Sunday, August 30, 2015

Going Nuts With Polished Metal Finishes

Polished metal is one of the hardest things for an artist to paint. There are several good reasons for this: the reflective surface immediately multiplies the complexity of a composition by revealing its otherwise out-of-frame environment, it changes the rules of light and shadow, and it makes otherwise invisible variations in a surface key characteristics of its visible properties. In short, a 100 hour project instantly becomes a 400 hour project if it has to be painted to portray convincing polished metal.

As I use both by-hand and digital painting tools to create most of my work, I've used both to experiment with painting this tricky surface. One thing that I confirmed right away was that digital painting (to be set apart from digital rendering, which is something created by software as opposed to being painted by hand using digital tools) was a terrible way to create a convincing polished metal effect. The reason: digital tools that lay down color are too uniform and precise. A digital tool will paint a perfect circle or a line without 'error'. Good for some things, but looking at the nose of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra (above) there are no perfect circles or perfect lines in evidence. While not as organic as a tree, it's still very random and free from most patterns. A brush in one's hand is the perfect tool for what's organic, as the innumerable variations that come into play as its color is laid down create their own pleasantly imperfect character. Two brush painted rivets will not be alike, and a distorted reflection in a metal panel created by those two rivets will likewise not take on an undesirable pattern. But while digital tools are bad at organics, hand tools are bad at the very thing that digital tools are good at - precision. Brushes leave brush strokes, and a convincing polished metal surface has a very fluid appearance which brush strokes tend to ruin.


My answer, as with most painting challenges I take on, has been to blend the two media together, playing to the unique strengths of both digital tools and hand tools. The polished aluminum skin of this YP-37 (above) reflects very contrasting colors. Everything you see was first put down by brush. During that process I regulated the 'shake' of my hand to break up lines and form (the human brain, like a computer's, wants to create patterns - which we have to consciously suppress as artists). Dimples around a line of flush rivets are unavoidably unique thanks to my hand's imprecision, as they would be on the actual aircraft. But the end result is not fluid. Of course it looks painted. I can see where brush strokes start and stop, and those are all bad attributes when realism is the objective.

But then I do something weird by traditional art standards: I import my brush painted work into the digital realm. Once there my painting exists within a different world that doesn't know the limiting characteristics of acrylic paint (like drying times) or the obnoxious qualities of paper (like becoming overworked). My surface is essentially a liquid that I can distort and blend at will with custom tools that I've created. A flick of the wrist with one tool blurs away brush strokes, while a careful shimmy along a line between two contrasting colors will cause that line to blend with precise control. A reflection near a rivet may have a vary sharp quality, while the reflection's characteristics may soften as it traverses the flatter surface area towards the next rivet. I can also grab some 'sky' and use a digital brush the add it atop a rivet in a 'red' area, then 'fuzz it out' as the hemispherical rivet contorts the reflection of the sky across its surface.

I think you get the idea.

Sometimes it's fun, within the digital realm, to imagine a tool dropped by some 1930s-era aircraft mechanic onto the aluminum skin of a wing fillet. I can use a tool to 'squish' that reflection to portray a vague dent. Also, I can mask off a particular panel and imagine that, for whatever reason, the alloy there had taken on a very light degree of surface corrosion - just enough to desaturate the colors in the reflection and blur its lines in relation to panels around it. Markings painted atop the natural metal might have been matte, satin, or gloss. The YP-37 sported gloss marking in its day with their own reflection's distinctive qualities from the surrounding polished metal. High gloss red, for example, will surrender some of its saturation when reflecting a deep blue sky.


I can't say that I've quite mastered these techniques, but I'm progressing with each new composition. Besides the processes that I've described, I will say that 70% of all art is actually observation. It almost drives me crazy now, as it's impossible for me to stand in front of a meticulous P-51 Mustang in the bright sun and appreciate it as a whole. Instead my eye is drawn immediately to its details: how flush rivets interact with the skin as opposed to raised rivets; how some raised rivets have tiny indentations in their middles while others don't; how heat effects different alloys; how skin thickness changes the way it is distorted near its edges. But, it does pay off when it comes to duplicating such things with paint - be that paint of a chemical or digital nature, or both.

- Ron Cole


  1. Unbelievable artistry! You are as polished in conveying flying aircraft as the reflective aluminum of which you wrote. Keep up the impressive work which deserves your peering with Keith Ferris.

  2. Really extraordinary, almost magical. I cannot imagine how you can achieve these results, by hand or digitally assisted. Congratulations!!!!
    Walt Boyne

  3. This is amazing. I don’t have any other words to explain it. I worked with photos quite a bit at a newspaper, and I was adept at seeing when things had been doctored or changed, but this looks super realistic. I can’t even tell what you’ve done to the photos, even with your explanation. Keep up the good work!

    Bernice Parsons @ Badger Anodising

  4. Polishing an aircraft with aviation polish on regular basis helps in maintaing the aircraft for long term use. Be sure products which you are using for polishing your aircraft must be aviation approved i.e they must have gone through testing to ensure that they are safe for use on your airplane.
    Airplane Metal Polish