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Learn How to Paint Difficult Metallic Surfaces By Creating Reflective Armor

Learn How to Paint Difficult Metallic Surfaces By Creating Reflective Armor

If you have ever tried to paint metal, you probably know how tricky this kind of surface is.

It tends to reflect everything and distorts the reflected image. It’s also very difficult to mix in the natural colors reflected in the metal without flattening the metallic surface.

In today’s design lesson digital painting master Monika Zagrobelna will teach you how to paint metal that is richly detailed, reflective and never flat. Once you’ve mastered this technique you can apply the techniques to most reflective surfaces, across a range of works.

Ready to master a new skill? Let’s get started!

Final Image

As always, this is the final image that we’ll be creating:

Step 1

Most tutorials about metal teach you how to paint a metal ball. But who really paints metal balls? Full, complicated armor will be better example. You can read this tutorial only, or draw something yourself – the rules I’ll be explaining are quite universal.

So, let’s say you painted something (some background, the character) and suddenly you don’t know how to paint the armor. To make whole process easier you should use Clipping Mask. The base – borders of your armor – will be the mask, and everything above it will be clipped to it. How to do it? You just need to use Alt + Ctrl + G after creating a new layer above the base.

The best and the most universal painting brush ever is simple round hard brush with low Flow. It lets you mix the strokes in a very natural way, and also simmulates a real brush – the harder you press, the stronger color you get.

Step 2

Every surface (not only metal) depends on the light, so you need to find the light source first and check where eventual shadows will be placed. In my picture there’s a fire on the left, reflecting from something slightly purple on the right. As fire gives an yellowish-orange flow, I chose a low saturated yellow as a base color for my armor (it’s a kind of grey too for most eyes!). For the general shadows I used even low saturated and darker shade of the same color. Paint on a layer between the base and the sketch.

Add some lights too, just where the light had the best access. To find the right shade add some brighntess to the base color.

Now add more shadows. Remember, the body (and the armor on it) isn’t flat, it has “walls” – when the light hits one wall, it’s bright, but the rest of the walls is darker.

It’s this rare moment when you can use black. Mix it with the darkest parts of the armor, but never touch the lighter parts – don’t even come close to it.

Step 3

Now we’ll use a bit of color theory to give a depth to darker parts. Since our base color is yellowish grey, we need to find a contraryshade for it. First, copy the code for your base color.

Go to Color Scheme Designer and paste your color code in the field shown below.

Now select “complement” to see what color is a complement to our base color. You can just remember it or export full palette to Photoshop swatches.

Select “Load Swatches” from Swatches Menu to load your new set of colors. We’ll also need some darker shades that weren’t included on the list.

Step 4

Since we have our perfect dark shade (and it’s not black!), we can stress the sketch lines again. This time create a layer over the sketch and cover its lines. When it’s done, hide or delete the sketch’s layer.

Now use the same shade to draw darker parts again. If you’re curious why we cover what we painted before, here’s the answer – low Flow lets you mix the colors.

This is how it looks with these new shades:

Step 5

Time to define the shapes a bit. Use black to draw thin lines between the elements.

You should now have clear black lines, and they give an artificial effect. To fix this, you need to add a contrast between both sides of the lines. So, imagine where the light can’t reach and cover these areas with black. Remember, it cannot cross the lines!

Now blend these black areas with one side of the lines. Make the lines practically invisible, but only from one side.

Step 6

Pick a color from some lighter part and use soft brush (lower Hardness to 0%) to cover all the visible elements. One rule: don’t come close to the lines! Paint only a center of every element to give it a smooth look.

Come back to 100% hardness and choose your blending mode to Screen. This mode makes the strokes lighter. Using the same color as before, add some well defined lights – paint the edges next to dark lines and add a few light spots near.

This is the final effect of this phase. As you can see, combining black and white lines together makes really nice, sharp edges.

Step 7

As we noticed before, metal catches everything around it, including colors. Pick the colors that are the closest to every side of the armor and cover the elements slightly with them. Again, don’t cross the lines, but covering darker parts is allowed.

Use our dark shade of the complementar color again and paint some creative shades. Why “creative”? They’re going to pretend shapes reflected in the armor. Paint them thickly, it’s not the time to be smooth.

