Digital matte painting is one of the fastest growing and most difficult styles of digital art created today. Often used for cinematic and videogame scenes, these artworks are also capable of standing on their own as inspirational and breathtaking works of art.

Because matte painting combines several techniques including 3D, photomanipulation, painting as well as retouching techniques, it requires a solid workflow and background in other techniques in order to achieve a quality result. In this tutorial, you’ll be walked through the workflow, and learn some techniques, while learning how to make your own matte paintings.

Let’s start.

Welcome to this tutorial on the basic work?ow for a general matte painting, hope you like it and learn something from it. This is not an extremely advanced tutorial yet I assume you have knowledge of Photoshop masks, adjustment
layers and custom brush creation, if not there are several tutorials online that cover all these techniques. Well ?rst of all lets talk a bit about matte painting; this name used to be accurate when the term was ?rst used to describe what was done at Hollywood to create background scenery for a movie. A glass was placed in front of the camera containing a painting over it with the scene and the actors performed in a predetermined open section of the painting where the actual ?lming took place. Anyway, cutting the history lesson short, nowadays matte painting does not involve any glass painting, and the digital painting involved is certainly not a large percentage of the whole.

Currently matte painting is done with a mix of several techniques, photo manipulation, digital painting, 3d modeling and rendering, etc. Photoshop has become the basic tool to create all these magical scenes; like this one called Circi, and many scenes in most movies. Matte painting is used from sketch to mock up, little crops in a scene, to majestic breath taking landscapes.

From Sketch to Mock-Up

So well, here we go. The ?rst thing you need to start a matte is plan out the image you are going to make, I usually do a sketch on pencil and then scan it so I can use it as a guide, but lately I am much more comfortable sketching directly to PS on the Wacom tablet. But the main purpose of this sketch is the overall planing and look of the scene and where/how the main elements will be distributed, plus the overall composition. Now, as you can see in the image the sketch is simple and holds the vision that will be transformed into a photorealistic scene.

In a movie studio environment, these could change and many variables that are used here are also possibly different. For example, the studio would likely provide the “base plate” for the image, and will provide high resolution photos by the production team to build up the look required by the director, plus all the resources that movie studios have available. Here, we are working on our own and its always a great idea to have a personal stock photo library or do a shoot for this purpose; however that is usually out of our hands and we have to rely on the internet to get the images needed for a scene, this I what I call stock hunting, and believe me it is worth the effort to get the best possible images for you project, it can be time consuming, and you might spend a couple of days until you are satis?ed with your project library.

For this project I spent 4 days collecting images that ?t my sketch and vision, always looking and keeping in mind perspective, depth, illumination and quality of course. No matter how well you plan, you will most likely end up searching for a couple of more images to ?x or add something to the scene. Now, after we have all our images ready, we can start trying them out and building up what I call a dirty mock up on top of our sketch, setting up the pieces where we need them and making sure we have a good perspective and a good overall look that ?ts closely to our draft sketch; but more than likely the sketch and ?nal piece will be different but the idea will remain the same. To explain a bit what I mean about “dirty mock up”, it is placing the images where we will need them quickly masking out the unneeded sections so we can get a feel if the image will work or not, doing these masks in a quick way allows us to build up the composition without spending hours detailing the borders of trees, rocks, bushes or buildings, and then we can come back and detail down to a 1px brush every corner of our mask and make every part look blended 110%.

We will be using masks to blend and cut our stock, plus also to apply selective effects, color corrections and almost all adjustment layers.

Building Up The Scene – Painting masks

So here is the process I follow for each separate stock for the scene, of course every element its placed onto a separate layer and then a mask is painted to eliminate what we don’t need for the image.

I started here by placing and selecting the parts for the waterfall following our sketch in a transparent layer on top, the waterfall is built up from 4 separate stock images and carefully erased with the mask.


Next up, I start working with the left and right forward elements of these rocky hills.

Again with layer masks we start blending each element so we can reasonably and quickly see how everything its working together, and again, no detailing yet.

The most important objective here is to get all the elements working together and in place, we will worry about detailing later.

We can start to get a feel of how it is working in both composition and perspective. Take your time to look at the image try to ?nd problem areas or incorrect position, scale or depth problems, at this stage its easy to adjust and make changes, right now we don’t need to worry about detail in any way.

Building Up The Scene – Composition, changes and perspective

We keep adding new layers with new element mask them quickly and identifying problem areas or things we would like to improve.

In this case I decided the background mountains were too far and uninteresting; happily I already had another option from the extensive stock hunt so I quickly placed and masked the new mountains that provided the look I was after plus much more drama and opportunity to play with light.

We start to make everything ready for 3d elements by finishing up our composition and placement with detailed masks and improved blending.

This new element its a 3d render done in Cinema 4d, very easily done modeling a small section and the making an array of it to form our Coliseum, but well we cant cover 3d modeling in this tutorial, so that will be some other time; although as you can see on the image below, there was a mistake in the light position in the ?rst render so I did this new one (above), correcting the main source of light just a bit that work so much better with the overall light distribution.

Finishing Up – Detailing masks, shadow and light painting

To make our newly introduced building ?t onto our scene, several adjustment layers are used, plus we apply the missing texture and detail to the walls in another layer. All of these layers are clipped to our building and then we introduce the background buildings from another stock and use the same technique, which includes a hue saturation layer, a levels layer for highlights and a levels layer for shadows selectively painted where we need them.

After detailing all or masks and adjustment layers for all the scene we can start painting in the last details starting up with some mist coming from the waterfall, shadows from our elements; ?ags for the top of the arena, ?res on the street and some illuminated windows.

The last steps are the most fun but certainly very important, applying the light effects and atmosphere requires several layers of light adjustments, plus painted streaks that will give our scene that dreamy cinematic feel and tie everything together.


Finally I decided to add some birds and water effects both with custom brushes and also decided to ?ip the canvas which is always an option that I study several times during the creation process. Thanks for reading and I hope it helps you to
create splendid scenes.