Capturing the Gleam!

A tutorial on how to effectively digitize reflective and relief elements.

Working with metal leaf in a painting can create some very beautiful textural effects that make an original painting that much more of a unique creation. It becomes not simply a static image, but something that changes in its presentation and the mood it depicts, depending on the ambient lighting. It is interactive with its environment.

That same quality however, makes it very tricky to digitize a painting that has reflective qualities.

The main issue is that you have two things at odds with each other:

(1) Reflective effects from metallic-leafed or relief-textured areas are desirable.

(2) Reflected light from painted textures is not desirable, as this obscures painted details.

Damselfly from the Insecta Series of watercolor paintings by Stephanie Law

You can achieve (1) with photographs and manipulating the setup of your lighting to get the right mood/reflections/shadows. But that same manipulation of lighting could drastically effect how your colors appear (warmer or cooler), and the overall brightness of the piece. By focusing on the very bright reflections, your camera is calibrating for that brightness and pushes the rest of the painting into deeper shadow, which results in obscuring and dulling of painted detail. (I’ve been told that maybe a knowledgeable photographer would be able to deal with this in a .RAW file, but I’m not skilled enough on that front.)

(2) can be accomplished with a scanner (which is how I mostly digitize my artwork). But while colors and painted textures are very true to the original, relief textures and reflective areas become uniformly smooth and dull.

I’ve attempted manipulation of my photos (in .RAW format), as well as playing with my pure scans and trying to push the contrast and brightness of reflected areas. Both of these approaches did not yield very satisfying results. What I have eventually settled onto is a combination of both digitizing processes. It’s time intensive, but worthwhile to make the digital image the closest representation to the original painting possible, both for purposes of showcasing on a screen, and for printing.

So, enough of the blathering, let’s get down to how I do it. It’s not a quick or easy process, but it’s a process that gets the results in the final image file that I want!

* * *

(1) Scan the artwork

First thing I do is to scan the painting. I use an Epson 837XL. It’s an older and discontinued model, but I’ve had it for a long time. It is a large format scanner, which lets me do up to 13×19 inches. Large format is not necessary, just a convenience. Even with the larger size, I do work even bigger than that sometimes. Larger paintings than the size of your scanner bed just means you have to take time to stitch numerous scans together. Usually I scan somewhere between 300-600 dpi, depending on how large the painting is.

(2) Photograph the artwork

This is a bit trickier than the scanning. I’m using a digital SLR camera, set at my highest resolution. Lighting is key. Keep in mind that reflective surfaces are shiny and bright because light is bouncing off the object and to your eye. Also remember that it will bounce from the surface at the same angle that it is incoming.

1With those two factors in mind, place your lighting for the photograph of your piece. If the reflective area is directly in the center of the painting, you would have to have light coming almost straight from your camera in order for it to shine. If your reflective area is to the right of your camera, you have to place your light source even further to your right side for it to bounce and reach your camera lens. For any painting larger than 6 inches, I usually use multiple light sources — two or even three lamps. In addition, you can use reflectors (I got one for $18.00 on amazon) to diffuse and brighten your spot lighting.

2Sometimes I take multiple photos with lighting focused on different reflective areas. It does not have to be just a single image.

A couple of other important factors:

* Use the timer or remote shutter for the camera so that you don’t jostle (and blur) when taking the photo.

* Preferably use a tripod, but if you don’t have that, you can try stacking boxes or books to the correct height so that the lens faces the center of your painting.

* Keep the painting at a perfect 90 degrees. Either tape it to a wall, or make sure your easel is holding it completely upright.


(3) Adjusting the Brightness

Once I have my painting digitized in both a scan and photos, I open those both up on my computer. The photo colors look darker than the scan, and have to be lightened.

In the Brightness/Contrast menu, I shift both values upwards, doing my best to match the colors of the flowers, but not overdoing it so that the light areas get overexposed. It does not have to be a perfect match.


(4) Adjusting the photo’s color balance

In the Color Balance menu, I make some minor shifts to bring the color tones (specifically around the gold reflective areas) more in line with the color in the scan. Again, it does not have to be a perfect match, but the closer it is, the easier the meld will be. Make sure not to over do this and alter the colors of the reflective gold.


(5) Bringing the scan and photo together

The easiest way for scaling the photo to the correct size is the following:

* Open up the photo of the whole painting. Crop it down to the exact edges of the painting.

* Get the dimensions of the scan.

* Resize the photo to the exact dimensions of the scan. Don’t worry about keeping it proportional. As long as you took care when taking the photo originally to have the photo and camera parallel, then any discrepancies in the width and height should be fairly minor.

* Copy/Paste the necessary areas of the photo on top of the scan and set the photo Layer to “Multiply”. This way you can see how the photo layer aligns to the scan. You can make any further minor adjustments with Resizing or Skewing corners of the photo layer.


(6)Isolating reflective elements

After lining things up as much as possible in the previous step, I switch the photo Layer back to “Normal” (Instead of “Multiply”).

With the Magic Wand tool set to a high tolerance of about 30, I select all the areas surrounding the reflective elements. You’ll need to supplement the Magic Wand with the Lasso tool as well to select everything.


Invert the selection.

Expand the selection by about 5.


Feather the selection by about 5 (all these numbers are approximate. It will vary depending on how large and how high your painting’s resolution is).


(7)Deleting unnecessary parts and cleaning up.

Invert your selection once again, and then delete.


If I hide my scan layer, this is what you see I have left for the reflective elements in the photo layer.


At this point, I sometimes clean up extra little bits that the Magic Wand left unselected that are not necessarily reflective. Also,you can take a large Eraser brush with a feathered edge, set to a 50% opacity, and lightly erase select areas of the photo layer reflective gold to allow the scanned textures to come through into view.

If your painting was large and had reflective areas in multiple places that you had to capture with different photos, you can combine different photos into the scanned image.

When finished, the layers are flatted to combine, and the final piece is ready for printing.

descants (31)

When Flowers Dream by Stephanie Law, watercolor art

Her Sorrows and Her Joys, watercolor painting by Stephanie Law

{ Leave a Reply ? }

  1. sunnygrrlSB

    What an amazing and complex process. Thank you for taking the time to show us. I wish I could see your artwork in person to appreciate the effects of the metallic paint!

  2. Donna

    That is so cool! I always wondered how you were able to keep all the textures and shiny pieces of the paintings!

  3. Heather T.

    Wonderful explanation. I was surprised at the large feathering amount–I’ll have to try that! I love the idea of being able to print the reflectivity. Thanks for taking the time to write and illustrate all that!

  4. Chris

    May I ask what version of Photoshop you’re using?

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