Understanding reflections to improve your illustrations





When we make an illustration, we perform several steps: we start with a sketch, we look for a nice composition of the various elements, we define the color palette we want to use and after making the illustration, we work on the details and add lights and shadows. Often, we don't think about reflections as light bouncing on surfaces.  In fact, light not only brings out the color but also creates reflections of the surroundings on the surfaces. In this article we will look at how to create reflections on various types of surfaces, understanding how these reflections are created by light. You can then make your illustrations even more spectacular. Let's get started!

Observing to understand

To understand how surfaces reflect their surroundings in reality, we start by observing our surroundings and taking photos to observe certain details. Faithfully reproducing a reflection can be very complicated but I will explain how to create an apparently very complicated reflection in a few simple steps. However, before going into action it is important to know a few basics that will make you able to visualize in your mind the final result you want to achieve. 

Basic of mirroring

The first thing to understand is how an object is mirrored, taking into consideration an ideal plane that acts as a mirror. Observe the following image:

In the image above, I have drawn the plane acting as a mirror in grey and the 'real' triangle in orange. To obtain the triangle reflected in green, I followed a few steps.\

First, as you can see the triangle is tilted to the mirror plane, we draw two lines (dashed lines in green) from the base of the triangle prospectively perpendicular to the mirror baseline.

Each line drawn will consist of two parts, one ideally inside the mirror and one outside, these two segments will have the same length. After drawing the lines, we join the ends that will have formed inside the mirror and obtain the green triangle, which is the reflection of the orange starting triangle.   

I recommend practicing freehand mirroring simple shapes, we do not want to construct a perfect figure from an orthogonal point of view with exact measurements, the aim is to recreate the effect in a visually correct manner.\

It is fair to point out that the result we want to achieve in the end is an approximation of reality, we want to make sure that the observer looking at our illustration understands which parts are reflected. In fact, creating a perspective-perfect reflection from an orthogonal point of view would require very advanced knowledge of perspective especially for curved surfaces, and would also be very time-consuming.  

What to draw on the reflective surface

We now have an idea of how an object is reflected on a reflective surface. But the moment we want to include a reflection in our illustration, the first thing we should ask ourselves is what to draw on the reflective surface. Since the surface will reflect the surrounding environment, what part of the environment will be seen reflected on the surface?  This will depend only on the point of view of the observer, of the one who ideally looks at the reflective surface; in fact, you can draw a straight line from the 'eyes' - or from a camera or an ideal point of view - of the observer on the surface and the angle that will be formed will be equal to the 'exit' angle that will hit the part of the environment that we will have to reproduce, as shown in the following example: 

To better understand you can do a little experiment in front of a mirror, while observing the environment reflected in the mirror try moving sideways you will see that the parts of the reflected environment will change and you will be able to see parts of the surrounding environment that you could not see before, this happens because moving the point of view also changes the angle with which you look into the mirror, and the consequent angle of exit that "hits" ideally different parts of the environment around you. 

Degree of reflectivity

Every surface, depending on the material it is made of, has a different degree of light reflectivity so a matt surface will not reflect light well while a shiny surface will show us the environment around reflected on it.\

However, it is not only the difference in material that characterises reflections, but we also need to pay attention to the colour. In fact, as strange as it may seem, depending on the colour of the surface, the perception of its degree of reflectivity will change. In other words, if we have two surfaces of the same material but a different colour, they will appear to reflect their surroundings differently.  

Let’s observe the examples below, at the extremes, there are two spheres one with a completely opaque surface and one with a mirror surface. In the intermediate colours ranging from white to black, we observe how different colours reflect differently even though the surface is ideally of the same material.  

To practice, I recommend drawing these spheres, this way you will develop a more solid knowledge of how to render a reflection on different colors. Let's take a look at the steps needed to make them, it's easier than it looks!



Matte sphere

Take a good look at the spheres I have made: the opaque sphere does not have the white point of light nor the reflection at the top and bottom, it only has a lighter shaded area at the top and a darker shaded area at the bottom, and let's not forget the darker shadow at the base, where the sphere touches the floor.\

First, we draw a circle with the Figure(U) tool by selecting Create Fill in the tool property menu, this way the circle will be filled with the color you have chosen in the color palette. (image 1) 

In the second step, we add a darker shadow as shown in the figure below. To create these shadows, use the Gradient (G) tool and select "Foreground to transparent" and Ellipse in the property tool. (image 2)\

Finally, add a lighter shade at the top with the same Gradient tool. (image 3) 

I recommend for convenience creating a new layer for each shade so that you can then move or rotate it or transform it freely to fit the circle.  \

The shadow base on the floor is made up of two layers created with the Ellipse tool, a darker Gradient where the sphere touches the floor and a lighter, more extensive Flat on which I used a Blur effect. 

Reflective spheres

Let’s make the spheres with reflection, look at the example in detail:

In this case, unlike the matte sphere, we have one reflection at the top, one at the bottom, and a white point of light. Furthermore, while in the red, white and chrome spheres we also have shaded areas, on the surface of the black sphere there are none.

To create these spheres therefore use the same steps as in the previous section to create the opaque sphere and add the white point of light with a slight blur effect, and the reflection shapes.

In addition, only for the black sphere, in the first step where you create the flat circle use the Gradient(G) tool and select subtool circle, in this case, we do not want a flat colour effect but we want the circular shape to be lighter at the edges and darker in the centre.

