Create a Desert Oasis in Photoshop
If you want to learn how to composite photos together to produce a realistic scene in Photoshop, matte paintings are a great place to start. Matte paintings often involve the combination of several photos to produce an environment that could not or does not exist in real life. This means that in order to produce a photo realistic scene, you’ll need to know how to cleanly extract specific pieces of photography and how to place those elements to produce the exact look you are going for. In this tutorial, we will show you how to combine photo manipulation and digital painting techniques to create a desert oasis in Photoshop. Let’s get started!
Speed Art Video
See how this artwork was created from beginning to end in this amazing speed art video.
The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial. Please download them before you begin.
Editor's Note: the Cloud and Tree brushes used in this tutorial are no longer available. You will need to find alternatives.
- Palm Tree 1
- Palm Tree 2
- Palm Tree 3
- Palm Tree 4
- Palm Tree 5
- Palm Tree 6
- Palm Tree 7
- Cloud Brush
- Tree Brush
1. Laying the Grass
First thing we need to do is open the 'MP_sketch.psd' file that came with the tutorial assets. We will be using this as a start point for our matte painting. Once open, it should look like the image below.
One thing to note real quick before we start. You will see in the screenshots in this tutorial that the canvas will switch from one angle to another. You do not have to switch this if you do not feel like it, but if you want to you can do it easily by going to Image > Image Rotation > Flip Canvas Horizontal. Some of these images have also been taken from the final version of the matte painting, so when you see this, do not be confused by any of the other elements in the image. I only wish to provide examples of what we will be working on at that time, please ignore anything from the images.
We need to put the grass texture into the scene, so open the grass photo that you received from the tutorial assets (LandscapeVarious0025_3_L.jpg) and using the Magic Wand tool (W) with a Tolerance of about 44 (Which will allow us to make large selections easily. You can change the Tolerance in the Tools Options bar located near to the top of Photoshop), create a selection around the sky until you have something like what is shown below. Hold down Shift to enable Add to Selection so every time you click you will create a larger selection instead of an entire new one.
Inverse that selection by hitting Command/Ctrl + Shift + I, copy it (Command/Ctrl + C) and then close out of the window without saving any changes. Now let’s go back into the sketch PSD and hit Command/Ctrl + V to paste the texture into the scene, which will automatically create a new layer for it. Be sure it is where it needs to be in your layer order or else we won’t be able to edit it correctly (see the below image and text for this).
To clip it to the "grass" layer (The grass layer will become its parent layer and the texture will only show up where the grass layer is), place it above it as shown the image below and then holding Alt, hover your mouse directly between the two layers until the mouse icon changes and then click the Left Mouse Button.
Once clipped, change the blending mode to Hard Light and name it "tex".
Placing the texture the way you want it may require some tweaking with the Transformation tools (Command/Ctrl + T) (such as warp, scale and perspective), but you will always need to mess around with it until it looks correct. Remember that you can undo your last action or use the transformation tools to edit it further at any time. Feel free to position the texture however you want, just make sure it covers the area as shown below.
I decided the texture was a little too bright for the scene, so I adjusted it using Curves (Command/Ctrl + M) to darken it. Unfortunately, this part of the process was not recorded, so I do not have the specific setting I used, but try to match the image below as best as possible.
We now need to remove some of the excess parts of the texture we don't want showing. Using the Lasso tool (L), create a selection around the parts of interest and since we no longer need it, erase what is in the selection by hitting Delete. Often times, I will use a layer mask to do this if I’m not sure if I really want it to be permanently removed or not. But in this case, I knew it wouldn't need it anymore.
To remove any other unwanted excess texture left behind as well as the hard edges of the texture image, use the Eraser tool (E) to clean this up. Use a tree brush. You should be able to find a tree brush online.
