How to Paint Metallic and Shiny Surfaces in Oil and Acrylic

Painting of domestic servant polishing the silver
'La Recureuse'. Painting by Andre Bouys (1656-1740), 1737. Decorative Arts Museum, Paris. Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images

It is very impressive to see the Old Master's paintings of exquisite silver and brass, as in Andre Bouys painting, La Recureuse (1737), shown here, in which the silver platter is painted so convincingly that it looks real. One might wonder whether it was painted with metallic paint. Not so, however. Rather, the painting is done with regular paints through the sheer power of keen observation.

By observing closely the highlights, shadows, and reflections of a metallic object, thinking of them as distinct abstract shapes, and paying attention to the relationships of the values, shapes and colors that you see, you can create a life-like representation of the object.

The adage, "paint what you see, not what you think you see," using the right-brain mode of seeing, is key to capturing the shiny reflective quality of metal with all its nuances of value and hue.

Before You Paint

Before painting anything close one eye (this flattens the image) and study several different metal objects of varying degrees of reflectivity. Look closely at the reflections. Notice what is being reflected onto the metal object. Notice the shapes and colors of those reflections. Do you see both warm and cool colors? Can you identify the objects in the room that are being reflected? If there is a window can you see that? Can you see outside the window? Can you see the sky? Are the colors and shapes of the reflections the same as the original object being reflected or are they distorted somewhat? Notice the values in the metal object. Is there a range of values from light to dark?

Do they blend into one each other gradually or are there sharp delineations between values? Are there reflections on other surfaces adjacent to the metal object? 

Now draw your subject with a soft graphite pencil or charcoal to capture the values. 

The more you look, the more you will see,  and when you start to answer these questions you will be well on your way to being able to paint reflective metal objects.

Tips for Painting Metal​ and Other Reflective Objects

  • Paint what you see, what you are actually observing.
  • The trick to making your object appear metallic is showing its reflective or semi-reflective nature.
  • Remember that the shapes being reflected on the metal object are distorted by the shape of the metal object. The reflections are not the same shape as the object being reflected because the metallic object is not flat like a mirror is.
  • Objects near each other cast reflections on each other. Color bounces onto other objects.
  • The colors that are being reflected in the metal object will not be as intense as they are in the object being reflected.
  • Reflections are variations of shapes and colors of objects adjacent to the metal object. The colors of the reflections are affected somewhat by the color of the metal object itself.  
  • Highly reflective silver metal tints the color of what it is reflecting very little. Gold and brass tint the color yellow. Copper tints the color a peach or coral hue. (1)
  • Less reflective metal has more of a color of its own that has a greater effect on the color of the reflection.
  • There are sharp lines of value and color change in highly reflective metal. This is what helps to convey the sheen.
  • Less reflective metal has more subtle gradations of values. 
  • Think of what you are painting as abstract shapes and colors within the outline of the metal object. 
  • Look for the patches and different shapes of color. Start with the larger shapes and work towards the smaller ones.
  • Look for the highlights and bits of reflected light.
  • Capture the darkest darks first, then the lights, and then the variation of values in the mid range, with highlights of color saved for the end. 
  • Gray can be made by mixing the three primaries  - red, yellow, and blue - together, and creating different values by tinting it with white in varying amounts.
  • Getting the relationships of values and color right will ensure your success in painting convincingly reflective metal.
  • Remember to squint at the metal object. This will help you see the values better.
  • Use a color isolator to help you identify the correct hue.

Two Approaches: Direct or Indirect

You can take two different approaches to painting metal, the alla prima approach (all at once) or the glazing approach: direct vs. indirect. Both are perfectly good, the choice is a personal one.

The Old Masters generally did a thin monochromatic (one hue plus black and white) or grisaille (painting in shades of gray or a neutral hue) underpainting of their subject first to get the values right. They would follow this with glazes of color that would bring out the three-dimensionality and luster of the object, finished off with highlights of light and color. 

The direct approach involves painting wet-into-wet, building up to thicker layers of paint, and generally finishing the work in one sitting. You will want to start with a thin underpainting of the local color of the metal you are painting. Then add the darkest darks to help provide structure, the mid values, and then the lights. Save the lightest lights and highlights for the very last. You can also tone your surface in a neutral hue before you begin if you want. This helps provide unity to the painting.

For either approach it is very important to get your drawing right. Take time to make sure your drawing is accurate. It is easier and less wasteful of time and paint to make changes in the initial drawing stage than it is once you've covered your surface in paint and added details.  

Exercises

  • Paint a metal object such as a silver bowl in only black and white, or a dark neutral color such as burnt umber and white. This will help you to see the range of values. You will find that if you can do this accurately, you will be able to achieve the effect of shining metal, even without color. 
  • Silverware, such as a spoon, is also a good subject for practicing reflections on metal.
  • Next add color. Paint a metal object on a simple background of one color. Notice how the color of the background is reflected onto the object.
  • Then add an object adjacent to the metal object, perhaps a lemon or other fruit placed near it.  Notice its reflection in the metal. Gradually increase the complexity of the background and the objects near the metal to see how it affects the reflections. 
  • See how changing the light source affects the reflections.
  • Increase the complexity by adding multiple metal objects.

Examples of Famous Paintings with Metal Objects

Further Viewing

How to Paint Silver, Metallic & Shiny Objects | Painting Explanation  (video)

LESSON: Real-Time Oil Painting Lesson - Shiny Copper Pitcher & Fruit Still Life (video)

Tea Spoon - Oil Painting Lesson (video)

Oil Painting Demo - Painted from Life - Wet in Wet - Silver Container (video)

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REFERENCES

1. Sorensen, Ora, Metals Made Easy, the Artists Magazine, December 2009, p.26.

2. Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800, Heilbronn Timeline of Art History, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm, accessed 9/13/16.

3. Pioch, Nicholas, Chardin, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon, Web Museum, Paris,14 July 2002, https://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/chardin/, accessed 9/13/16.

RESOURCES

Sorensen, Ora, Metals Made Easy, the Artists Magazine, December 2009, p.26.

Monahan, Patricia; Seligmann, Patricia; Clouse, Wendy; Art School, a A Complete Painters Course, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, 1996.