Depending on your prior experience, starting a new skill can be daunting and often demoralizing. Matte painting as an art form is particularly difficult in this sense because there is no middle ground like there is with, say, Concept Art. A matte painting will generally either look photo-real or it won't.
Somewhat ironically, beginners to matte painting are often quick to choose overly difficult theme's for their work. Post apocalyptic environments, for example, are incredibly popular. But, while I can understand the allure (I fell into the trap myself), it's an overly unproductive choice because these types of artworks have too many elements which require integration.
You wouldn't start to learn juggling by trying to juggle 7 knives. That's where beginners often make a mistake in learning matte painting.
A related extension to this mistake which I see all the time is that beginner artists use too many images in their work. For a professional matte painter, it's actually quite rare to use a lot of images to create a shot. In fact, we'll often even spend a full day or more searching for a single key image that can form the base of the artwork before we commit to build something from scratch from several different images.
So, if you're sitting there wondering how you can avoid these mistakes, you've come to the right place! Below are a few steps you can follow to start to understand the basics of matte painting but, ultimately, the basics of matte painting come down to just a few fundamental steps:
- Perspective matching so that all vanishing points align.
- Grading - ensuring all the images colours, saturation and brightness match.
- Integrating - blending the images so that content looks seamless and realistic.
- Atmosphere - adding haze and fog to add depth to the scene where needed.
- Post Processing - final touches and post processing
Let's take a look at these steps and see how they look in practice. I have deliberately kept the artwork in this article simple, to demonstrate the kind of thing I recommend beginners start with. The image only took me an hour, but if you choose to recreate it, I would expect you to take much longer integrating these images.
If you are interested in recreating this piece, the 3 photographs are provided for free at the end of this article.
1. Choose a Photo for the base environment
The first thing I want you to do is forget creating your artwork from several photo's. This process is needlessly complex. Instead, find an image which will serve as the base of your work.
The image we choose will become the base we use to integrate and match everything else to. This means it needs to cover most of the frame and have the general lighting and atmosphere you're looking for.
There's no point using a photo from midday if you're creating a sunset piece.
At this point, we don't want to overthink what we're going to add or change in the image, we just want to find a photograph which inspires and excited us visually.
Before we move forward from here, play around with the colour grade of this base image, make it more or less contrasted, saturated or bright. Just find a visual look that you like before adding anything else. This will mean later on, we are matching other photo's to something which looks close to the final look we want.
If you want to get a bit more advanced, have a look at replacing the sky. Just be mindful to keep the lighting qualities the same when you do this.
2. Adding extra elements
With a photo selected for our base, we can now start looking for extra elements which will fit into our base photo. The trick here is to understand that you can't modify an image as much as you might think, so look for photo reference which matches the lighting and the viewing angle (i.e. perspective).
The image I've selected above, we're standing on the ground looking slightly up at the castle, this means it will fit nicely on the hill of our lake base photo because it's from the same angle.
While positioning the elements, don’t be concerned with colour values, brightness, Saturation, etc. We are just looking for areas of our background where the images will fit nicely. During this process, it can be useful to turn your image into black and white to remove the distraction of colour. Take a look at the perceived difference between colour and grey scale below.
In the images above, notice how much easier it is to focus on the position and alignment when we remove colour from the image.
3. Grade layers to match
Once all our extra layers are in place, it's time to work on grading everything to match. At this point, we want to roughly figure out the area that we want to blend the images before we continue with grading.
Remove any of the details you don't want and then start on the grading work. This will take some time and is a skill that you will learn and get better at as you gain experience, just do your best!
I know professionals harp on about it, but I really is incredibly helpful to look at reference photo's!
Ask yourself: why does the photo look that way?
4. Integration and Atmosphere
In this particular example, there wasn't much I had to do to blend the elements together after finishing the grading. Generally however, we leave the integration steps to the end because it's common to discover an image won't work in your composition. If this happens, don't resist it, just go back a step and find a different photo to use.
Once you get to this point, you should be 100% confident that the image works and it's worth continuing to the end.
At this stage, if you want to add more depth to your image through adding atmosphere like dust, haze or fog, you can add this now. Adding atmosphere helps to sell the scale of the scene.
Often beginner artists and junior matte painters will use atmospheric layers to hide imperfections, so we leave this step until the later stages. You should be aiming to get this far and still have a photo-real looking image. If you can achieve this, adding atmosphere could now make the image really stunning!
Personally, in my example work, I didn't add any atmosphere or haze as I liked the clean, fresh feeling of the image and so I opted for a clear sunset. You will see in the final image below, that I added some window lights in the castle, this was to bring a big more interest to the building and to indicate a bit more live in the image.
5. Post Processing / Final Touches
Everyone hast their post-processing favourites, you'll learn what you like to do over time. But, much like adding atmosphere, these final touches should be used sparingly and only once all of you're happy with all the other work.
Before we start this process, you'll want to create a flattened layer of your final image. (ctrl+alt+shift+e)
First, open the layer in the Photoshop lens filter. By adding a little distortion and chromatic aberration (remember, only a little!), we can bring in a few elements of photographic imperfection.
Remember, these effects shouldn't be distinctly noticeable. As a general rule, try increasing the effect until you can clearly see its effect, and then use half that amount.
After this, open up the layer in Camera Raw (under Filters) in Photoshop. I typically do a bit of sharpening, add a bit of noise and then play around with the colour temperature, saturation, and tonal values. Just see what you personally like and go with that!
And that's it! Once you get the hang of this, it doesn't take long to repeat the process for other art pieces. One hidden benefit of keeping your work simple like this is that when you ask for feedback, there will be only a few areas for others to comment on. This then helps you keep focused by not overwhelming you with feedback to address.
This is obviously just the start of understanding all the intricacies of matte painting, but it covers the fundamental steps you need to know. If you want to try recreate this image for yourself, the files are available below!
Download the Assets used in this Article!
If you're interested in more in-depth courses about matte painting or you're an aspiring matte painter, consider a look at the MattePaint Academy. There is also a private Academy section on our Discord and you can book 30 min 1-on-1 mentoring sessions directly with Me!
Until next time,