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Paint with Light and Metal

The art of seeing—and engraving.

A painter’s mastery lies in the constant study of colour and light, lines and form. Whether their style is classic realism, abstract modernism, or somewhere in between, every painter will tell you their brushes are the channel that brings their vision from the ethers of inspiration to the tangible canvas of this three-dimensional world. 

Every brushstroke helps build an image or construct a story, and its meaning will ultimately be determined by the very personal interpretation of the viewer. Too much of the same tone, and the painting will fall flat before the viewer’s eyes. Highlights, shadows and the strategic dash of colour can make all the difference between a mundane scene and a powerful image that evokes an equally powerful response.

Artists who design coins, however, must achieve the same level of visual impact­—without using colour.

A coin is metal. It’s monochromatic. Coin designers must express their vision in gray-scale with plenty of shading and detailing to ensure the engraver can accurately interpret their design.

A five-tone gray-scale ranging from white to black. Paints can be mixed repeatedly to increase the range of values from 5 to 10 or 20 tones, and beyond.

Seeing the world in one colour requires a heightened sensitivity to the subtleties of light and dark in order to create visual interest. A dynamic range of tones becomes critical.

Seeing in gray-scale: These images illustrate the challenges of translating colour to gray-scale. In the black-and-white image, the pears’ left edges are almost indistinguishable from the background. Darker shadows and brighter highlights would add contrast, and increase the visual impact of the black-and-white image. Source:

Janet Bonneau


From colour, to gray-scale, to coin. (Shown: 2015 $15 Fine Silver Coin featuring Cranberry Lake by Franklin Carmichael.)

This example (above) shows the progression of an original colour painting to a gray-scale to a coin. In the final stage, another variable comes into play—dimension. A coin’s design is not a 2D drawing, but three-dimensional relief. As the engraver translates the gray-scale drawing into the lines and textures that will be struck into the coin, they must also sculpt the relief that will give the design its depth and dimension. Frostings have emerged as a powerful creative tool for engravers to achieve stunning effects and enhance the unique beauty of each design.

From gray-scale to matte-scale.

“For years, the only frosting collectors saw was the one that was applied to Proof Coins,” explains Stan Witten, a Senior Engraver at the Mint, “The entire relief would be frosted and set against a shiny, mirror-like field. This created a high-contrast ‘cameo effect’ and was considered the most beautiful and prestigious finish available.

“With today’s technology, engravers are no longer limited to just one type of frosting, but can choose from a full range of varying degrees of matteness and shine. As a result, the hard-and-fast rules that have long defined specific coins (like specimen, proof and bullion) are beginning to blur.”

Witten also explains that engravers have always been able to create different frostings, but were limited by time and the ability to preview the end result of how a new frosting would look.

“We’re always on a deadline. Before the digital age, it was risky to try something new and only see the final result when the first coin came off the press during the first day of production. It would be impossible to go back to the drawing board, start over, and still meet delivery.

“With technology, we can complete various steps within hours instead of days, and this frees us up to be more creative and to try new techniques.”

Today, any issues that might arise from using a new frosting, or combining multiple frostings can be avoided by creating a virtual coin, and cutting the design into a block of steel with a CNC machine.

Witten explains, “This technology gives us the ideal 3D preview. The more experience we gain, the better we’re becoming at envisioning the final outcome. I’m proud to say we’re rarely off.”

Brushstrokes of Light

“Metal reflects light,” explains Jamie Desrochers, one of the Mint’s Product Managers, “It adds a whole new dimension to the coin’s design, and is yet another factor engravers have to consider when frosting the design.

“Each frosting reflects light in its own unique way. Flat, shiny areas can go completely black when the coin is tilted. This is most visible on Proof Coins because their highly polished field acts just like a mirror. It will reflect whatever is around the coin.”

Any large or dominant area within a coin’s design needs to be carefully considered regardless if it’s frosted or shiny.


Admiring a coin is a dynamic experience. Light reflecting off the coin’s surface can create dramatic effects, like sunshine flowing through the branches of this 2018 maple canopy coin.



Once again, digital technology is proving to be an invaluable tool for predicting the impact of light on a prospective coin design, even before any tooling is machined.

Re-defining the field.

Modern technology has also exploded the creative potential of a coin’s field.

For years, the “background” was viewed as the canvas that framed the relief; it was either shiny or dull. With the extreme precision of today’s computerized lasers, any flat surface within a coin design can now be micron frosted with incredibly low and detailed relief to add a new element to a design and greatly enhance its depth perception.

“This effect can trick the eye into thinking the design is much deeper than it really is. It’s like a special type of trompe l’œil for coins,” says Desrochers.


[2018 The San Xing Gods Silver 3-Coin Set: (Fu, Lu, Shou)]9 A deer, bat and crane micron frosted on the coin fields create a sense of depth. The full-colour figures appear to be standing well in front of the ghosting effect in the background. Even the inscriptions appear as another layer floating between the figures and the animals.



When looking at these coins, people often assume the entire field has been frosted and the line art has been etched or knocked out by a laser. In truth, the laser creates the line art as it’s applying the micron frosting. They are one and the same. It’s extremely precise.

While science plays a significant role in this craft, and technology has automated many of the processes, minting coins will always remain at its heart, an art. No machine or methodical analysis can ever replace the inspiration that comes from the depths of the human spirit; the creative spark to paint with light and metal.


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