For non-destructive editing, use layer masks (to place a layer mask onto a layer, go to the Layer window and at the bottom click on the button that is directly to the right of Layer Styles, which will be shown as an italic ‘fx’) and paint directly on them using black and white, which will either hide or show parts of the layer you want. My results are shown below, but feel free to make any other edits you feel necessary.
To achieve this for the other parts of the grass, duplicate the "tex" layer (Command/Ctrl + J) and position it over the areas of interest. Repeat any of the above steps if necessary.
Now that we have our textures in place, we need to light it. Use a tree brush again at anywhere between 5-20px to paint the lighting, but feel free to use any brush of your choosing.
The color listed below is what was used for the highlights and a deep blue was used for the shadows. Be sure not to go too heavy on the saturation or it will break the realism of the matte painting. Since the sun is setting, it will be hitting the top part of the grass the most, so that will be our primary concern when lighting. Another concern is dealing with cast shadows. Just because there are shadows, doesn’t mean that light doesn’t reach them.
To begin lighting, create a new layer and clip it to the "grass" layer (as shown below) and name it "key light".
Start from the top of the dune and work your way down. Pay close attention to how you’re lighting the grass and where the sun is positioned in the scene.
Below is my example of how I lit the grass.
To create a cast shadow, I duplicated the "grass" layer, made it a dark blue (without it being too saturated), and shifted it over to match the correct lighting. I then added a layer mask so I could hide parts of the cast shadow that did not need to be seen, such as the grass in the background and some near the bottom of the sand dune.
Feel free to add or remove parts of grass you do not want in your version. As you can see in the above images, I painted/erased some parts on the grass.
After the lighting was painted onto the grass, I felt that the grass in the background had a little too much contrast. So to counter that, I added a Curves adjustment layer, clipped it to the grass layer and adjusted it to the following settings.
Now that we are done with the grass, go ahead and select the "grass" layer and everything clipped to it and press Command/Ctrl + G to put them into a new folder. Name this folder "grass".
2. Rendering the Pyramids
Since the texture for the pyramids is already in place, we will be skipping over importing it into the scene. But, for those who are left wondering, it was the same procedure that we did for the grass in the last section. Feel free to examine the PSD file if you have any more questions about how that was done.
We will need to add some darker detail to the pyramids to achieve the layered look and to give some variation to the texture overall.
To start, open the following folders: BG > pyramids > 2nd large and unclip the "tex" layer from the "base" layer (same procedure that we did to clip a layer onto another). This will cause the other layers above it to unclip as well, which we can simply hide for now.
With the "tex" layer selected, go ahead and change the blending mode to Normal and its opacity to 50%. We will need to change these settings in order for the following steps to work correctly.
Next, hold down Command/Ctrl and click on the layer’s thumbnail. This will create a selection around the texture image that will allow us to further edit it only.
While the selection is still active, go to the Select menu and choose Color Range. Once open, go to the Select dropdown menu, choose Shadows and click OK. This will create a selection around the darkest areas of the image only.
Now that we have the selection, we can go ahead and re-clip the layers back onto the "base" layer and set the blending mode for the "tex" layer back to Darken and the opacity to 50%.
Create a new layer above the "tex" layer and with a dark grey color, fill the selection by hitting Alt + Delete (for foreground color) or Command/Ctrl + Delete (for background color). Go ahead and rename the layer “shadows” and change the blending mode to Overlay and its opacity to 30%.
As a final adjustment, copy the layer mask that is currently set to the "tex" layer over to the shadows layer by holding Alt and click dragging it over to the layer (not the whole layer, just the layer mask).
Create a new layer, name it "highlight" (or HL) and set the blending mode to Overlay and opacity to between 90-100%. Using the color and images shown below as reference, paint a highlight onto the front side of the pyramid with the Brush tool (B). I used a Soft Round Brush at 8px with an opacity of 78% and flow of 100%, but use whatever settings you feel most comfortable with.
