Editor Foreword: This guide goes hand in hand with our artwork image packs. Each pack is created by a different artist who also creates the cover image. The guide below is designed to guide you in creating your own artwork. Enjoy!
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Hey, I’m Erik! I’m a digital art hobbyist from Germany who enjoys creating wallpapers and matte paintings in my spare time. I pursued art as a career for some time but today it is solely a hobby as it allows me to focus on creating the things I enjoy the most.
The themes of my artworks often involve dark sci-fi or fantasy visions, where I draw much inspiration from books, games and TV shows. The artwork from this article is my attempt at recreating a world from the anime ‘Made in Abyss’ as you will see later on.
I created this artwork as an entry to the weekly competitions hosted by MattePaint and to challenge myself by competing against fellow matte painters.
While browsing the resources provided by the team I really loved some of the water images and that inspired me to turn a scene from the aforementioned anime into a photo-realistic movie setting.
To get a better feel for the landscape I looked at a lot of references from the anime, which helped me to build a faithful recreation of the environment. Deviating from my usual workflow, I started creating this artwork with an actual sketch, where I blocked all the most important objects included in the composition with basic shapes. These shapes defined the scene until the very end of the process since all the painting and textures I added were built directly on top of those shapes using clipping masks in Photoshop.
As an artist who bases most of his work on photos, this process was new to me since I usually build my ‘sketch’ from a rough composition of photos and textures which I then paint over later.
It is difficult to put a number on the amount of hours that I needed to finish this work as I always leave it on my hard drive for at least a couple of days and come back to work on it every now and then. I find this is really helpful to refresh your mind and allow you to look at your work more critically.
Although it is a relatively simple task, creating natural looking tree roots and vines in particular turned out to be a lot more time-consuming than anticipated, so I’m guessing it took around 50–60 hours in total to finish this.
I refuse to work at low resolutions, so this piece was painted at 7000px wide. And on top of that, I use a lot of layers and masks so my machine often slows down a lot. It’s something many matte painters struggle with. I find one good solution is to save multiple PSD files and flatten layers as you go. There are drawbacks to this method, but sometimes you just have to commit… or upgrade your computer!
Part 1 — Concept
Everything begins with a concept. In my experience, randomly adding elements to an inspiring plate you found on the internet, rarely ends up developing into impressive artwork. So, before setting up the scene, we need a rough idea of the theme. Once clear about that, start looking for suitable references, which display similar concepts or present a good example of the architecture and details that you want.
In the process of creating this artwork in particular, I realized that looking at references every once in a while helped a great deal with visualizing the details and the realism of the scene.
Part 2 — References
Looking at references can take the realism of your work to the next level. A tree should have roots, trunk, branches, leaves, bark, and perhaps some knots here and there, right? We all know that, but reference will tell you how mold or fungus can change the color of the tree in certain places, explain how cracks in the bark catch light that breaks through the crown, or show how the soil around the tree is affected by its roots.
Since the setting was inspired by a landscape from an anime that I just had finished watching, I was looking online for screenshots, which depicted the vegetation and atmosphere that I intended to recreate. With those references in mind I started composing the photos with additional elements.
At this point I didn’t waste time on any detailing until I was satisfied with the composition.
Since I hardly use any 3D material but instead rely on photographic textures most of the time, it is vital that I have all the photos ready which I plan to use in the process. Otherwise I might have to move objects around later if the perspectives don’t match properly. It’s not impossible, but it can add a lot of extra hours of work in the worst case scenario.
Part 3 — Detailing
The next part orchestrates the long and tedious process of filling the basic shapes with life by adding a ton of photo textures and blending them with help of manual painting.
