Rendering design prototypes for many materials can become easy once you learn to predict how the material will behave in given lighting conditions.

However highly reflective and transparent materials are much harder to predict – glass, in particular. That said, I notice many marker visuals for perfume bottles and glass products online that have been rendered very well without a reference (see Fig. 1-3). This leads me to believe that glass can be understood well enough to create convincing design constructions & prototypes if one knows how.

Are there any rules to help me understand how light behaves on glass objects?

i.e. How do shadows & highlights behave on glass? How can I anticipate the shape of reflections on a glass object? Does convex or concave glass effect how shadows/highlights/reflections are formed respectively? It seems that light is hardest to predict where glass is thicker, or where curves & edges occur.

I would like to be able to draft glass design prototypes that are more convincing, without the limitation of existing glass references.

I've included some examples below which demonstrate glass prototyping very effectively. These were designed by Sangwon Seok & Begüm Tomruk (see references & links below).

enter image description here

Image References:

  1. Sangwon Seok, (2014), Product Sketch [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.behance.net/gallery/product-sketch/14568139 [Accessed 5 September 2016].

  2. Sangwon Seok, (2016), Product Sketch [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/BFV65usOEp8/ [Accessed 5 September 2016].

  3. Begüm Tomruk, (2011), I.D. Sketching & Marker Rendering [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.behance.net/gallery/1176939/ID-Sketching-Marker-Rendering [Accessed 5 September 2016].*

  • 2
    If those are what they look like - hand drawn sketches -, then the key word here is experience. For a pure mechanical means (thus getting a quicker result than several years of training), look for a good raytracer.
    – Jongware
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 19:40
  • Yeah, they're marker visuals. However, I'm not asking how to draw, but rather - how light behaves with glass. I have used raytracers for human figures in the past, however by learning about the behaviour of light, core shadows, ambient light along with photography experience I can now contruct figures and most materials without a reference. However glass requires more consideration. I posted the above examples as they demonstrate that glass rendering doesn't seem to be as mysterious as first thought!
    – johnp
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:09
  • They dont look at all like a real refraction would by the way. But thats ok audience wont notice. I would answer this but i must go and do other things sorry.
    – joojaa
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:35
  • I guess "convincing" is the operative word here. If I can understand the refraction well enough, I can create a good approximation.
    – johnp
    Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 20:38
  • 1
    Maybe this helps: phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/bending-light
    – Luchadora
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 13:49

2 Answers 2


I do not think anyone draws without a reference, probably someone that was visually impaired since born. We, the rest have visual references all the time. Some skilled people learn how to grab those visual references from memory or intuition.

Chapter I, a study of material properties

This is a complex question. For example, in 3D rendering this is one of the most complex algorithms to solve. Until some years ago making something look refractive was pretty complex and resulted in a fake image.

First of all, you do not have just "shadows & highlights." You have several types of those light and dark parts interacting.

Lets do an incremental analysis of light and dark. As I am lazy, let us get some help from 3D render software.

Remember that a drawing is an artistic interpretation. I will get into this later.

Light and shadow

The easiest understanding is a diffusive material. The light and the shadow are very clear indication of where the light comes from (A) and where is absence of that (B).

1) Glossy Reflection

But things start to get complicated as we add some glossiness (reflective surface) A clear highlight where the light source appears (C), but some other zones are not clear on what is going on. Some can go darker just "because" (D) and some lighter (E). But it turns out that it no longer has anything to do with the relationship with the light source, but with the material behind that is reflected (F) or the absence of anything to reflect (D).

enter image description here

Plastic vs Metallic reflection

The main difference between a metallic reflection and a simple plastic or glossy one is that on a plastic the reflection remains of the same color as the source light (white); in a metallic one the reflection is affected by the color itself, so the maximum reflection is not white anymore. This can happen in different degrees.

enter image description here

2) Transparency

Let us now add a second component, transparency.

This can be a very flat color or maybe with some gradients, to indicate our base color (G).

If we gradually add our glossiness, we find again our obvious (C) highlight reflecting our light (H) and we find another highlight on the internal opposite face (I)

If now we increase this reflection component something that in physics is called the law of conservation of energy says that we cannot have more light bouncing in an object than the original light coming from our light source.

As more light gets reflected, the internal "transparent" red component (G) gets darker and the highlights get brighter (J).

You could stop your artistic interpretation here. You do not need a physically accurate drawing.

Things will get more complicated making a hole inside your bottle to put now a liquid of another color inside.

enter image description here

3) Refraction

Our transparent material just let the light pass thru it without distorting it. But now things starts to get weird: As the index of refraction of a material increases the light bends (K).

In a geometrical shape this looks as if the internal image gets smaller, the walls react as if the interior is shrinking (L).

You can use this to your favor, because you can add refraction to indicate a shape or an edge (M)

(This render got more complicated and added some distortions, but you still have the basic idea.)

enter image description here

Here are some other renders with a simpler render engine, where these effects are more noticeable. The green rectangle where the image should be if we have no refraction, and the red shows the displacement. I am marking in color just one axis, but this happens in all axes.

enter image description here

4) Caustics

This is the light passing thru your glass and projected into another surface. To be able to see it you need your surface to be not totally white, so you can see it more illuminated, and add this as another highlight.

