Artists often hesitate to paint shiny things like metal. I’m not talking about painting on a metallic surface (which is pretty cool too), but painting the shiny effect metal objects have, like a car or silverware. 

It’s easy to get a little lost in how some people can draw or paint photorealistic cars and other metallic surfaces. I’ll be breaking down and simplifying ways you can get the “shiny” effect without using metallic paints and without spending hours doing it. Let’s get over our intimidation of this texture together, shall we?

Flat vs Curved Metal

First, we need the basic understanding that polished metal reflects light remarkably well, like a mirror. This is why a sheet of metal that lies flat is pretty much a mirror, with the reflectivity dependant on how polished is the surface.

Most metallic surfaces will be quite shiny, and that any reflected highlights and shadows will conform to the shape of the metal.

Flat metal will always be the easiest to draw or paint because all you need is a good contrast on the shiny highlights vs the shadows.

Here, I’ve drawn two different metal plates to show how the reflectivity is affected by how polished the surface is. The less polished surface has smoother tone transitions, while the polished surface has much larger tone contrasts because it reflects more lights and shadows.

The tones also look banded, more so if several light sources are reflecting off the metal.

Tip: For a smoother blend, use your finger or a tortillon (i.e. one of those pencils made of rolled paper) to blend out the graphite. If you're using water-soluble graphite, you can blend it out with some water. Just remember not to blend over your white highlights.

In this next quick drawing, I’ve done a shiny metal cylinder, where you can see the highlights and shadows perpendicular to the curve’s direction.

Note as well that the different tones often go back and forth between light and dark, such as dark-mid-dark-mid-light-mid-dark or dark-mid-light-mid-light-mid-dark.

Again, the greater the contrast is between the tones, the more polished the metal will appear.

Tip: It’s a fantastic idea to practice drawing the metallic effect first; a pencil is already the perfect colour for metal. You will get a better idea of how the tones affect the appearance of the metal and how the tones are warped by the metallic object’s shape.

References For the Win

Once you have a better idea of creating this shiny effect in pencil, the best way to learn how to draw metallic objects is to practice from real life and/or references.

I find it’s best to start small, with something like a spoon or a metallic bin. Divide your tones into three-light, mid, and dark. Wherever your highlights are, avoid them like the plague.

You want to keep highlights as white as possible to preserve the shiny effect. The only situation where you might paint over a highlight is if there’s little to no light hitting the metallic surface. If ever you accidentally paint over your highlights, you can try to use a lifting technique.

Highlights follow the form of your metallic object, especially near the edges, so keep track of how they shine.

Paint mid-tones with a diluted colour and shadows with a more saturated version of the same colour.

Tip: It’s up to you how smooth you want your tone transitions to be. I find that smooth blends indicate a curved form better, while little to no blending makes the metal look shinier.

Ultimately, it boils down to practice, practice, and more practice! The more you observe and draw/paint metal objects, the better your intuition will be for understanding how to do the tones and values for a metallic texture. 

All About the Tones

After a while, you’ll start to notice that a successful metallic image is really about getting your values right. Even coloured metal (such as cars) only takes the right highlights and shadows in whatever the metal’s colour. 

The trickiest part is when you want to do more complicated shapes in metal, like a tap or a jewellery box. Remember that the highlights and shadows follow the object’s form, and make sure to keep your highlights light. It will get easier with careful observation and patient practice.

Have you tried drawing or painting a metallic object? What do you find is the trickiest material to capture on paper? Let us know in the comments! Get more tips, tricks, and general advice about creating art! Subscribe to our email newsletter. You’ll be kept up to date with our latest classes and flash sales, too!

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. She likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm during her downtime. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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