Metallic colors (metallics for short) are colors that appear to be that of polished metal, usually by giving off a metallic shine. This shiny effect – which you can't reproduce with simple solid colors – is caused by the material's brightness which varies depending on the surface's angle to the light source.
There's no way to show the metallic shine of metallic colors on a computer screen without the use of special rendering software to simulate how a shiny surface interacts with light.
As an artist, it's important to understand these luxurious colors, how they're used in the past until today, what they mean and the different emotions they evoke, as well as their different shades, and how to produce them.
This article aims to help you do just that.
A Brief History of Metallic Colors
Unlike most of the other colors in this series of articles, metallics don't trace their way through prehistoric or even ancient history.
The precious metals gold and silver were already used as currency since ancient times. This association with currency is what made these metallic colors symbolic of wealth and power. The problem was that paint technology wasn't as developed yet so ancient artists had to look for other ways to represent these precious metals.
One method was to use real gold leaf to produce a luxurious golden background. This method was used in different periods but was most prevalent in Byzantine and medieval art, particularly in mosaic, illuminated manuscripts, and panel paintings.
The earliest attempts at representing the color of rare metals were made as late as the Middle Ages. Artists at this time started using solid colors, like gold and silver, to represent the precious metals of the same name. These colors were particularly useful when painting heraldry.
While metallic colors were mostly used to approximate the look of actual metals, some were used simply because of their unique appearance. An example of this practice was the use of beetles, with bright metallic shells, as cufflinks and tie pins in the 1940s.
Metallics saw an increase in usage when they became popular as automobile paint. In this form, small metal flakes are mixed with a base coat and a clear lacquer. When used on automobiles, metallic paint shows the vehicle's contours and also produces a beautiful shiny/sparkly effect.
Today, metallic colors come in a wide variety of colors, tones, and shades. While paints representing most of the naturally-occurring metals have been invented, metallic versions of solid colors like pink, green, and purple have also become available.
Metallic Colors: Psychology and Meaning
Humanity has valued metal since we first started using it for our tools.
The precious metal gold, in particular, was used as currency, hence, we associate it with wealth, power, luxury, success, affluence, the sun, and masculine energy. Gold is also associated with wisdom and glamour because of its association with jewelry.
Silver, another precious metal, is also associated with wealth but not as highly as gold. If gold represents the sun, silver represents the moon as well as grace, elegance, and feminine energy.
Apart from precious metals for currency, we've come to associate other types of metals with their own unique qualities.
Bronze, being a mixture of copper and tin, is usually associated with maturity, earthiness, nature, experience, growth, strength, and security. These associations, no doubt, stem from the metal's brownish color.
As the improved version of iron, steel symbolizes strength, protection, balance, and control.
Gunmetal grey, a newer metallic color, represents seriousness due to its color depth.
Zinc, another grayish metal, is associated with neutrality and balance.
Metallic Color Shades
While true metallic colors have only been invented quite recently, humanity's quest to produce them started in ancient times.
As more types of metal were discovered, so too did the variety of metallic colors increase. As of writing this article, there are currently 66 different metallic color shades.
Here are just a few of them:
Platinum is a pale grayish-white metallic color.
This color was made to represent platinum, a precious metal rarer than gold. Its first recorded use as an English color name was in 1918.
Gold, or golden, is a vivid yellow metallic color.
It was made to represent gold and was first used as a color name in the 1300s. This color can also be achieved by painting silver-tone with yellow.
Metallic silver is characterized by its light-gray color.
The first paints to approximate this color were also interchangeable with white. Being a neutral metallic color, this color can become the base for nearly all other metallic colors.
Bronze is a metallic brown color made to represent the alloy bronze.
It's characterized by its strong orange color. The first recorded use of this color name was in 1753.
5. Vegas Gold
Vegas gold has a moderate greenish-yellow color. It's a color most associated with the glitz and glamour of casinos and hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, United States.
Nickel is a metallic color characterized by its dark greenish-gray shade.
It's made to represent the precious metal of the same name. The "nickel" coin from the United States is a lighter shade of this color.
Gunmetal is a shade of metallic gray with a blackish-green or bluish-purple color. It's made to represent various industrially used metals tarnished gunmetal, or parkerized or blued steel.
Modifying Metallic Acrylic Paints
Now that you have a deeper understanding of metallic colors and some of their variations, it's time to learn how to make some of your own.
As artists, we usually look for the right shade of color to really make our painting pop. Metallic colors, in particular, can give your painting that extra shine that you just can't get with solid colors.
If you don't happen to have the exact shade you need, here's how you can modify your white acrylic paint to achieve your desired shade.
How to Create Warmer Metallic Shades
If you're looking to make a warmer metallic color, you can start with either gold or silver as a base. Then just mix in some brown, orange, or red (if you're using gold) or yellow, orange, red, or brown (if you're using silver).
How to Create Cooler Metallic Shades
To make a cooler blue steel metallic look, just get some silver and mix it with some gray, blue, or purple.
How to Mute Metallic Colors
If your metallic paint seems too shiny, you can knock its shininess down a notch by painting it over with some opaque colored washes.