Metals Made Easy
Learn the secrets to depicting low-luster to high-shine metallic surfaces.
by Ora Sorensen
In the December 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, Ora Sorensen shows how shimmering metallic surfaces always add a wow factor to paintings. Walking through an art museum or gallery, we pay special attention to works depicting a flash of gold, silver or other metal. Careful inspection, however, shows that their reflective gleam results from a simple juxtaposition of colors, shadows and highlights. Continue reading to learn more about the intricacies of painting metal, or click here to go directly to the demonstration in painting low luster metallic surfaces.
Highly reflective metallic surfaces are rendered differently from matte or low-luster metallic surfaces—and the look of high-shine metal is actually very easy to capture. In this case, what you’re painting isn’t really the metal object but the reflected shapes thrown by the surrounding environment and distorted by the contours of the metal object. In other words, you’re simply painting abstract shapes within a shape. To render the metal believably, observe carefully and paint the shapes you see rather than focusing on the object as a whole.
When painting those shapes, you’ll need to use a full range of values from the whitest whites to the darkest darks. The values, however,are determined by the values of the reflected objects in the surrounding environment rather than by highlights and shadows cast from a light source. There’s not much blending in rendering an object with a high shine. The hard lines of the reflected shapes within a shape are what give the object a realistic sheen.
The colors of these reflected shapes are tinted by the base color of the metal in which they’re reflected.
Highly polished silver is virtually colorless, and the distorted, reflected shapes keep their natural color. Gold or brass tints the reflected objects yellow, and copper tints the reflections a coral color.
Matte metallic surfaces have more blended shadows and highlights than high-shine surfaces. These duller surfaces still have values ranging from the darkest possible for shadows to the whitest white for highlights; however, a matte surface shows the light source more distinctly, and the shadows and highlights have more of a relationship to the light source than to the surrounding objects, whose reflections are obscured or diffused on the matte surface.
The type of metal you’re depicting determines your paint colors, and these colors span outward from the white highlight, going from pale and warm to dark and cool. This progression gives the object depth because warm colors seem to come toward you and cool colors seem to recede. Squinting as you look at the object helps you see the value changes. When all the colors are placed, gently blend outward from the highlight, keeping the blending brush clean as you go. Once the blending is completed, you’ll have an image of an object that glows with a lustrous metallic sheen.
You can do it!
Capturing the magical luster of metals—whether high-shine or low-luster—will certainly attract attention to your paintings. But the best part is that, with a little practice, you’ll find that the flash (and flare) of metal is easy to paint.
High-shine metallic objects have these characteristics:
- hard-edged reflective shapes within the shape of the object
- a full range of values, determined by reflected objects
- reflections tinted by the color of the metal
Matte or low-luster metallic objects have these characteristics:
- blended shadows and highlights
- a full range of values, determined by the light source
- diffused or obscured reflections
- colors determined by the type of the metal being depicted
All paints referred to in this article are oils. The principles in this article concerning values and color choices are applicable to all paint media, although the application techniques may vary.
- French ultramarine blue
- cadmium orange
- burnt sienna
(all true colors that blend well to make shimmering grays)
Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour
- titanium white (most opaque white I’ve found)
- phthalo blue (intense; good for tinting and glazing)
- yellow pale (or light) (powerful and opaque)
- flesh tint (realistic, pale coral color)
- cerulean blue (warm, not too strong)
- yellow ochre
- raw umber (very dark, slightly transparent; good for glazing)
What about brass?
Low-luster brass is painted with colors similar to those used for low-luster gold (See Low Luster: The Three Metals, below). Brass, however, frequently has a cooler or greener cast than gold, so eliminate the warm burnt sienna from your palette. Raw umber and French ultramarine blue will give a cooler, greenish look to a brass object.
STEP-BY-STEP: The Three Metals
1. Compositional Sketch
I began with a careful drawing on a pure white canvas. To set the graphite, I coated the drawing with thin white gesso.
I like to paint the background first, which makes judging the values of the foreground easier. Here I used raw umber, burnt sienna, French ultramarine blue and titanium white.
3. Golden object
For this and the next two steps, I’ve painted an orb in the same metallic color as an object in my still life. The references in the instructions to rings apply to the orbs, which allow you to see more easily how the colors are applied around the highlight. The object in the still life may have more than one highlight and the surrounding colors may be applied less regularly, but the principle is the same.
To depict a golden object with a dull patina, I begin by painting a white highlight that’s larger than the one I observe on the object. Working outward from the hot, white highlight, I paint concentric rings or partial rings with the following colors:
Ring one: warm pale mixture of titanium white and cadmium yellow light
Ring two: yellow ochre mixed with cadmium yellow light and titanium white
Ring three: yellow ochre mixed with cadmium yellow light
Ring four: yellow ochre mixed with burnt sienna
Ring five: burnt sienna mixed with raw umber
Ring six: raw umber mixed with French ultramarine blue
Starting with the lightest color, I blend one color into the next with back-and-forth, Z-shaped strokes made with a mop brush. This brings the darker color into the lighter, diminishing the area of the lighter hue. I’m careful to leave a clean hot spot in the middle.
4. Silver-toned object
For a silver finish I paint a pure white highlight and then the surrounding colors, just as I do for golden objects—although the surrounding colors themselves are different:
Ring one: mixture of titanium white, cerulean blue and burnt sienna
Ring two: mixture of titanium white, burnt sienna and ultramarine blue; bit of contrasting yellow ochre put in to add life to the monochromatic silver surface
Ring three: mixture of raw umber and French ultramarine blue with very little titanium white
Again, I blend the colors outward from the highlight, being careful to keep the hot spot clean.
5. Copper-toned object
As with the other metal tones, I apply the white highlight and then add the appropriate surrounding colors:
Ring one: mixture of titanium white, flesh and the slightest bit of cadmium yellow light
Ring two: titanium white mixed with cadmium orange and cadmium yellow light and white
Ring three: mixture of cadmium orange, burnt sienna and a very small amount of phthalo blue
Ring four: mixture of raw umber and phthalo blue
Again, I blend the rings outward from the highlight.
I strengthened all the shadows with glazes of raw umber and ultramarine blue. To strengthen the highlights, I scumbled white. Here you see the completed painting, The Three Metals (oil, 40×40).