Here are some different passes added one on top of the other to make a more vivid image.

enter image description here

5) Shape it baby

The challenge is now using these elements to insinuate the shape. Is it made of flat faces or curved ones?

Look at the black part of this section. This curves indicate the overall shape of the 3D object.

enter image description here

Chapter II, a lighting setup

In photography there are a lot of techniques to make something bright or dark, while photographing jewelery, wine bottles, perfumes.

The basic idea is to setup a series of white reflective pieces of cardboard, and black ones, to make interesting reflections, either on curved faces or flat ones.

This is an art on itself, take a look on some YouTube tutorials, like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JP3ykBzk_RU and see that the resulting image is in reality a composition of the surrounding areas.

Now, go back and analyze some reference images: https://www.google.com/search?q=fragrance+photography

Inclusive in photography there are a million ways to put the light on one single glass to make it look different and attractive.

Chapter III

Freedom, you are an artist!

The point is not reflection-refraction accuracy, but an artistic interpretation to give a general idea of the final product.

Make some decisions, what face will be the happier bright one?

And build on top of that. This will be darker, I need contrast here, I need a simulation of a dark refraction, I want a nice highlight here or a gradient there.

Chapter IV

Forget all my post and go and draw!

I am exploring this same topic a bit more in depth for a "Gold material" here:

Illustrator: How to create realistic reflective gold surface?

  • Excellent answer @Rafael. I'm going to leave the question open though for more contributions just until the bounty has almost expired. I thought the (1)Gloss-e&f points were very helpful. I assume this applies to metal too? (2) Transparency cons. of energy is helpful to know too. In a hollow perfume bottle e.g., will the inner highlights still follow this law or change, as they are still viewed through one glass side? Thanks for your help :)
    – johnp
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 9:27
  • Also out of interest, what 3d software do you use to render these prototypes with?
    – johnp
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 9:31
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    The cube was made with blender with cycles render engine. The second, helixes, were rendered with kerkythea. - Of course, leave the question open, It is a very interesting one. - I need to expand further to an effect called Fresnel. Also I will expand the diference between metalic an non metalic reflection.
    – Rafael
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 14:05
  • -.- I'm going to end up giving more rep to you aren't I. Rafael, Bounty Hunter lol
    – Ryan
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 0:11
  • Lol. Ryan I thought about it. But the point is that you have a good eye on bringing atention to interesting questions. Really n_n. I am not an ilustrator, probably a frustrated one, that is why this themes grab my atention a lot.
    – Rafael
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 0:21

As with many questions of this nature, there are three requirements: practice, practice and more practice. That said, there are a couple of tips that I can share from my experience and struggles with illustrating product designs like those that you have shown. My approach has always been via digital illustration (Illustrator or Photoshop), but the same applies for hand drawing.

Firstly, you need a prolonged scheme of recreating the appearance of glass from existing sources. This can be based on photographs or other peoples illustrations. Trace, copy and duplicate as many different, relevant glass objects as you can find until you identify the methods that work for you. Don't underestimate the value of doing the same one over and over again to refine and speed up your skills.

Secondly, glass (and transparent objects in general) can be broken down into four components and approaching them as four separate layers or stages has helped me a lot:

  1. The SHAPE of the object. This is the obvious place to start. Depending on your style, this might be an outline, a few highlights and shadows, the shadow cast on a surface by the object and maybe a subtle (or not so subtle) tint to represent the colour of the material.
  2. The things that can be seen THROUGH the glass. This is the most complex part. Anything behind the object needs to show through, but you need to consider if you want to distort that object to simulate refraction. This is not always necessary, but can add a significant twist of extra realism. You will usually be able to see the back and inner faces of the object itself. These should be drawn in the same style and colour as the object, but will generally by less opaque to show that they are secondary features.
  3. There may well be a liquid or product INSIDE the container. You need to consider how the colour and general appearance of the contents will be affected by the container. The contents itself may be transparent, in which case the opacity of that needs to be taken into account as it may obscure object behind the container more than the container does. If the contents only partially fills the container then it might need a visible surface as part of its own shape.
  4. Finally (and I would usually do this last), there are the things that are REFLECTED in the surface of the glass. You will always want to add a few highlights - soft and subtle on the flat surfaces and harder, brighter catch lights at corners; and maybe some darker areas to suggest the general reflexion of the environment. If there are multiple objects in the scene then showing a subtle reflexion of nearby items in the surface can add more realism and really the knit the scene together.

Some of this is probably obvious, but if you break it down as I have, then you should be able to find your own solution for each component and then build them up into your own style of illustration.

Personally, I often resort to 3D modelling and rendering software for this kind of project, but that's just a personal preference. Sometimes I will produce a 3D render and then work over the top in photoshop to add my own touches.

Hope that helps.

  • Thanks for your helpful answer, Chris. Has the presentation of 3D renders become more industry standard vs graphic illustration, specifically in the product development stages?
    – johnp
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 9:37
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    That varies depending on company, customer and designer. As a rule of thumb, I'd say most mainstream companies and customers and averagely skilled designers will mostly be doing digital illustration and 3D renders. For time and cost reasons more than anything. At the top end, the best designers at the most prestigious companies working for the creme de la creme of clients, will have the time and budget and skill set to hand sketch ideas like those you cited in your question. I've seen people who can doodle something like that on the back of an agenda during a meeting. Blew my mind!
    – Westside
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 19:03

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