The final thing that needs to be done to the pyramid is to paint jagged edges on the front side and erase from the "base" layer for the other sides. This will create a great sense of realism since most things in life don’t have perfectly crisp edges, especially those of a really old pyramid. See the example below of what we are about to do.
We will start with painting in the front edge first and then work our way to the back. To start, create new layer, name it "edge" and place it in between under your "highlight" and "shadows" layers. We will be using the Brush tool (B) with a Hard Round Brush and the color shown below (you can also color pick from the pyramid itself as well).
Before starting, my advice is to turn off the "highlight" and "cshadow" layers, as they might get in the way some and cause trouble with your colors. After we are done you can turn them back on.
With the "edge" layer selected and using the images shown below as reference, paint along the front edge as random as possible to create the jagged feel.
Now that we have painted the front edge, we can now move onto the other edges. This part will be a little easier than the last since we won’t need to paint anything, rather we will be erasing from the “base” layer, which is the parent layer for this entire pyramid. When you add to or remove from the parent layer, all others that are clipped to it will adhere to these changes as well.
To begin, select the “base” layer and using the Eraser tool (E) and the images below as reference, erase into the outer parts of the pyramid.
To do this for the other pyramids, repeat the steps above for each one.
But before doing so, hide or remove the "pyramid 5 [far side]" folder since we will not be using it anymore. If you want to have it stay, feel free to keep it but also keep in mind that all future steps were created without this in the matte painting.
Once all pyramids have been completed, turn the "color grade" folder on and you will notice some errors coming from the layer masks. This is because we erased into the pyramids and removed one, which caused some of the background parts that were hidden earlier to now show up. We will be fixing this in the next section of the tutorial, so pay no attention to that for now.
3. Placing the Trees
Now that we have the pyramids in place (we'll be doing more work on them later on), we need to tackle the trees. I'm not going to lie, this will a bit of a challenge for those not used to using Curves or this method. So pay close attention to the instructions given and we'll be fine.
Open up '3149823021_f2946036ba_o.jpg' from your assets pack and duplicate the Background layer. Go into the Channels menu palette (you can open this by going to Window > Channels if it is not already on your user interface) and select the Blue channel.
With the Blue channel selected, press Command/Ctrl + M to bring up the Curves and position the points to how I have them below.
The goal here is to create as much contrast between the tree and the sky while getting as much of the tree to turn black as possible. Our other concern is not getting a lot of the sky in our selection (the edges and inside of the tree) when we take it back over to the matte painting. So in order to ensure that we achieve both is to fine tune it by sliding each point back and forth until you get something you're satisfied with.
Command/Ctrl + Click on the thumbnail image for the Blue channel and go back to the Layers menu palette and either hide and remove the duplicated layer. Select the Background layer (making it the active layer, not creating a new selection) and inverse your active selection by hitting Command/Ctrl + Shift + I.
We have a pretty good selection here, but some parts we don't want are in there as well. So our job now is to use the Lasso tool to deselect these parts to create a cleaner selection around the tree.
Get your Lasso tool (L) and use the images below to see what parts of the selection you need to remove. Be sure to press and hold Alt as you create your selections to remove them.
Once you have your final selection ready, copy it (Command/Ctrl + C) and close out of the window without saving. Go back to the matte painting scene file and paste the tree into the scene (Command/Ctrl + V).
Next move it into place like I have below.
We need to have it organized properly within the Layer menu palette. So open up the "FG" folder and create a new subfolder called "palm trees" and place the newly pasted tree in there.
Go ahead and delete the "palm trees" layer that is in the "FG" folder since we don't need it anymore.
Go to Layer > Matting > Defringe. Set it to 2px and click OK.
Next go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves and tick on the 'Use Layer to Create Clipping Mask' option. If you don't want to create new adjustment layer you can also just hit Command/Ctrl + M to bring up the Curves. But know that with this method, you cannot go back and reconfigure your edits and once they are made they are final. Creating a new layer adjustment allows for non-destructive editing.
