Can you help me choose the right colours to paint metal please?

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Jose Castillo, Canada

John replies

The en­vi­ron­ment that sur­rounds the metal ob­ject is al­most as im­por­tant as the de­pic­tion of the ob­ject it­self. It’s ac­tu­ally that sim­ple. If a metal ball is in a field of grass with a blue sky then it would be green at the bot­tom and blue on top. If a metal ball is in a room that’s lit by both an ar­ti­fi­cial light and nat­u­ral light through a win­dow, and the room is beige, then it would be light brown at the bot­tom, yel­low on top and a de­sat­u­rated blue on the side from the win­dow. If a metal ball is de­picted as if it were in an 80s sci-fi movie, then it would prob­a­bly have a cold blue spot­light on top and neon light on the side.

I could go on all day, but I think you have plenty ex­am­ples there! The en­vi­ron­ment has a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on metal, even if it’s painted metal. Now, the sec­ond thing that’s cru­cial to paint­ing a metal ob­ject is to de­sat­u­rate what­ever colours from the en­vi­ron­ment are af­fect­ing it. This means that most colours will be­come quite cold; our eyes see the colours go­ing to­wards a blue-ish tone, even though that’s not what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing. I then ap­ply a few dabs of blue tints with a tex­ture brush.

Fi­nally, don’t for­get about rust, if ap­pro­pri­ate. What­ever the sur­round­ings, rust will al­ways have a brown, red or yel­low ap­pear­ance.

Here are four com­mon en­vi­ron­men­tal set­tings that would af­fect metal. Plac­ing another ma­te­rial along­side a metal­lic ob­ject would re­in­force the ef­fect. No­tice how the rust­ing metal has a vi­brant ap­pear­ance. The top one is from another planet and the bot­tom one from the ocean.

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