How to draw metal in digital art

How to draw metal in digital art

Finished drawing, and the knight’s armor doesn’t look like battle-worn iron? Does gold look more like copper? It might be worth practicing drawing (or 2D rendering) materials. Let’s see how other artists tackle these tasks.

What is material rendering in 2D drawing and why is it needed?

The term “rendering” came into the field of digital drawing from 3D modeling. In literal translation it means “visualization”, but in fact it describes the final stage of image creation with the help of a computer program. At the rendering stage, objects acquire their final appearance – realistic or stylized. In 2D drawing, these words refer to the process of rendering the details.

Why practice rendering materials? To draw better! Ability to convey the texture and texture of different materials, properly arrange the glare and shadow will help create a sense of reality of the object. The viewer will understand that he sees the metal, not plastic, glass, not smoke.

The surface of objects can also be an element of storytelling and add to the story of the character or object. Clothes made from the same fabric will look differently on a poor man or a well-to-do merchant. The former’s material is likely to be worn and stained, while the latter’s is clean and new, because he can afford to change his costume every day.

What material parameters are important to study?

To realistically portray steel, stone, or a piece of amber, you not only need to find the right references, but also study the properties of the materials. You don’t have to remember how much carbon steel contains, but you do need to know what color it is, how it reflects light and how it changes over time.

Texture and object texture

Texture is a purely visual characteristic of a material. It is the color and pattern on its surface. The texture of some materials, such as wood or onyx, is unique and allows you to immediately understand what the object is made of. Also the pattern on the surface helps convey the shape of the object.

While texture is essentially a flat pattern stretched over a shape, texture is the relief of a material. It can be smooth or rough, covered with dents and scratches. Through the texture shows the resistance of the material to damage, its age and the degree of human processing. But most importantly, a material’s ability to reflect light depends on the relief of the surface.


A smooth chrome surface can be used instead of a mirror. But you will not be able to fix your hair, looking at the rough iron, much less plastic. These materials have different molecular structures and reflect the light that hits them differently. It is believed that even a small amount of iron in the alloy somewhat impairs the reflectivity of the metal.

This property largely depends on the condition of the surface of the material. If the object is uneven and rough, the light waves hitting it are reflected in different directions. Reflections and shadows on such a material are unsaturated, it will seem matte.

If the surface is perfectly smooth (the size of irregularities does not exceed 0.001 mm), then the light from it will be reflected in one direction. Due to this concentration of the light beam, part of the object will be very bright, and the other part will be very dark.

When working with reflections it is necessary to remember about the Fresnel effect. Its essence is the following: the smaller the angle between the line of sight and the plane, the stronger the light will be reflected from it. It is easier to understand on visual examples:


Some materials can let in a lot of light, so ordinary glass barely reflects any light and we can see what’s going on outside the window. Metals, for example, do not transmit light at all. While with transparent and opaque materials everything is clear, with translucent materials it is much more interesting.

A beam of light penetrates a translucent object and is repeatedly reflected by the particles of the material in random directions, i.e. scattered. This effect is called subsurface scattering. The material does not absorb the light completely – some of it passes through the object and the color becomes brighter and more saturated in the illuminated area.

Sturdy base

Even the most realistic rendering will not save the work if it has an unfortunate composition or the character has problems with anatomy. So first and foremost, the artist must have a basic knowledge of academic drawing and painting.

draw metal

Time to practice

Man has been making metal products since prehistoric times. Because of their strength and malleability, metals are used everywhere. They are used to make machinery, tools, household items, jewelry, and more. Metals have been used throughout human history and will likely continue to be used for the foreseeable future.

It is important for an artist to master this material, to learn to distinguish between iron and steel, and not to confuse gold and copper. The skill will come in handy in any direction, be it fantasy or sci-fi, because metal can be used to make both the armor of a medieval knight and the body of a combat robot.

Let’s review the properties of metals, which can be encountered by the artist.


Let’s draw a ball with a simple light shadow. The transitions between shadow and light will be uneven because of the rough texture, so it is better to use a texture brush with a jagged edge.

Iron, compared to many of its alloys is a soft and malleable metal, so it is easy to get chips, scratches and dents. On the new layer in “Overlay” mode, draw small defects and roughness with a texture brush, make the shadow more saturated. For deep dents and scratches, take a darker shade of the base color, and the edges that are exposed to light, highlight a lighter shade.

Iron oxidizes quickly from moisture if not treated. Corrosion destroys the material, its surface distorts and reflects color worse. Therefore, a few strokes made in an unsaturated red-orange color will look appropriate on our sphere.


A small admixture of carbon makes steel hard. This is why it was used to make edged weapons in the Middle Ages and later cannons, tank armor and protective helmets. A steel object will have fewer scratches and dents than an iron object under similar conditions of use. Therefore, the texture of steel is smooth and it reflects light better.

How can I tell the difference from silver?

Polished steel can easily be confused with silver. It, too, is light gray, shines strongly and has saturated shadows. To render the material recognizable, you can look back at this picture:

It’s easier with older pieces – silver darkens and becomes matte as it ages, and steel doesn’t change.


Unlike iron, which remains a strictly working metal, there is more time spent processing gold pieces. We usually see the material smooth and polished. So create smooth transitions from light to shadow on the sphere with a soft brush and add a pronounced reflection.

Precious metal is good at reflecting light. Therefore let’s make the highlights and shadows more saturated, add indistinct reflection of surrounding objects and light sources, as well as the falling shadow.

If the gold piece is not kept in a museum under glass, scratches and dents may appear on it, because gold is a very soft metal. In its pure form it is comparable in hardness with the nail. Therefore, roughness can be added to the sphere. Despite its softness, gold hardly changes color over time and may only tarnish slightly.

How not to turn gold into bronze or copper?

If an artist makes a mistake with color saturation or makes highlights and reflections insufficiently bright, then the precious metal immediately loses its value: the viewer confuses gold with copper or bronze, which have a similar color.