With the Curves window open, change it to look like how I have it below, but a little higher (don't go so heavy on the bend downward). I darkened my tree a little too much and had to go back later to fix it. Try to avoid that.
Lighting is key with everything in the scene, but especially important for the trees as they will be one of the most looked at elements of our matte painting. As I explain the lighting process for the trees, you will be seeing some images from the completed version of the matte painting. I will be using these since they are finished and can help clearly explain what I need to.
Create a new layer called "highlights" and clip it to the tree layer above the Curves layer adjustment (if you have one) and change its blending mode to Overlay.
Select the Brush tool and a Soft Round Brush at around 10-25px. Using the color shown below for the highlight color, main along the front side of the palm tree as I have it here below.
As you could probably notice before, we have some issues regarding our tree and some areas being cut out completely. What we need to do it patch these up with the Brush tool.
If the "color grade" folder is turned on for you, go ahead and turn it off. Create a new layer under the palm tree's layer and name it "tree patch". Now select the Brush tool and change its Hardness to 100% (right-click on the canvas to bring this option up). While holding down Alt, color pick from the tree a bright tone that we can use to patch it up with.
Once you have your color, work your way from the top to the bottom painting in between these areas until the tree looks whole again.
At this point feel free to create more highlight layer(s) if you feel some parts needs to have more light hitting them. If not, then we are now done with this tree.
Now, use the methods and techniques I have shown you with this tree to cleanly extract the other trees from their photo's and put into the matte painting.
This will require time and patience, so try not to rush and remember that learning through trial and error is often times the best way to learn. Once you make a mistake you know not to do it again, unless you're a hard learner like me, then you just do it over and over again.
Use the images below (from the completed version of the matte painting) as your reference for tree placement, scale, lighting and color adjustments.
Now that the main trees are taken care of, we need to paint the rest of the smaller ones over the dunes. Open '3149813445_56c982572f_o.jpg' from your assets pack and duplicate the Background layer.
Open up the Channels menu palette and select the Blue layer. Just a quick heads up, I know I keep saying to select the Blue channel when we are extracting photo for our scene, however it will not always be the Blue channel. We are just looking for the channel that offered the most contrast between what we want from it and what is behind it. It'll take some trial and error, but with most things, once you get used to how it works, you get better at it.
Open up the Curves adjustment by hitting Command/Ctrl + M and set yours to how I have mine below.
Select the thumbnail for the Blue channel and inverse the selection by hitting Command/Ctrl + Shift + I. We need to clean out selection up a little bit now.
Grab the Lasso tool (L) and while holding Alt, make the following selection to remove it from ours.
Now go back to the Layers menu palette and hide or remove the duplicate layer we made earlier. Using the Lasso tool and holding down Alt, make the following selection.
Copy that selection (Command/Ctrl + C), go back to the matte painting scene file and past it into it (Command/Ctrl + V). Make sure the layer is in the following folders: MG > palm valley.
We need to now perform some transformations on it, so press Command/Ctrl + T to bring up these options and shape the layer to look like I have it below. You will first need to move it into place like shown in the first image below. Then right-click on the transform box to bring up the popup menu and select Warp. This will allow you to shift different parts of the layer to form into complex shapes. Use the second image below for reference to how I did this part.
Once finished with your transformations, go to Layer > Matting > Defringe, set it to 2px and confirm it.
As you can see we still have some fringe-action going on because we caught some of the sky in our selection from when we were extracting it from the photograph. So, in order to clean this up we'll need to paint over it a little. But before we do that we still have some clean-up work we have to do with the photo itself in preparation for this.
Get your Eraser out and select a Soft Round Brush at about 50-70px. Now erase the bottom of the layer like I have below. After this is done go ahead and hide the "palm valley" layer.
We need to do a little more erasing in that area before we can move on, so get out the tree brush (around 5-10px) and erase into the bottom and sides until it looks like my example below.
