This article by Paul Jackson first appeared in the November 2003 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
Almost anything can reflect light to some degree, but smooth, highly polished surfaces like metal can produce dazzling highlights and beguiling reflections that really stop us in our tracks. Metal, like glass, cloaks itself by reflecting its environment. It’s easier to see than glass because it isn’t transparent, but the reflections are bolder and can seem fairly daunting in their abstract complexity.
The surface texture and polish determine the metal’s quality of reflection. Pitted metal diffuses the reflection of light so that you don’t get a mirrorlike effect. Smooth, highly polished metal reflects its surroundings but compresses and distorts the images as the surface of the metal curves. Concave surfaces make the images smaller and thinner; convex surfaces render images larger and wider.
In this article, we’ll look specifically at watercolor techniques for painting silver- and gold-toned metals. The difference between silver and gold is simply a matter of the colors on your palette. Reflections in silver depend on the colors around it. Generally, you’ll see blues, grays and blacks, unless you introduce another color to the environment. Gold adds a warmer touch of yellow to all its reflections except the brightest highlights.
Sometimes you can’t explain what you see in metal reflections, so you have to interpret and paint the shapes and colors that you see. (Actually, this way of thinking is important even when you can explain what you see.) With a little observation and practice, you’ll discover a pattern to the highlights and shadows that makes metal shine.
Watercolor Painting Demo: Shimmering Shapes
The only recognizable reflection in this watercolor sketch of a silver spoon and gold fork is the blue sky above. All other reflections have been distorted into abstract shapes by the curving metal.
1. I began with this line drawing of the objects, including all the shapes of the reflections. The principle of breaking down what you see into manageable shapes is particularly important when painting metal, because reflections aren’t likely to be recognizable objects.
2. I mixed a light solution of indigo for a slightly graded background wash and painted it around the fork and spoon with a No. 6 round brush (I used a No. 2 in the tight spaces). The gradual transition from dark to light implies depth in this shallow composition. After the wash dried, I began the lightest details in the utensils with a No. 2 round. I used a slightly heavier solution of indigo for the details in the spoon and a light mixture of cadmium yellow with a touch of burnt umber for the fork.
3. I layered the fork details with a second pass of the same mixture to strengthen the color and create a darker value, then repeated this process for the spoon using its indigo solution in various concentrations. The sky reflection in the spoon is a light solution of French ultramarine. I added a touch of burnt umber to the indigo solution to make it a little darker and warmer for the shadows of both utensils.
4. I painted the darker details of the fork with burnt umber and made light gradations from the tips of the tines to give them a little dimensionality. I added a light touch of French ultramarine in the center of the fork to give a small sky reflection. Little touches of indigo and burnt umber were used to shadow the clouds and other reflections in the spoon.
5. I made the darkest accents in both the fork and spoon with a heavy solution of indigo. It’s important to use the darks sparingly to accent the highlights.
Paul Jackson is an award-winning watercolor artist who lives in Columbia, Missouri. He’s the author of Painting Spectacular Light Effects in Watercolor (North Light Books), from which this article was excerpted with permission. Watch his watercolor painting workshops today at ArtistsNetworkTV.