Illustrating Shiny Fabric


What you need:

  • Fabric hue (colour)
  • Shadows
  • Highlight

The whiter the highlight, the shinier the fabric. For less shiny fabric, you’ll be keeping a bit of the fabric hue in with the white. The shinier the fabric, the crisper the shape of the white.

The illustration below is a perfect example of shiny vs non-shiny fabric rendering. The character on the left is clearly wearing non-shiny material, compared with the nemesis on the right.

Frank Cadogan Cowper - Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1920
Frank Cadogan Cowper – Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1920
John Collier - The Land Baby
John Collier – The Land Baby. This painting is a little confronting by today’s standards but I’d like to draw your attention to the rendering of the mermaid’s skin versus her shiny fishy part.

The difficulty in rendering shiny fabric isn’t so much knowing how much white to mix in, but where to place the highlights. Some artists find it easier to lay down shadows first. Others advise to lay down the lightest colours first then go darker. That’s personal preference, but whichever method you choose, you’re better off doing one or the other to basic completion first. (Note: if using a blending stick, definitely blend from light to dark.)

Another tip is to draw a temporary arrow on your canvas (or working drawing) to remind yourself of where the light sources are coming from.

Edmund Blair Leighton - The Golden Train 1891
Edmund Blair Leighton – The Golden Train 1891
The Fitting, Viktor Schramm (Romanian), 1900 sewing
The Fitting, Viktor Schramm (Romanian), 1900
Charles Edward Perugini (1839-1918, British)
Felix Vallotton
Arthur Rackham for the Grimm story 'The True Sweetheart' 1917
Arthur Rackham for the Grimm story ‘The True Sweetheart’ 1917
Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952) was an English portrait painter Miss Muriel Gore in a fortuny dress, 1919
Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640) The Flight of Lot and his Family from Sodom 1613-1615 (detail)
Lilian Westcott Hale (American Painter, 1880-1963) Daffy-Down-Dilly, c. 1908

We clearly have velvet on the dress of the girl on the left, and some kind of satin fabric for the girl on the right.

Henry Holiday - The Duet (Portrait of Alexandra and Winifred) violin
Henry Holiday – The Duet (Portrait of Alexandra and Winifred)

Below, shiny fabric and non-shiny fabric are both depicted. The difference is in the amount of white (which is not pure white, just a lighter shade of the blue).

William Holman Hunt - Portrait of Fanny Holman Hunt 1868
William Holman Hunt – Portrait of Fanny Holman Hunt 1868

The shiny lining of the coat below contrasts beautifully with the large weave outer fabric.

Otto Baumberger  (1889-1961) 1923
Otto Baumberger (1889-1961) 1923

The discarded wedding dress is more shiny than the everyday dress the woman is wearing. The knees on the man’s trousers are catching quite a bit of light, too.

George Goodwin Kilburne - Renunciation shiny fabric
George Goodwin Kilburne – Renunciation

Edwin Georgi’s illustration below utilises very colourful shadows, which is what gives it that luminiscent look.

Edwin Georgi, 'The Flashy Type', Saturday Evening Post, 1958. "The red satin gown gave Evelyn the impact of a twenty-millimeter shell"
Edwin Georgi, ‘The Flashy Type’, Saturday Evening Post, 1958. “The red satin gown gave Evelyn the impact of a twenty-millimeter shell”
Edwin Georgi (1896-1964) moonlight
Edwin Georgi (1896-1964) moonlight

Fair to say, everything Edwin Georgi ever illustrated looked shiny.

Edwin Georgi illustration for Esquire

The fur in the illustration below contrasts nicely with the dress underneath, which is clearly pearlescent.

Bernadette Watts for HC Andersen's 'The Snow Queen' (1987)
Bernadette Watts for HC Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ (1987)

There is an overall luminosity to the slightly creepy image below. How is it achieved?

Arthur Saron Sarnoff (American, 1912-2000) ‘Doesn’t Fit’
In the Restaurant, Charles Hoffbauer, 1907
A Deadly Silence 1989
A Deadly Silence 1989

Header painting: Harrison Fisher (American, 1875–1934) Demure In Yellow Silk 1909