The trees are looking a little dark for that area, so we have to lighten them up. Press Command/Ctrl + M to activate Curves and select the bottom point. Set the Output for this point anywhere between 18-22.
Now to fix the color, go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Selective Color and clip it to the palm trees layer. Use the images below to see what needs to be changed.
Open the Layer menu palette and go to the Layer Styles and select Inner Shadow. Leave the color black and change your settings to reflect mine.
Enable Lock Transparency for the layer. When you paint with this on, what you paint on the layer will only show up where that layer has already been painted and with however much transparency it has. The best bet, as with everything, is to try it out and see what happens.
Now, get your Brush tool out and hold Alt to color pick from the grass. If you have the "color grade" folder on, now is the time to hide it. Go ahead and pick a nice green color from the grass that we can use. We will be using this color to paint over the white edges left over from the original photo.
Choose the tree brush or something equal and paint along the edges of the layer. Don't be afraid to go outside of the edges as it will only paint where the layer is since we enabled Lock Transparency. Paint it until you end up with something like what I have below.
As you can see by my example, I have already begun painting in some highlights for the trees. Change your color to what I have below and let's begin painting in some lighting. Use the same brush and settings as before and paint the highlights close to what I have below. Feel free to paint them different if you wish.
That's looking pretty decent for what we need. Remember, we don't need to render everything in perfect detail if we don't need to, especially depending on how far away from the camera/viewer it is.
Now, if yours ended up like mine, the colors looked off. So before we continue, go ahead and fix this, since yours will be different from mine there isn't a tried and true method that can work for both of us and end up with the same results. Instead, use what knowledge you have already gained from this tutorial and alter the colors the best you can. Remember what it at your disposal: Curves, Color Balance, Hue and Saturation, Selective Colors, and possibly more.
Now that we are finished with those trees, we can move on to something simpler and paint the other remaining trees. Don't worry though, they will not require as much time as you think. Lighting them will be very simple since they will not command as much attention in the scene as everything else. The grass will be looked at more than these.
So, with that being said, let's get started. First, we need to shift the base color around to match what we already have in our other trees. Right now I assume it's looking a little on the blue side, and we need it to be more green. So select the "palm valley" layer and open up the Hue and Saturation controls by hitting Command/Ctrl + U.
With it open, shift the Hue slider either way until the trees become more green. Be sure not to overdo this and make them too green or a completely different color. We are still on Earth I think, after all.
We have one more step before we can start painting. We need to remove some of the existing trees on this layer since we don't want them anymore. Using the images as your reference for which to remove, use the Marquee tool, Lasso or the Eraser to remove them.
Once the parts have been erased, we can go ahead and get our Brush tool and start painting in our highlights. Select a light dull yellow color and the tree brush and start painting as you see them below. Before you paint, make sure the Lock Transparency mode is on. Use the following images as a reference to how you can paint the highlights for the remaining trees.
One last thing before we move on is to fix our color grade and to create new layer mask for the "Curves 4" adjustment layer. First thing we need to do is to delete our current "color grade" folder. No, really, delete it.
Now open up 'MP_final.psd'. This will be the same resolution of the 'MP_sketch.psd' file you're currently working in. So we can duplicate the "color grade" folder that's in the final PSD to the sketch PSD.
Rick-click on the "color grade" folder from 'MP_final.psd' and select Duplicate Group, this will open up a dialog box. Leave the name the same and change the Document to 'MP_sketch.psd' and hit OK.
Close out of 'MP_final.psd' and go back to the sketch file. Make sure the new "color grade" folder in at the top of the Layer order. Open it up, right-click on the layer mask for "Curves 4" and delete it, we'll be making a new one for it.
What we need to do now and create the selection that we will use as our mask. Open up the "BG" folder and Command/Ctrl + click on the layer mask for "Layer 22". The images you see below will be from the completed matte painting, don't pay attention to the extra elements, but just to the active selection.
