photo, and others, I did a sketch of the scene. Here is a detail from the sketch. The sketch of the whole page, called a dummy, is then traced onto watercolor paper and painted. In this way, if I mess up the painting, and that happens quite a lot, I don't have to draw the scene over again. I simply trace the dummy onto another piece of watercolor paper and paint it again.
Wings of Light is the second in a series of books written by Steve Swinburne and illustrated by me. Steve has a lot of experience as a naturalist and writes about what he sees, as I do. He is a photographer, but not an illustrator, so I work with his words and suggestions to create the pictures for each book. The migration and life cycle of the Cloudless Yellow Sulfur Butterfly described in the book, is similar to that of the Monarch Butterfly, which I often observe around my house. And so while working on the illustrations, I paid particular attention to the Monarchs that year, resulting in a series of photos below. It is truly an amazing feat that such delicate and beautiful things as butterflies can migrate over thousands of miles and then lay their eggs. And how do the offspring know how to find their way back to the wintering grounds?
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