Now go into Screen mode again and use reflected light colors (here orange and purple again) to cover the dark you’ve just painted. While it seems pointless, it makes an interesting effect. The goal here is to cover it without hiding it at all.

Time to be creative again. Look at the shapes that came out when you were adding more and more layers. Can you see some more regular lines in the reflections? Define them even more! You can also pick colors from the skin and hair if the element is close to them enough.

And here’s the final effect again:

Step 8

Another element of every armor is a chainmail. As you probably know, it’s made of little metal links bound together. Yes, it’s metal element again, so it’s going to be quite reflective. Drawing them all one by one would be very time consuming, so we’re going to prepare a special brush for it. Create a new document and draw a single black link (use 100% Opacity and 100% Flow to prevent semi-transparent spots). Then go to Edit > Define Brush Preset.

Your new brush now appears on the list, but it has default options. Select Brush Tip Shape from brush options and move Spacing slider until single links are visible. They should slightly overlap each other.

Now create a new layer and double click it to get to Blending Options. Select Bevel & Emboss and change Higlight color to a bright shade from the rest for the armor. This way it’ll be more natural.

Now draw the chainmail on the layer with this style applied. I suggest to draw every row on a new layer (copying and pasting the style) – otherwise all the links will blend into each other. To avoid a mess, group (Ctrl + G) these layers.

Now merge the group and select Add Layer Mask in that little panel under the layers. Select the white rectangle that appeared next to your layer. Now you can use two colors to blend the chainmail into the picture – black will make it transparent, white – visible, and grey – semi transparent. Use black with low Flow to get various shades of grey.

You can now paint the surface under the chainmail to give it a right shape.

Since you know how to create a chainmail easily, you can add it to other places too. Put it wherever there’s some flexibility needed. At this moment I also fixed the rest of the picture to fit the armor that get’s more and more complicated with every step.

Step 9

The armor is almost ready, but we need to polish it yet. Use black brush to paint some sharp fake reflections. They look best when they touch some light line on one side.

That’s the effect I got:

Merge all the layers of the armor. If you still want to use Clipping Mask, just copy the resulting layer and clip the copy. Go into Screen blending mode, pick some light color from the right (purple here) and draw strong lights on that side. They should be sharp and rather rare, because they fake a reflected light, not a direct one.

Just like this:

Time for more colorful, direct light. Pick a color from the left and paint some reflections in Color Dodge mode.

Come back to Normal mode and paint some reflected light blobs. They should be smooth, quite light, but not lighter than the side reflecting direct light.

Polish the elements you’ve just covered with dull color in Screen Mode. We’re almost done now!

Step 10

Use Color Dodge mode and direct light color again to draw the edges of the element that are most lighted. Keep them sharp.

That’s how I did it:

Another characteristic of metal is it influences the environment by its reflections. Add some “light spots” near the strongest reflections (soft brush in Screen mode will work the best here).

It’s your rare chance now to use Smudge Tool. If you use it wisely, you may achieve very nice effect.

Here’s my result:

Step 11

Despite all the colors our armor still looks flat. Use Overlay mode to paint some darker areas (use black and very light pressure).

If you feel the armor needs more grey, you can just add a new layer in Saturation mode and paint black wherever you want to take the color off.

Time to add strong shining at the edges. Use soft brush (0% hardness), white, in Screen mode.

Now I added even more shadows…

…and some lights again.

Here I added some sharp, light lines, that fake reflections of the armor (yep, armor refletcs itself too!).

It’s almost done (probably your picture is done now), I just fixed one element that didn’t fit here:

And, to make it more interesting, I added third main color as a blue fog.

And We’re Done!

You can now use these tricks to paint every metal surface you need!

Get deeper insight into the workflow and techniques used in this tutorial. Access the source files for this tutorial:

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About the Author:

I'm an artist with a long experience in doing creative things. I'm familiar with traditional and digital media, and I feel at home in Photoshop. I love fantasy, my speciality are dragons - I could draw them all the time. You can visit my portfolio at

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  1. Teri Terrific says:

    Fantastic tutorial; thank you.

  2. Alice says:

    Woooow this is really amazing, thank you so much! *–*

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