I'm Conrad Allan and I've been a Matte Painter for over 6 years and an Environment Artist for over 10 years. The tips listed below are tailored to Matte Painting but will apply to anything you do in the VFX Industry. These tips are how I taught myself 3D, how I taught myself matte painting and, ultimately, are the backbone to the success of MattePaint.
So, let's get into it!
Step 1: Create a clearly defined goal
Answering this question is critical and could have the greatest effect on your success. It doesn't have to be complex or highly defined, but this goal will set your purpose and be the building blocks for everything to come.
Ask yourself: What's the reason you're learning Matte Painting? What do you want out of it?
Maybe you were inspired by an artist or artwork or maybe you have an opportunity to take on some freelance work, or you want to become a matte painter. Whatever it is, this goal is only here to help guide you in your learning, without it, you might get lost learning all kinds of tips and tricks with no (without finding focus on) useful, real-world skills. Or worse, you might get lost learning things you don't need or even care about!
Artists are passionate people, we are addicted to our Craft and constantly wanting to learn more. So this makes setting a clearly defined goal even more important. For example, if your goal is to become a character artist, you can filter out tutorials that cover vehicle design but if you see a tutorial on organic design, you'll know its for you!
Here are some examples of what you could mark down as your goal:
- I want to make an image like Raphael Lacoste
- I want to get into the VFX industry as a Matte Painter
- I want to create a photo-real artwork in Photoshop
- I want to learn how to improve my image grading
Notice how the motivation of each of these could be very different, the last goal suggests a desire to add to their skill set (like 3D skills), whereas the first is inspired by external factors. Be aware of these factors; motivation which comes from external factors is going to have less strength than an internal one. Find what really drives your creative process.
Whatever your goal is, it's worth setting and pursuing, even if you're not sure if your goal is achievable, defining it will at least guide you in the right direction. You may decide over time, to change your goal - and that's completely ok, keep at it and you'll see what makes you tick!
Step 2: Build your Inspiration
Search galleries and communities for artwork that you like. This is a great way to discover what really inspires you. Keep these images in a folder or in a bookmarks area, somewhere that is close at hand and that you can look at and analyse. Over time, as you improve as an Artist, you'll be surprised at how you see the images differently.
Don't over think this collection, just keep anything that speaks to you and aligns with your goal - remember, if you want to be an environment artist, you want to save environment reference, not characters!
NOTE: Don't look at this folder too often if you find yourself getting overwhelmed by how much you still have to learn. There is often a fine line between being inspired and becoming overwhelmed. Personally, on the days I'm sitting down to create art, I prefer not to look at other artists reference, instead I'll look at photography if I want inspiration. You don't want to discourage yourself.
Step 3: Dive In Early
Don't get caught up in learning, watching tutorials and learning tips. Start creating as soon as possible, it doesn't matter how bad you are, just start spending time in Photoshop and practicing.
Just take a look at my first 3D render (above) that I did when I first started my journey as an artist! Looking at this now, it's seemingly horrid in my eyes and arguably indiscernible as a landscape...
So, now that my reputation is destroyed, and iv'e definitively proven how far you can improve over time, you have no excuse. Get started and make something for yourself!
Generally you should be spending 2/3 of time practicing and the rest is watching tutorials or reading forum posts etc. 3 months after the image above, I made this:
Step 4: Watch tutorials!
Okay, okay, I know I just said to dive in and not spend too much time watching others, but watching tutorials is still very important.
The fastest way to learn something new is to learn from others - that's why we learn so fast "on the job". Sure, learning for yourself is important, but you don't know what you don't know and so, especially at the start of your journey, tutorials are essential.
For example, when I was learning Vue, I remember going through every video on the Geek At Play library and repeating everything I saw Vladimir do. Often a 10 minute tutorial would result in man hour or more of experimentation - practice alone will make you improve.
I would then return to videos to re-watch a technique I'd forgotten, often to my surprise I would learn I'd interpreted something wrongly or not quite understood the full message. Having re-learnt the technique, my art took a step up.
So think of tutorials like training wheels; use them until you're confident you can go without them because no amount of face planting in the pavement will help you stay upright.
