Tuesday, 14 February 2012

How do I Paint Silver Objects without it Looking Like Lead?

A painting featuring silverware may lack the lustre of actual silver. Silver heirlooms look like costume jewellery; a silver shield resembles a plastic toy. How can the artist capture the true essence of silver in oil paint?

Mistakes in Painting Silver, Platinum and Aluminum Objects

How to Paint Silver Objects
Before making improvements to still life featuring silverware, practices at fault must be identified which also applies to painting other pale metals, such as aluminum or platinum:

  • Using a tube of premixed grey for all the silverware, such as Paynes Grey or Davy’s grey, resulting in a lead effect rather than the brilliance of silver.
  • Mixing black and white for the greys featured in the silver objects.
  • Darkening colours within the silverware with black.
  • Illustrating the silver objects as having flat areas without subtle tonal shifts.
  • Insensitivity to colour temperatures within neutrals, resulting in a painting that lacks depth.
  • Perceiving highlights in silverware as white shapes, resulting in the appearance of white bits of paper stuck on the objects.
  • Using silver metallic paint designed for gilding for the oil painting in the hope it will emulate the lustre of silver or a similar shiny metal.
The problem with the last point is that the silver metallic paint will appear a dull grey if the painting is positioned where no reflections occur.

Art Techniques for Painting Silver

Differentiating between silver and grey is a common pitfall when it comes to painting silver objects. Both silver and grey do indeed contain similar colours, as both contain greys and monotones. The difference lies in the colour mixes used for the neutrals and the tonal contrasts.

What Colour is Silver?

In order to capture silver effects in oil paint, the artist must look for other colours other than grey within. This means looking for colour temperatures in neutrals, as some will be warmer than others. This is why I never use just black and white or a pre-mixed grey pigment to express silver objects. In fact, silver can contain definite hues, including violets, crimsons and earth colours. As a guide, the following colour mixtures can be used to render silver objects in a still life. Listed from the largest by proportion first:
  • Warm highlights: white, a little burnt sienna and ultramarine.
  • Cool highlights: white and a little pthalo blue.
  • Warm neutrals: ultramarine, white and a little burnt sienna.
  • Cool neutrals: white, pthalo blue and a little burnt umber.
  • Warm darks: burnt sienna and ultramarine. Permanent rose can be introduced for depth.
  • Cool darks: pthalo blue and burnt umber.
Art Techniques to for Painting Silver Jewellery and Ornaments

To capture smooth metallic effects in silver objects such as tankards and dishes, apply the oil paint via a soft sable and brush out tonal and chromatic divisions. Glazing is a great technique for achieving a high finish. Apply the first layer of paint opaquely, aiming for reasonable accuracy in the silver object(s) depicted. Don’t worry if imperfections remain but smooth out brushmarks. Once this first layer of paint is dry, apply another layer of paint as a translucent layer with the aim of perfecting the first layer, smoothing out tonal gradations and adding depth to colours. If necessary, apply a third glaze once this second layer is dry.

Glazing is great for attaining sharply defined edges to reflections and highlights. But you can also use impasto effects on the highlights to add punch to the appearance of the silver object.

Painting Technique for Detail in Silver Jewellery

Intricate detail which is often apparent in silver artifacts such as jewellery or embossed surfaces can be emulated by applying a base colour beneath the detailed area. This base colour should be a ‘mean’ colour which might be a pale neutral or blue-grey. Once this area is dry, ‘illustrate’ the detail on top, beginning with the highlights to prevent colour contamination from a neighbouring dark colour. Work into the mid-tones with a progressively darker colour mix. Finish off with the dark areas. Use a fine sable throughout. Remember to keep looking for colour temperatures within neutrals, some of which might contain a little violet, others, blue. Reflections from neighbouring bright objects will provide focal points to compete with highlights.

How to Paint Silver Objects

Capturing the lustre of silver in oil paint means looking not only for bright highlights, but also subtle hues within neutrals, some of which will be warmer than others. This means putting away premixed grey tubes of paint and black. I used ultramarine, burnt sienna, burnt umber and pthalo blue, as well as white. Glazing is great for achieving a high finish for smooth metallic effects, although impasto techniques can be used for bright highlights and bright reflections.

Painting Techniques for Still Life Art

How to Make Gold look Like Gold
How to Paint Glass
Glazing Technique with Oils
How to paint grisaille
I can't paint reflections in my still life
How to Paint Tomatoes


supplies overflowing! said...

I am so impressed with your knowledge, so I am wondering if you have a post about helping to keep a canvas from warping. Metal braces vs. wood, etc.? Anything dealing with canvas warp. I will be painting a large canvas in oil for someone, and I need to know that it won't warp over time.

Rachel said...

Thanks for the comment. So long as you purchase the canvas from a reputable art producer you should be OK (Winsor Newton, Daler Rowney) If completing a large painting, prefer thick, strong canvas to the thinner variety. Stretching over a wooden frame is OK so long as the painting is kept in a dry place, otherwise protect the wood with a coat of primer and use metal braces. If stretching the canvas yourself, exert equal tension over the canvas as you staple it to the frame. A large painting will require crossbeams over the frame.