…I edit all my layers in a strictly non-destructive way
This entails masking the photos and matching colour and perspectives of each texture to the scene, and to each other, in order to have a coherent image. Since I love being able to double back at all times, I edit all my layers in a strictly non-destructive way by converting them into smart objects and extracting them with layer masks. Additionally, I make color and contrast changes using adjustment layers that I set as clipping masks to the layer I’m editing. This means that every single texture or photo can have a whole bunch of layers attached to it, which makes using groups to order the psd-file indispensable (see screenshot).
By selecting the layer mode (e.g. hard light) and reducing the opacity of the layer, I am able to quickly reduce the contrast of shadows and highlights depending of the distance of the object. I have several other means of reducing the contrast, which I usually use on top of that, e.g. brightness/contrast adjustment layers set to contrast=-50, using curves, or solid-colour overlays.
To emulate haze, add an ‘invert’ adjustment layer. Setting the adjustment layer to ‘soft light’ will reduce the darkness of your shadows and tone down the highlights at the same time.
Part 4 — Haze
For a more drastic effect you can reduce the opacity of the invert adjustment layer. At 50% opacity your original layer will be completely grey as highlights and shadows exactly compensate each other. If you want to affect the highlights only, you can choose the blending mode ‘darken’. To weaken shadows, you can switch the mode to ‘lighten’ (while reducing the layer opacity to a lower value of course).
The downside of the invert adjustment layer is that it can affect your color values. A hue/saturation adjustment layer may be necessary on top of it to restore the original tones.
I usually go through the objects one by one and add details until I’m satisfied or as long as I have the patience for it. Here, I finished the goblet in the foreground first and then worked my way towards to background. Having finished the detailed one in the foreground, I was able to reuse some of the textures for the goblets in the distance which allowed me to save time with only minor adjustments. Modifying the shape and erasing some details is a quick way of masking that it’s actually a copy-pasted object. Just make sure that all objects in the foreground are completely unique as it would otherwise be highly distracting.
Completing your foreground elements first can save you time for the background by reusing the foreground pieces with just a few changes.
Part 5 — Final Details
At this stage, the image looks pretty detailed but not very natural or pleasing. It lacks two things: vibrant colors and ‘life’!
I proceeded by painting in elements that indicate movement, such as birds in flight, smoke, waterfalls and dragons lurking in the giant tree roots. I am aware that moving objects are horrible to animate but in an illustration I cannot live without them. Additionally, I like to play with vastly differing scales, so I included a tiny watcher in the foreground to emphasize the gigantic structures of the environment.
Adding a foreground character is a common way to communicate scale in your work.
The image still appears fairly flat as it lacks a warm contrasting color and some highlights caused by light bouncing off the water surfaces and clouds. Hence, once I finished texturing all my objects I started over-painting them. To give it a vibrant and natural look I used opposing colors from the color wheel: a warm orange for the highlights and a cool cyan for the shadows. With this technique I can quickly add highlights and improve the blending. But I also tone down some of the details, especially in the distance in order to let the viewer focus on the foreground and to improve the depth of field.
At the very end of the process I usually touch up the values of the artwork one last time with some final curves and color balance adjustment layers. Again, I find that moving the highlights and shadows colors towards opposite sides of the color wheel creates a particularly nice look.
The Tilt shift blur included in the PS CC filter gallery is a fantastic tool to quickly create a beautiful depth of field.
I believe two aspects are very important for delivering great matte paintings: patience (to see the painful process of detailing through), and being self-critical about your art (the willingness to constantly improve your skills). Patience is often a luxury in the professional industry which is one reason I prefer personal art so much over commissioned work.
If you have the opportunity for it, I encourage you to constantly reflect on the quality of your artwork. Don’t accept it as finished too quickly. Get as much critique from other people as you can and try to have another fresh look at your scene a few days later. It will help you spot mistakes that you overlooked before. These are the strategies I use myself to take my art to the next level. Perhaps they can help other artists as well.
Thanks a bunch to the Mattepaint team for the opportunity to present myself and my work in this article! Thumbs up and keep doing doing what you do! :-)
Thanks! Erik Shoemaker
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