Next open up each of the pyramid folders one by one and select each of the "base" layers (hold Command/Ctrl + Shift while clicking to add to your current selection) for them until you have a selection like below.
Now we need to select the palm trees that are overlapping into the sky. This means each of the foreground trees as well as any others. Select them until you have something like below.
Inverse that selection by hitting Command/Ctrl + Shift + I. Open up the "color grade" folder and click on "Curves 4" to make it the active layer. Go down to the bottom of the Layer menu palette and there will be some buttons. Click the one that looks like it's missing a hole from the center, it will be to the right of Layer Styles (an italic fx).
This will create a layer mask for "Curves 4" that will only allow it to affect the layers below it where it is painted white in the mask. Turn the layer on and off and you will see.
Once you are finished with that, we will be done with this section.
4. Sky and Clouds
As we get started with this section of the tutorial, you will see that it is not the same sky that I had put in while recording the video. I received some great comments from a friend of mine after I made the original matte painting for this tutorial and some of the advice he gave me was about the sky and clouds. So, with that being said, it shouldn't change what we need to do. But wanted to keep us on the same page and not to confuse you with what is on the video and what you see here.
When choosing a photo to use as your sky plate/base, you need to always keep the overall lighting of your scene in mind. You are, of course, able to paint over anything in Photoshop (or paint your own sky/clouds if you want), but it's best to keep what references you end up choosing in the same field that your scene needs. In this matte painting, I got pretty lucky and the photo I chose to use fit the scene pretty well. But that's hardly, if ever the case.
To start, let's go ahead and turn off the following folders: color grade, FG, and go into MG and turn off the "palm valley" layer. This will let us see what we are doing a little more clearly. Now open up '8611654822_bf148850b1_o.jpg' from your assets pack; we will be using this as our sky base to work off of.
Once open, hit Command/Ctrl + A to select the entire canvas, copy it (Command/Ctrl + C) and close out of the window by hitting Command/Ctrl + W (without saving). Just as a note, it's usually good to not ever save over a reference photo since you will be most likely using it more than once. If you do feel the need to save another version, save it as a copy instead.
Now let's go back to the matte painting PSD and paste it into the scene (Command/Ctrl + V). Make sure the layer is in the "sky" folder (BG > sky) or else it won't show up properly in the scene. Go ahead and delete the other layers that are in there since we won't be using them.
Position the image as I have it below. You most likely will need to scale it down in order for it to fit. To do this, use the Transformation tools (Command/Ctrl + T). To scale up or down in uniform, hold Shift while dragging a corner in or out. You are able to press Command/Ctrl + Z to Undo your previous action in this state as well, but only for the latest action.
We need to now add some adjustment layers to the sky so it can match our scene. With the sky photo layer selected, go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer and from there choose Curves, Selective Color and Color Balance. Each time you select these adjustment layers, make sure you tick "Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask" on or else the adjustments will affect any layers beneath it.
Make sure the layers are ordered as shown below or they will affect each other in different ways. After this, use the other images shown here to adjust each layer to how it is set below. The last image shows how it should look when completed.
Now we need to paint in some clouds, but not to worry, it's not a lot. We'll be using a cloud brush for this part. So, first create a new layer on top of the adjustment layers (but not clipped) and name it "painted clouds" or something equivalent. Using the Brush tool (B), the cloud brush (between 25-100px) and the colors shown below (you can also color pick from the sky photo itself), paint a cloud formation as closely as possible like I have below. Feel free to paint it differently if you want.
Be sure to keep in mind how the lighting is on the clouds in the photo. We want to replicate that as much as possible. Pay close attention to how the light from the sun is hitting the front side of the clouds and where the shadows start and stop. And remember: clouds are fluffy, make them look like soft pillows... or delicious marshmallows.
Once painted, go ahead and reposition it if you feel it is out of place using the Move tool (V) or Transformation tools (Command/Ctrl + T).
