The first time I wanted to burn something I painted was when I was 14 and I attempted to paint a gold watch. Hours and hours of painting and repainting later, I still had mud watch. Ironically, this was the painting I chose to frame and have on my bedside table for most of high school.
This was years before my 11th hour realization I wanted to go to art school rather than get my MBA (parents, again: I'm sorry, I love you, thank you), but even then I knew. That awful watch was my first real painting, and I had worked my butt off. Do I ever want to look at it again? No. I'm still proud of the lessons I learned.
Still, if I could go back in time and hand some useful art clues to my younger self, I would do it in a heartbeat. This this would be the first one. If you're reading this now, I hope you find it useful in your paintings and drawings.
0) Stop and Look
Reflective surfaces are tough. When you're starting out, the first step it to rip everything out of your brain that you think you know about reflections and just look.
Here are just some different treatments you might see when looking at gold A) flat color (common in bright highlights) B) a smooth gradient from bright to dark (when it is soft) C) brightest bright against darkest dark (when the object has an edge) D) tiny to medium flecks (when the gold is hammered, gilded, dented, pocked, or old, or just old-fashioned)
Because gold is so different depending on a lot of variables, practice and practice, but practice smart. You might have heard before that it takes 10,000 hours to master a subject. Don't waste them getting nowhere or learning nothing.
1) Always use a Ref.
I like to work from paintings of gold instead of photos of gold, but my reference has a Klimt painting in a gold frame, so bonus!
An exception would be glamour photos with specific lighting, where you intend to use the same lighting in your painting. This is true of any material, but it goes does for reflective objects. It will be very obvious if the light bouncing off the object doesn't match the light in the rest of your image. Which brings us to:
2) Light sources Reflect.
Gold is, again, shiny. So pay close attention to the way light reflects on your objects. The bottom of the object may get lighter unexpectedly. The cast shadow will have some of the color of the object and the lightsource in it too. You can see examples of this in the sphere study above.
I had a lot of fun with a similar effect in a stadium recently. There was white house lights above and several green spotlights angling in. What happened was that the lit parts of people's faces seemed "normal", but all of the shadows were livid hulk green.
Becuase gold and other metallic materials are reflective, this light-bounce effect will happen even when the other objects around them don't seem to (though they really actually are, really subtly).
3) Avoid Fake Textures.
There are many quick techniques, filters, brushes, and shortcuts out there. In a word: don't. For example, the ArtRage software I used to make this card has a "metallic" slider that I try to mostly avoid. Turned up, it does make my digital 'paint' look vaguely shiny and satiny. However, it just doesn't look realistic. Instead, practice the following: lay down dabs of thicker paint, scrape with a palette knife, use a grainy airbrush or dry brush. That is true in real life too, and so is this next point: don't over mix the paint!
Going back to not wasting time with shortcuts, practice these and other techniques to get the effect you want.
4) Colors Play Tricks.
The colors in your painting depend largely on the light in the image. By this, I mean the light and surrounding colors play tricks that you can see and still believe. No example of this could be better for this than what is now known infamously as "The Dress". The internet basically freaked over the debate whether a dress was gold and white or black and blue. People looking at the same image would argue the dress was completely different colors. This is because colors are subjective and not set in stone.
It's less freaky but let's look at the two lighting situations in the reference above. The painting is a dark scene, while the frame around the painting is spotlit reacts much differently. I also pulled some color swatches to make it more obvious.
Dark Lighting: (In the Painting) If you look very closely, you'll watch the color change from yellow to orange to red to purple as it gets darker. This is because the "black" in the painting is actually a very dark purple and the gold is reflecting that color. There aren't white highlights - you can make all of the armor using the bottom two rows of swatches above.
Bright Lighting: (On the Frame) The topright swatches get used a lot. Notice that the frame doesn't have any straight black. I zoomed in a lot on my original reference and most of the "deepest" shadows in the are actually purple or brown. Straight black will kill gold in bright light.
Important Note: gold does not "gray out". Convincing midtones stay saturated and change color as they get dark. Please look at the top left corner of the swatches. I'm not saying don't ever use those to paint gold in a painting, but these are the colors that will make your gold look like mud. I had these exact colors on my bedside table for years. I would know!
That brings us to the end of the card. Stay tuned for future art cards with tips on materials, color schemes, techniques, and more.