Drawing and painting metal and glass
There are strong similarities between metal and glass, though in a
sense they are opposites. Both have hard, smooth and reflective
surfaces, but while metal reflects all the light falling on it, glass
lets most of it through.
Painting objects made of shiny metals can seem daunting at first.
Instead of a solid form to grasp which obeys familiar rules of light and
shade, you are suddenly plunged into an upside down world where many of
the strongest tones and shapes derive from things out side the object.
In the case of a very shiny object such as a stainless-steel, the form
seems to be a sum of other objects, shapes and colours around it. Move
it to a different place or even just shift your position slightly and
you have a completely subject.
Glass is one of the simplest of textures to render as long as you
understand what is going on. You will need to learn how to deal with its
two main characteristics, transparency and refraction. Transparency can
be a difficult concept for the painter. A common mistake made by
beginners is to make the glass object more prominent and dense than it
The edges tend to be over-emphasized and the middle transparency
filled in as though trying to make the whole object into a solid form.
See if you can approach the problem from the other direction by asking
yourself what is the least you can do to indicate glass. A few
brushstrokes are sometimes all that is required, some light ones to show
the turning of the form and a couple of rapid marks for highlights.
The principle of refraction is also useful to the painter in
revealing the texture of glass. Refraction is the name given to the way
light rays are bent as they move through a denser medium. It is exactly
the same phenomenon as you find when looking at the way a stick seems to
bend in water. If you look through any glass you will see this to a
greater or less extend, shapes, lines and textures of objects behind the
glass will be distorted.
Experiment by placing objects behind the glass and see whether the
distorted forms help show the textures of the glass. Think visually and
choose objects, shapes and colours that might give an exciting image.
One of the most difficult problems for painters, no matter how good
they are, is to try and make sense of a confused jumble of interminate
tones. Look into the surface of most metal surfaces and that is usually
what you will find. So whether you are simply drawing one object or
tackling a still life which includes reflective surfaces. You will need
to consider how to simplify and clarify the subject.
This can be done by paying special attention to the lighting.
Remember that the slightest change in light and its intensity will alter
the appearance of reflective surfaces and textures. Strong direct light
will tend to give hard and vivid contrasts, while softer light will
break up the tones, giving more subtle effects.
The simplest ways to experiment with different light sources is to
place the objects on stray so that the composition remains undisturbed
and can be transported to different locations around the house.
Sometimes by changing the light the whole idea of the painting can
In any still life group - and even a drawing of an isolated metal or
glass object is a still life the background is of great importance and
in the case of metal and glass can help you bring out the qualities of
the objects. The smoothness of a copper pot or silver jug, for example,
might be stressed by painting it against a rough-textured wall or a
heavy fabric, while a plain, dark background would provide an element of
contrast to make highlights and tonal contrasts in the subject stand out
With glass, the background will always be a dominant element, since
so much of it will be visible through the glass. Plain backgrounds are
usually best as a strong pattern behind a glass object will destroy its
form, but the colour and tone will depend on the effect you want to
create. Some of the most successful paintings of glass have been done on
dark backgrounds, which emphasize the transparency by providing a range
of subtle mid-tones and brilliant highlights. A successful water colour
of metal or glass should be as fresh and sharp as the forms it is
describing. A water colour will record every step you make, so it is
essential to paint with a clear idea of what you are doing. Mistakes
cannot be easily rectified.
So before you begin, look carefully at your subject to see whether
there are any small highlights you can safely leave out for example or
several mid-tones you could merge into one. One of the basics of all
painting, but particularly relevant in the context of water colour, is
to "make less say more."
One of the most techniques for clear, sharp effects is wet on dry,
which simply means laying a wash, allowing it to dry, and then laing
further washes on top. Each new wash will leave a crisp, hard edge which
can be very effective for subjects like cut glass or a faceted metal
For softer gradations of colour and tone, you can soften edges with a
moist brush. Wet into wet techniques can provide interesting effects in
rendering glass and you can control and soften the colours by using
blotting techniques. You can also work back into the dried water colour
with an opaque media such as gouacheighten tones by brushing on clean
water and then blotting, or rub carefully with a soft eraser, which will
remove a little colour from the surface.
As a first exercise, choose a subject that has a comparatively simple
form, such as this spoon and observe how the changes in the surfaces
create corresponding. This painting (the spoon) began as a water colour
and as the tones built up, opaque gouche was introduced to lighten the
tones and correct mistakes.