Believe it or not, the difficult parts are now over with. All that is left is to paint in some gradations for the horizon. Create a new layer above "painted clouds" and choose a Soft Round Brush at about 1000-1500px and change your color to #bcc3cb. Now, start from either side and holding down Shift, paint along the bottom of the sky (where it meets the horizon) until you reach the other side. Once done, change the opacity for this layer to 40%.
Duplicate that layer and make sure it is directly above the last layer we created from the previous step. Open the Layer menu palette, go down to the bottom and click on the Layer Style button (it's marked with an italic fx) and select Color Overlay. A window will open for you to choose a new color it its place. Go ahead and change this to #6e7378 and hit OK to save the color change and then hit OK on the Layer Styles window to close out of it and save those changes.
Now that the color as been changed, all that remains is to use the Move tool (V) and move the layer down just a little so it's closer to the horizon line than the other layer from the last step. Use the image below as reference for this.
5. Water and FG Bushes
Alright, we're doing great. Everything is almost in place, but still just a few more things left to do. We now have to refine the water and put the foreground bushes into the scene.
Just a quick heads up before we begin. I used the tutorial video to take screenshots for this section, so you may see the old sky in some of them. But, don't worry about it since we went ahead and replaced it with our newer version.
The first thing we will do is refine the areas with water. We need to give some variance to their texture (or lack thereof) and color, and also give them some highlights.
To start, let's turn off the following folders: color grade, FG and everything in MG except "grass" and "water". We now have a clearer view of what we want to edit.
Select the Brush tool and choose a Soft Round Brush and change its Hardness to 25-50% (right-click on the canvas to get to this option). This will be what we use to paint our refinements for the water.
Now, you can either color pick with the Eyedropper tool (I) to get roughly the same color as the current water, or you can create an all new color for yourself. Either will work, but just make sure it is a nice cool blue that isn't too saturated. The goal for this color is to remain close to what we already have. Using my water below as your reference, go ahead and paint it as closely to mine (or better) as you can.
Some tips for you before you begin. Enable the Lock Transparency option for the current working layer (river or pool). Another for you is to try and use the cloud brush to paint some water spray at the bottoms of the waterfalls. The texture on the brush has a nice variance that can simulate this. Be careful not to over do it though.
One more tip for you. When using the Brush tool, you can change its mode in the Tools Option bar at the top to whatever mode you want (e.g. Overlay, Soft Light, etc.). This will allow you to paint stronger highlights on the water (or anything else) lke I have on the river. As usual with Photoshop, there are several different ways to do one thing, so you could also use the Dodge tool (O) to achieve this as well.
With the water painted in and finished, we have one more element to bring in: the foreground bushes. Much like the palm trees from before, we need to exract the bushes from a photo using Channels and Curves.
Open '5928389614_65ce72830d_o.jpg' from the assets pack and copy the Background layer by hitting Command/Ctrl + J. Go into the Channels menu palette and select the channel (Red, Green or Blue) that has the most contrast from what we want and the background (in this case, the sky). For this photo, that is the Blue channel. Select it and open the Curves adjustment by hitting Command/Ctrl + M. Move the points to what I have below and hit OK.
As stated earlier, the goal here is to create as much contrast between the top of the tree (what we will be using as our bush) and the sky while getting as much of the tree to turn black as possible. Our other concern is not getting a lot of the sky in our selection (the edges and inside of the tree) when we take it back over to the matte painting. So in order to ensure that we achieve both is to fine tune it by sliding each point back and forth until you get something you're satisfied with. It will take time and practice to get the hang on it, but it is a very powerful tool once you do.
Command/Ctrl + Click on the thumbnail for the Blue channel, this will make a selection around the white parts of what's in the channel. Inverse that selection by hitting Command/Ctrl + Shift + I. Go back to the Layers menu palette and select the Background layer to make it the active working layer (not making a new selection). Go ahead and either hide or remove the duplicate layer, we don't need it anymore.