As for the reflection shapes, these are simple shapes, because in this case what is reflected in the spheres is a wall of the room and the table on which the spheres are. The shapes were made in a single flat colour with no shading, only in the case of the colour red the reflection shape at the bottom has the left end lighter and the right end darker. This is because red in particular is a colour which depending on what is reflected on it, tends to look duller or shinier, and is generally considered the most difficult to render and requires a little bit more attention.

Also, when we look at a shiny black surface, for example, the surface of a car will seem more reflective than the colour of a white car made of the exact same material.

Have fun making the spheres and experiment with the colours you like, look for references in reality when you have doubts.

After some practice in mirroring shapes and rendering a reflection on a spherical surface, your mind will have developed a new awareness in observing the reflections of reality around you, you are now ready for the next step, drawing reflections of more complex images.

Reflections on curved surfaces

Curved reflective surfaces are undoubtedly the most complicated to realize because they deform their surroundings. However, we can consider curved surfaces of two types: concave and convex.

If an image is reflected on a concave surface, it will be enlarged. In contrast, in the case of a convex surface, the image will be compressed. As in the example below:

We must keep this distinction in mind when considering a reflection on a surface; indeed, on a single surface, there may be concave, convex, and flat parts on which the surroundings are reflected and deformed in different ways. So, we need to develop an overview of this in mind.

Observe reality to see how each curved surface behaves in exactly this way by widening or narrowing the reflected images.

Flat surfaces with waves

Another type of surface that can be tricky is a surface that is flat but has waves like the surface of water. Let's see in detail what changes:

As you can see from the image above in the case of a flat surface, the color becomes softer in depth while in the case of a surface with waves, the color also behaves like a wave with darker and lighter areas as you look deeper. This characteristic must be considered when drawing reflections on water surfaces that have waves.

Creating a reflection on water

Now let’s draw a reflection in an illustration considering everything we have seen so far. Observe the following image:

We will now see how to recreate the buildings reflected on the water in the empty part at the bottom of the image. The first step is to select the part of the drawing that we need to reflect, using the Selection area tool (M). Remember what you have learned in the paragraph “What to draw on the reflective surface”, in this case, because of the camera point of view you will see reflected the buildings starting ideally from the second floor.

After you select the area with the selection tool, click on the Copy and paste icon and then go to Edit, Transform, and select Flip Vertical, then move the flipped area of the drawing at the bottom and move also the Layer below your main Layer containing the actual drawing.

Look at the following images:

Now you need to create a layer above the reflected area, fill that layer with the same color as the sky, and then set the blending mode to lighten and lower the opacity; this step is important because the water is like a mirror, and it’s transparent, so it will reflect everything also the color of the sky. To finalize our effect, use the tool Liquify(J) to recreate the surface of the water, you just need to do strokes horizontally from both directions left and right. Let’s see the final result:     

As you can see the surface of the water is recreated, if you compare the final result with the illustration we had at the beginning I think that adding the reflection gave a lot more value and meaning to this background. What do you think?

Creating a reflection with perspective

In the next image I want to show another type of reflection on a different material, take a look at the following image:

As you can see this time, we have a marble surface in a closed environment where lights act in a totally different way compared to the previous illustration. Furthermore, the reflection will involve three different areas of the drawing, the two sides and the wall in the background.

I suggest considering these three parts separately. So first select the area at the left side of the drawing with the selection tool, copy and paste, and flip vertical, as I show you in the previous chapter. Now, you will notice that since the side is in perspective the image flipped doesn’t appear to be correct for our mirroring effect, as you learned in the chapter “Basic to mirroring” earlier in this article. So, you need to do another step: Go to Edit, Transform, Distort, and modify the flipped area so that you will recreate the perspective effect but mirrored, look at the next picture:   

As you can see in the image above, you need to enlarge the left side of the selected area and compress the right side to obtain the result you want, to help you find the right balance keep looking at the perspective line formed by the first step of the stairs. After you find the right balance remember to erase parts of the reflected area that you don’t need, in this case, we have to erase the portion of the floor that overlaps the stairs.

Repeat the same passages for the right side, and for the background, of course with the background you don’t need to distort.

At this point you will have all three areas of the drawing perfectly mirrored, go to the layer type and select Lighten – this is because we want only the light to be reflected and this time since it’s not water. Now, go to Filter, Blur, and Gaussian blur, you need to add blur because of the material. In fact, we have seen in the previous illustration that water acts like a mirror, and in that case, you didn’t have to add blur, but in this case, marble is different not only do you need to blur but also after you blurred the reflected areas you need to use the eraser soft tool to erase the parts that go deeper into the floor. Depending on the colors you have in your illustration you may need to add another step as I did in this illustration, create a layer below the reflected areas, fill that layer with a grey tone, and lower the opacity, this step is important because adjusting the opacity of the grey layer we can adjust the look of the lighten mode layer.  Look at the result:

As you can see the reflection on the marble floor gives a great touch to the entire illustration.


Drawing a reflective surface can be a challenging task but it can give a spectacular effect to our illustrations. The most important thing to draw an effective reflex is the awareness behind that effect, the more you know about how a reflection is “generated” in reality the better will be the visual result you can achieve in your drawings. Then using the tools at your disposal in Clip Studio Paint you can make a great effect by breaking them down into simple steps, using blur, lighten mode among the others. I hope my article guided you through this process, keep experimenting by yourself watching reflections in reality around you, and trying to reproduce them. Thank you so much for reading.  



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