Detail of a metallic teapot from a recent painting

How did you do that?

From time to time I’ll get a nice compliment about how I paint metal.  This is often followed up with questions about how I do it.

Unfortunately, there’s not a simple secret that I can reveal.  I approach metal the same way I approach any other type of object: Observe patiently, mix colors carefully, work with large shapes first and then details, and always, always, always think about the texture.

Those are the deceptively simple rules for painting anything well in this style.  They apply to people, trees, oranges… and of course metal.

Think about mirrors

There is one concrete piece of advice I can offer about painting metallic objects, though: Think of them as a low grade mirrors, and pay very close attentions to the highlights and reflections.

Highlights on metal often contain very specific information about the light source, since they’re nothing more than reflections of that light source.  By carefully replicating the shape, color, and intensity of the highlight, the artist will go a long way to replicating the texture of metal.  One thing to be aware of is that strong highlights on metal can act as prisms, and split the light into subtle colors around the edge of the highlight.

And like any other mirror, metal objects will contain reflections of the objects around them.  Since the surface of this mirror is generally not flat, those reflections will be distorted to varying degrees.  Unless the metal is highly polished, the reflections will generally be somewhat darker and less chromatic than the objects themselves. As an example, look at the dark, muted reflection of the lime in the above image.

By paying careful attention to highlights and reflections, anybody with rudimentary painting skills can effectively reproduce the look and feel of metal.