After 6 months of watching tutorials and constant, focused and dedicated practice and experimentation, I completed an image for a small architectural firm.
I had my first job in as an artist!
I've done a series of tutorials dedicated to understanding the technical skills you need as a Matte Painter that you can watch here:
Step 5: Fly solo
As you start to get more comfortable, make sure you detach yourself from tutorials, otherwise, you may never try anything for yourself or create something unique!
I've seen artists with entire portfolios made up entirely of work from tutorials. This is easily recognizable by others in the industry but the bigger issue is that you're not developing your own style! And, as we know now, 2/3 of improving our skills is about applying what we learn, so make sure you actively practice and exercise your ideas.
Here is a system you can follow:
- Learn a new technique
- Practice technique on a small exercise or project
- Create a totally new artwork (big project)
- Rinse and repeat!
This cycle ensures that you're keeping the knowledge tank full, you're practicing what you learn after you learn it, and then exercising your overall artistic skill and critical eye in a complete project piece.
Step 6: Learn the Fundamentals
Technical skills are your ability to DO the work, Fundamental skills are your ability to understand WHY you do something a certain way. You should always start with technical skills.
A child doesn't start drawing by learning about composition or lighting, they just start drawing! You need to copy that behavior too, but once you've established the technical skills, dive into the world of the Fundamentals and you'll accelerate your understanding of Art.
Knowing and understanding the fundamentals is what separates the best artists in the industry from the rest. When you understand composition, lighting, form, perspective, etc, intricately, you are able to create aesthetically pleasing images much faster and easier than others. Furthermore, the software you're using ceases to be a limitation, it's just a tool to learn!
I've done a few tutorials on fundamentals too. My personal favourite is Deconstructing Light. Here's a preview and introduction to the video
There's plenty of books and resources on these topics, but the videos in the MattePaint Academy will at least get you started.
Step 7: Regular Practice
Remember this quote:
"A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules." ~ Anthony Trollope
What this means is if you practice on a regular basis (hopefully every day!), you will beat someone who works all day or all weekend but only every few weeks or months.
You might not like to hear this, but becoming a great artist is going to take time - although that doesn't mean it's going to be a chore! This fact, though, is what separates people who make it from those who don't. If you are truly dedicated, truly passionate, you will have the drive and discipline to make it work. You are not alone in wanting to make it in the VFX Industry, what separates those who succeed from those who don't is their dedication and investment. There is no replacement for commitment and dedication!
The absolute best predictor of success outside of this self-discipline and dedication, is your community support. When I say that, I don't mean the comments and likes on Artstation or Facebook, I mean the discord chat channels and the forum posts where you can seek and receive feedback from others, especially other artists. Quality constructive criticism and receiving genuine feedback from your peers is a lot more helpful than receiving meaningless Instagram likes. Seek to inflate your skill set, not your ego.
This is where the MattePaint Discord Server and our Forum are great. And yes, I know... another shameless plug! But, I do this because I'm actively part of that community and I have directly helped over 25 artists now get into the VFX industry. Those artists are now actively helping others.
The best part is, these are totally free parts of MattePaint!
Step 8: Have Fun (or you'll quit)
Don't force yourself to learn something you're not excited about, especially at the start because you'll find it even harder to come back to the next day. Try and stay motivated by learning what is relevant to your goal but also something you enjoy!
Learning something new doesn't have to be a grind, and for most people who make it, it will quickly become enjoyable. If you're not enjoying the process or the subject or the art piece you're currently working on, try leaving it for another day and picking it up later. Inspiration comes in waves and forcing it when it's not there often results in frustration and undesirable results.
Find your own balance between discipline to continue, and willingness to be flexible. If you're feeling disheartened, lean on the community, ask people for help on a specific technique or concept.
Why go it alone when there is a World of people travelling the same path as you?
My best tip for you as you go through these processes, learning how to become a Matte Painter, is to keep your work as simple as you can, for as long as you can stand it. Rinse and repeat the basics like I did with the image below. Would you believe it's just 3 photographs blended into the final piece!?
You'll be surprised, with enough practice, you can very quickly reach a point where you're smashing out work like the image below, using 20+ photo's to blend into a seamless, awesome masterpiece of your own!