Matte Paintings can look incredible and as such they can be incredibly complex and intimidating for a beginner. A good matte painting will use a wide range of designing skills and every matte painter has their own style and approach. That being said, every matte painting is built on a foundation of fundamental skills and techniques that any beginner can develop.
To break matte painting down into a quick few tips is impossible but hopefully these matte painting skills will provide a good foundation.
I use photoshop but these concepts are not software specific.
Masking is probably the most important skill to practice if you want to improve your matte paintings. Masking can sometimes be a tedious time-consuming practice but it is something every matte painter must do. The more you practice masking the quicker you will get and eventually you will be confident enough that no photo intimidates you.
What is extremely important is that you mask objects non-destructively. This means your mask can be improved at any stage of the painting process. This also allows you to do a rough mask quickly and compose the scene before you commit too much time. (If you wish).
Due to the complexity of matte painting and the massive amount of variation in photographs. You will likely find that you need to learn many masking techniques, if not all of them.
Masking techniques worth learning.
- Vector masking
- Colour selection
- Lasso and Magic Wand tool
- Hand painting the mask with a brush (my favourite)
A quick masking trick I use that can help save time:
Create your own edge
When you are cutting out certain background elements you do not always need to follow the outline perfectly. For example take a mountain with a snowy summit, I do not need to follow the outline of the mountain exactly, I can decide where I want the summit to finish.
The above image may look like lazy masking however the finished edge is perfectly believable.
The same applies to something complex like a forest canopy, as long as the edges of the mask look believable it does not matter. This will depend on the photo and the composition, objects further away can be less detailed.
Another bonus of creating your own edge is that you can reduce the amount of colour that bleeds in. This is caused by the camera and it happens along the edge of two contrasting colours.
When possible I try to mask inside the object by a few pixels, this reduces the colour bleed and it also avoids the feathered pixels (anti aliasing). This often produces a cleaner and sharper edge.
Related Post: How to make a Vector Mask in Photoshop
2. Matching the Colours
The next important thing to master is matching the colours of the combined photographs and different elements. There are a few variables that determine the colours of the scene. The sky, the lighting direction, the time of day, altitude and more. If the elements don’t match the matte painting will look unnatural and the whole point of a matte painting is believability.
For example if you take a photo of a mountain from a sunny afternoon and then paste it into a matte painting at sunset the two elements will not blend at all. This is because a sunset features warm orange and red tones whereas the image taken at midday will have more of a blue tone from the atmospheric haze.
You can see this in the image above: the mountains stick out badly and do not blend at all.
How you blend the colours is entirely up to you there are several ways of doing it. One way to do this is by adding a new layer on top of the photograph and applying a clipping mask. This constrains the layer to the boundaries of the masked photograph.
You can then use this new layer to add the colour you need and select the blending style that best blends the colours.
There are many ways of doing this such as adjusting the colour balance or adding a photo filter, there is no right or wrong way – each photo will be a unique challenge.
Learning to change the subtle colours of an object is something you must do if you want to give the illusion of distance. In the real world the further away something is, the more atmospheric haze affects the colour of the object.
Therefore, if we had a mountain and wanted it to look like it was miles away we need to make it blue and hazy. If you take look at the above image. The two mountains are identical, they are both the same size the only difference is one has a blue tone applied, this gives the illusion of the mountain being much further away.
Another thing that happens to an object further away is a reduction in contrast. Generally the further away something is the duller it becomes.
The colour of the atmospheric haze is determined by the weather and the time of day. If it was sunset the colour needed to make the mountain look further away would likely be orange or red.
However you choose to blend the colours, it is important is that you do it non-destructively.
Check out this video for a demonstration of blending colours: In the video below I show 3 quick ways of adjusting the colour tones of a photograph to blend the images together.
3. Matching the Lighting
Often this can be as simple as simply flipping the image so that the direction of the shadows matches. However, sometimes you need to add highlights and shadows so that the image fits in the scene. If you paste one image from an overcast day into a scene with direct sunlight something will look off. This is because direct sunlight creates strong shadows whereas an overcast day features soft shadows with ambient light.
Images taken in overcast conditions can actually be really useful. This is because you have the option to add any lighting you want whereas with a photo taken in harsh lighting you are often stuck with the lighting of the image.
4. 3D Modelling and Rendering
3D software and matte painting go together like bread and butter. It is not necessarily an essential skill but 3d software can open up a world of possibilities for a matte painter. Depending on the software, you can create your own scenery with any lighting conditions and the only limitation is your imagination. (and your cpu)
With even the most basic 3d modelling skills you could still create basic objects and assets for matte painting. If you don’t have the time to make a model you can download pre-made models by skilled modellers. (literally anything you can think of has been made).
The downside to using photographs is the fact that the scenery is limited to what is plausible here on planet earth. With 3d, you can do almost anything.
I always recommend blender because it is extremely powerful and extremely free. However, if landscape generation is your thing then check out Vue and Terragen. These programs have been used in Hollywood films and popular games.
5. Digital Painting
Matte paintings have many applications a big one is set extension/manipulation. A matte painter might extend a city skyline by adding in a tonne of buildings or remove an iconic building from a shot. Sometimes the matte painter will need to hand paint areas and this is where digital painting skills come in handy.
In my Star Wars matte painting above I had to hand paint the snow on the speeder, the pilot and some foreground snow as I could not find suitable photos.
There are some great tools for removing elements and duplicating areas but sometimes you need to get in there and do it by hand. Digital painting gets you used to working with a graphics tablet and this will improve your masking, and your blending techniques.
You cannot rely exclusively on photographs, even with the best photographic material you will often find you cannot fill a weird space and will often have holes that cannot be filled. When this happens you need to use a few tricks such as custom brushes and hand painting to get the job done.
Hand painting a landscape gives you a more intimate knowledge of how colour/light mixes together. It also allows you to develop a skill set which ultimately allows you more creative freedom.
The more you can paint – the less dependent on photographs, you will become.
This will also increase your confidence and allow you to create bigger and more imaginative artwork in the long run.
Extra Tip: Organization of Layers
Organization, yawn. It isn’t fun but it will save you a lot of stress and save you a lot of time. It may not seem like a big deal until you open a file in the distant future and can’t find layer_57574_copy.
I have many files like this and it is a nightmare. How you group your layers is entirely up to you I personally like to group the layers based on foreground, middle ground and background etc.
As you can probably see, based on my previous colour demonstrations the number of layers can quickly add up. This is the price you pay when you want to keep your work non-destructive.
I always use groups for matte painting. Groups are great because you can easily move large sections around and hide or lock large portions of the matte painting. It is much easier to begin with an organized file rather than rename all your layers at the end.