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How to Draw Materials: Textures, Reflections and Transparency

September 13, 2023

The magic in an artwork often lies in how the artist portrays materials. But here’s the twist: you don’t need to be an encyclopedia of textures like glass or leather. The real game-changer is a profound understanding of a material's essence and drawing inspiration from references. Ground yourself in these principles, and any material, old or new, becomes second nature to depict. This guide will help you break down core material types, learn how they differ, and discover methods to make materials in your work more recognizable.

How to Depict Surfaces

What is the key to understanding a material's appearance? Its surface’s actual texture. Regardless of its color, transparency, or other characteristics, every material can be evaluated on a scale from matte to glossy. By analyzing its surface, you'll see how to draw the material accurately: figure out the contrast sharpness between highlights and shadows, the surface's roughness and the material's potential to reflect its surroundings.

The closer a material is to matte, the lower its contrast and softer the boundaries between light and shadow
The closer a material is to matte, the lower its contrast and softer the boundaries between light and shadow

The Nuances of Contrast in Materials

Based on the actual texture of the surface, you can assume its contrast. Here's a quick takeaway: the closer a material is to matte, the lower its contrast and softer the boundaries between light and shadow. Conversely, the closer a material is to glossy, the higher its contrast and sharper the boundaries. It's worth noting that although lighting can tweak these contrasts, under equal environmental conditions, a glossier material will demonstrate a greater difference between shadow and highlight.


For a hands-on look, check out the contrasts in spheres and the gradient map reflecting the brightest and darkest colors.

The contrasts in the gradient map reflect the brightest and darkest colors
The contrasts in the gradient map reflect the brightest and darkest colors


Lighting's Impact on Materials

While lighting can transform a scene, a material's core attributes remain untainted. The most common mistake when drawing a material in different lighting is altering its inherent properties.


Consider the spheres below: the first basks in a gentle diffused light, while the latter two are under the glare of bright, direct illumination. What is the hiccup with the third sphere? The lighting shift made it glossier, and glares and reflections became sharper. Remember, the image contrast might spike when lighting intensity shifts and shadow-to-light transitions might pop, but the material’s actual texture? That remains steadfast.

The lighting change mistakenly altered the texture of the third ball
The lighting change mistakenly altered the texture of the third ball

Differences Between Actual and Visual Textures

After diving into the surface's nuances, turn your lens to its visual texture and observe its interplay with the actual texture. While they might seem like two sides of the same coin, they're distinct players.

  • Actual texture refers to the type of the surface itself.
  • Visual texture refers to the pattern or design on or beneath the surface.

Think of it this way: actual texture is the tactile reality, whereas visual texture is a visual narrative. Although they're closely linked, these characteristics are not identical. For example, consider a marble sphere: its glossy surface remains unaffected by the marble veins. Now contrast this with wood, where its innate uneven texture meets a rough surface. Extra details on the wood come from its surface characteristics, making actual and visual textures inseparable.

The marble veins do not affect the glossy surface
The marble veins do not affect the glossy surface

How to Draw Reflections

Materials don't simply exist in isolation; they dynamically interact with their environment. While color and light consistently influence all surfaces, how they do so depends on the material's properties:

  • Glossy surfaces reflect the environment, capturing and showcasing its details. 
  • Matte materials primarily absorb and display only direct light. 

What is the secret to depicting it accurately? Firstly, pinpoint your light source and identify several bright areas in the surrounding environment that reflect light. Secondly, portray reflections on the material based on these areas. And remember, the glossier the material, the more reflections it can have.

Glossy materials reflect their surroundings, while matte materials primarily reflect light
Glossy materials reflect their surroundings, while matte materials primarily reflect light

Understanding Transparency in Materials

In addition to actual and visual texture, materials can also possess transparency. Here’s the essence: transparent materials allow light to seep through; in contrast, opaque ones give it a firm "no-entry," reflecting it back.

Take a look at the arrows indicating the incident light in the image below. On opaque materials, light rays "stop" at the material itself, while on transparent ones, they pass through and reflect from the underlying surface. This creates a unique shadow-light interplay: shadows hover closer to the light source on transparent material, while brightness nestles further below. Also, don't forget about the actual texture of transparent materials. In the glossy example below, highlights and reflections will still be visible.

On opaque materials, the rays "stop" at the surface of the material, whereas on transparent materials, they pass through
On opaque materials, the rays "stop" at the surface of the material, whereas on transparent materials, they pass through

How to Use Photo Textures Effectively

Treading into the realm of photo textures requires tact. Deploy them strategically and when your style mandates their presence. Avoid relying on intricate details; instead, capture the overall forms and add subtle nuances specific to the material.

Imagine capturing the chiseled notches and grooves of a stone. When you’re painting with a more laid-back, casual style, well-selected colors and contrast will suffice. Want to elevate more complexity? Bring out your textured brushes, thread in more intricate designs and a richer color palette. But never forget: these enriched textures are there to enhance, not to define your artwork's core.

For cracks and indentations on stone in a casual cartoon style, well-selected colors and contrast will suffice
For cracks and indentations on stone in a casual cartoon style, well-selected colors and contrast will suffice

Even when working with photorealistic textures, you should start by establishing contrast and outlining broad planes. Well-chosen color and volume ratios handle the recognizability of the material much better than simply overlaying textures. To check your work, view the material in a small size, zooming out from the image. Is it easy to discern its shape and texture? If not, you need to focus on color and contrast. After all, these elements allow us to distinguish one material from another before we see the finer details.

What’s Next?

In this guide, we've taken a solid dive into the world of materials, textures, contrasts and reflections—a fundamental stride for every artist. But there's more to unfold. 

Our next guide will focus on leveraging references to their fullest potential. Learn how to pick the perfect references, what to look out for before your first stroke, and how to nail that authentic material look without getting lost in the tiny details. Stay tuned for more insights!

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