Create a Butterfly Mobile

pencil logo

Butterfly Full ViewMost sculpture in the round is fixed to a base and doesn't move, but American artist Alexander Calder changed that when he invented the mobile in the early 1930s. Raised in a creative family and trained as an engineer, Calder was one of the most versatile artists of this century.

Some of his works include oil paintings, drawings, lithographs, jewelry, stage sets, and toys. While he created sculpture in bronze, wood, and wire, he is best known for his mobiles and stabiles, stationary sculpture that the spectator moves around to view.

When Calder began making mobiles, he used motors to provide the energy to move his sculptures. He disliked the regularity of motion caused by the method, however. Calder wanted his sculptures to move more spontaneously, so later he created mobiles that moved with the breeze.

After graduating from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, Calder studied art in New York City. Later,while working as an illustrator, he was given a two-week assignment to cover the Ringling Brothers Circus. Fascinated by the acrobats and their athletic abilities, the experience led to a lifelong interest in the physics of balance.

Calder was a serious artist, but as this whimsical mobile shows, he was a fun-loving man as well. He truly enjoyed the adventure and process of making art. You, too, can have fun experimenting with shapes, balance, and movement by creating a simple butterfly mobile. If you recycle scrap materials to make the sculpture, you'll help save natural resources.

You will need:

  • Scratch paper
  • Rice paper or other
  • absorbent material
  • Lightweight cardboard
  • Wooden block
  • Thin, wire coat hanger
  • Clothespin
  • Pipe cleaner
  • Newspapers
  • Wax paper
  • Watercolors or acrylics
  • Floral tape
  • White glue
  • Pencil
  • Paint brush
  • Water pan
  • Scissors
  • Staple gun
  • Pliers
Top View of Butterfly

How to:

While most of Alexander Calder's mobiles were meant to be hung in an open space, sometimes he created standing mobiles. The butterfly mobile described here mounts on a base, also.

Butterflies occur in a variety of shapes and colors, and their wings have beautiful markings. One thing they have in common, however, is the symmetry of their wings. That is, the size and shape of one side or half matches the other. You can create a fantasy butterfly from your imagination, as we did, or study the photos to get ideas on how to make a more realistic insect.

Did you know that some butterflies are in danger of becoming extinct? The Rainforest Action Network, is an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the endangerment of the Earth's rainforests and their inhabitants. According to the RAN, a four-acre patch of rainforest can support as many as 150 different species of butterflies. Many of them are disappearing, because cattle ranching overpopulation, and logging are destroying the rainforests.

You may not live near a rainforest, but your actions can have a great effect on the forests and the creatures living there. Visit Rainforest Heroes at the Rain Action Network to find out how you can save the Earth's rainforests, and learn more about endangered species at The National Wildlife Federation Web site.

You can help increase awareness of endangered species by making a butterfly mobile. The one shown above was made by first painting a wet-in-wet watercolor. Before starting, protect the table by covering your work area with a layer of newspapers, and place the wax paper on top. Put a piece of rice paper on top of the wax paper, and soak it with clear water.

Paint the paper with watercolors or acrylics, letting the colors flow one into the other. You'll have more success with this method if you choose related colors or ones, which are next to each other on the color wheel. In other words, select reds, oranges, and yellows; yellows, greens, and blues; or blues, purples, and reds.

Mixing colors opposite each other on a color wheel will result in an ugly brown! Also, use lots of paint, because watercolor painted in this way tends to dry lighter than it appears as you work. When you've finished, set the paper aside to dry.

Now you're ready to decide on the shape of the butterfly's wings. The easiest way to make sure that it will be symmetrical is to draw one-half of the insect on a folded piece of paper, much as you would a valentine. Keeping the paper folded, cut out the wings. Trace this shape on a scrap of cardboard, and cut it out. To make the bottom covering for the butterfly, lay the cardboard on the wrong side of one half of the painted paper.

Tracing wing outlinesTrace and cut it out. Now lay the cardboard on the other half, and trace the shape. In order to cover the top of the butterfly neatly, you'll need to add a margin to allow for turning the paper and gluing it to the bottom. As shown, add at least 1/2" all the way around the shape. Clip this area at 1/2" intervals up to the traced shape, and set it aside.

Put a thinned coating of glue on the cardboard pattern, and paste it to the wrong side of the paper setClose up of the folds aside for the top of the butterfly. Now, one at a time, put glue on each tab and fold it over so that you cover the edge of the cardboard. Glue the other piece of painted paper to the bottom of the butterfly. If you wish, gently shape the wings while the cardboard and paper are still damp.

To make the body, paint the clothespin black. When it's dry, make a hole in the underside of the clothespin with a drill or awl, and slide it over the wings. To keep it in place, pack the underside opening of the pin with small scraps of cardboard. Select a dark colored pipe cleaner for the antennae. Fold it in half, and twist the center around the head of the clothespin to fasten it. Shape the antennae.

Inserting the wire in the bodyAfter the butterfly is finished, you're ready to attach it to the base with the coat hanger. Decide how tall you want the mobile to be, and use pliers to remove the hook portion and some additional length from the hanger. If you wish, cover the wire with floral tape, and bend it into a fun, spiral or zigzag shape.

Insert the wire in the hole in the butterfly's body. Using pliers, bend the opposite end of the wire at a right angle, and staple it in several places onto the wooden block. If necessary, bend the wire to balance the mobile. Paint the wood a color that complements the butterfly, and if you wish, decorate the base with moss and dried flowers. Place the butterfly in a breezy area, and enjoy your art in motion!

Tips and Tricks:

If you wish to make a more realistic looking butterfly, see the many photos provided at The Butterfly Website. Visitors to the site will discover more about butterflies, and you can even learn how to plant a garden, which will attract them to your yard!

To learn how to turn your backyard into a welcoming place for butterflies, visit A Tribute To The Monarch Butterfly: How to Turn Your Backyard Into a Butterfly Friendly Habitat.

Create a hanging mobile with many different kinds and sizes of butterflies instead of the standing mobile described here. Recycle short lengths of wire coat hangers for the supports, and hang the butterflies and mobile with nylon thread or fishing line. When stringing the mobile, balance it by moving the butterflies and hanging threads about until you're satisfied with the arrangement.

Instead of using rice paper, substitute tissue gift wrap or a cone-shaped coffee filter. Use the filter's bottom seam as the butterfly's body, draw the wings, and cut them out together. After painting the butterfly's wings with the base coat, use acrylic paints and bits of small dowel rods to add spots and other details. Or recycle small pieces of patterned gift wrap to make the butterfly's wings. Also, instead of using a block of wood for the base, try papier mache.

Encourage your classmates to make butterfly mobiles, and help increase awareness of endangered species by displaying the sculptures with stories about the rainforests and the valuable natural resources they provide.

Jean Tinguely, the famous Swiss sculptor, created a kinetic or moving sculpture here in Columbus, Indiana in 1974. Chaos I was made, in part, by recycling scrap metal from a local salvage yard. Driven by a motor, the huge sculpture delights viewers with its varied movements and sounds. Gears whir, mechanical arms move, and colorful shapes twirl. Standing 30 feet high and weighing seven tons, Chaos I is the centerpiece of our indoor civic area called The Commons.

© 1997 Marilyn J. Brackney (updated 2018)

Volume 6 No. 3

return icon

Return to Departments

Previous Activities
Select this to choose other activities.

pencil logo