Tuesday, 18 January 2011

How do I Paint Reflections on Objects in a Still Life?

Painting reflections on shiny objects such as silverware, glass or china may bewilder the artist who may not know where to begin. An array of abstract shapes too complex to tackle may cause visual overload that may result or a muddled mess. In other cases, reflections might be rendered as simplified white squares supposed to represent reflections from a window, or single white dots that fails to match up to the true complexity of reflections. How can the artist paint reflections on objects effectively?

Troubleshooting Still Life Reflections
How to Paint Reflections in Still Life
Rachel Shirley
The task of painting reflections could be made more difficult if trying to paint a still life under complex light conditions which can be found in a multi-windowed room, fluorescent lighting or from reflected light bouncing from other objects. The following practices might also create an unsatisfactory painting of reflections.
  • Assuming that all reflections are white, leading to the exclusive use of titanium and piling it onto the areas concerned.
  • Giving sharp outlines to all the reflections, resulting in the appearance of paper cut-out shapes where the reflections occur.
  • Not varying the hue or tone within the reflection itself, resulting in an over-simplified version of reflections that contains featureless areas that fails to give impact.
  • Painting reflections under shifting lighting conditions may cause the artist to keep altering the painting, particularly if deliberating too much over the area.
How to Paint Reflections

Painting reflections on a still life can be made a easier by placing the objects under a single light source, such as a room with one window. A few pale flecks might be all that is needed to suggest reflections on smooth surfaces such as china.

Reflections come in other forms as well as squares or pinpoints. Careful inspection may reveal an alien jigsaw of abstract shapes of varying hues and tones. White can in fact comprise only a small part of a reflection; violets, blues, greens and earth colours may also be seen. The outlines of reflection can vary from defined edges to no definable edges at all.
A reflection will rarely exhibit straight lines, but organic contours, some of which will stretch out. The key is to simplify and to clarify. This means viewing reflections not as a complex maze, but as simplified forms and tonal shapes, forgetting detail until last.

Art Techniques for Painting Reflections

Reflections are often paler in tone than the surrounding area and for this reason are hard to judge tonally if painting straight onto a white surface. But painting it last could risk colour contamination from a neighbouring darker colour. To overcome these difficulties, I would try the following steps.
  1. With a stiff brush and very thin neat oil paint, roughly sketch in the colour of the object possessing the reflection as though it had no reflection. This entails extending the hue of the object over the reflection area.
  2. Ensure the paint is as thin as possible but do not add linseed oil or its fluidness will make working on top difficult.
  3. With slightly thicker paint, render the reflections on top.
  4. Half close the eyes to simplify the shapes of the highlights into basic tonal areas rather than full detail. Make visual comparisons between the reflection and the surrounding area to ensure it keys in; is the reflection slightly paler, much paler, does it exhibit any hues?
  5. Work from dark to pale, using increasingly thicker and paler paint, finishing off with bright highlights which might be rendered with neat white.
  6. Retain objectivity by standing back from the painting. Ensure the shapes of the highlights are accurately depicted.
  7. Avoid fussing over the area too much or it will lose its freshness.
  8. If the painting does not work out, blot off surplus paint and allow to dry over a few days.
  9. Work over the area again, aiming for increased accuracy.
Smooth Reflections in Oil Painting

Classic Still Life Painting: A Contemporary Master Shows How to Achieve Old Master Effects Using Today's Art MaterialsOnce the area has been roughed in, the artist may sharpen up detail by applying increasingly opaque upper glazes. This will give reflections more impact when finishing off with highlights such as those found on shiny ornaments or glassware.

Look out for areas where the reflection merges with the local colour of the object such as those found on spheroids. Blending areas with a soft sable will ensure no tonal divisions remain. Working in smooth glazes also provides the ideal foundation onto which reflections can be painted. To achieve definition and an extra smooth finish, add a little linseed oil with the paint. This will help the paint flow.

The Best Colours for Highlights

Look out for the colour temperature of highlights, for many are not merely white. Some are warmer than others. Cream highlights, for instance can often be seen on brassware and coins; arctic-blue highlights, on silverware and glass. Bright colours can also be seen in reflections, for instance, if dazzling flowers are placed next to a wine glass. Often the colour reflected will appear more subdued. The secret is to make constant comparisons between the reflection itself, the object onto which it appears and the surrounding area. This will ensure the reflection looks like it belongs to the object, and not as weird cut-out shapes that have been stuck onto the object.

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