Select the Rectangular Marquee tool and going from top-left to bottom-middle and holding Alt, make a selection like what is shown below. Then make another selection starting from the bottom-right up to what is shown in the second image. The third image shows what we want to be left with.
Hit Command/Ctrl + C to copy what we have in the selection and close out of that window without saving. Go back into the matte painting file and hit Command/Ctrl + V to paste it into the scene. Make sure the layer is in the "FG" folder at the top.
Activate the Transforming tools by hitting Command/Ctrl + T and right-click on the active area in the canvas to bring up the popup menu. Select Flip Horizontal (if needed) and then stretch to out to the right and bottom just a little to match what I have below.
Then with the transforming tool still active, move it to the bottom-right corner to match my example in the second image below. Hit Enter to confirm the transforms.
Bring up the Curves adjustment (Command/Ctrl + M) and do the following changes as shown in the examples below.
After the adjustments are done, name the layer "tex". Then go to Layer > Matting > Defringe and change it to 2px. This will help remove any unwanted colors or extras from the edges of the layer.
As you can see we still have some of the building structure left over from the original photo, so we need to edit it out. Select the Clone tool (S) and a Soft or Hard Round Brush at about 25-40px. Now set the source that you will be cloning on the bush by holding Alt and clicking on and area of the bush. Once you have your cloning source, go ahead and paint this over the existing structure that remains on the bush photo.
You can see my result below
Now we need to light the bush. Create two new layers and clip them both to the "tex" layer. Name one "highlights" and the other "shadows", it doesn't matter which is what.
Make the "highlights" layer the current working layer and change its blending mode to Overlay. It's time to start painting in some highlights coming from the sun, so get your Brush tool (B) and the tree brush and set the brush to about 25-45px. Pick a dull light yellow color and start painting in some highlights on the bush. Use my example below as reference.
So now that we have our highlights in place, we need to get some shadows in there as well.
Using the same image below as your reference, select a dark blue color (not too saturated) and paint in the shadows as you see them below (the shaded parts of the bush). Be sure to have the overall lighting in mind when painting both the highlights and shadows in for all your elements.
Alright, one part of the foreground is done, time to work on the other. Since we already have the bush done for one side, we're going to copy it over to the other and change it a little bit using the Clone, Eraser and Brush tools. Select the "tex" layer and everything clipped to it and hit Command/Ctrl + J to duplicate it.
With it still selected, use the Move tool to move it over to the other side like I have below. Now go ahead and delete the "highlights" and "shadows" layers as we will need to make all new ones. Remove the "FG foliage" layer as well since we no longer need it.
First, we will use the Eraser to change its shape/silhouette so it appears different from the other bush.
Select the Eraser and the tree brush (or something equal) at around 15-40px and begin erasing along the edges until you have something like I do below.
This next part is completely up to you, but you can also make it look even more different by using the Clone tool to create a totally new texture. Just be careful not to make repeating patterns.
It's time to move onto lighting. Create new "highlights" and "shadows" layers and clip them to the "tex" layer.
Using the Brush tool, the tree brush, and the same colors that we used to the light the other bush, paint the highlights and shadows for this bush. Be sure to set the blending mode for "highlights" to Overlay. My results are below.
Once finished painting, we will be done with the foreground. Feel free to make any other changes you feel necessary to the bushes such as making them more bright or anything else before moving on to the final section.
6. Finishing Touches
After everything as been put into place, we now need to do a quick scan over our scene to make sure things look the best they can. In this section, we'll be going through different elements adding and possibly removing some things to get it prepared for the final matte painting.
We're going to be starting with the pyramids. We won't be doing any rough edits to the pyramids themselves, but more so just adding little details such as haze and other atmospheric elements. So let's go ahead and dive in.
First we want to open the "BG" folder and then go into the "pyramids" subfolder. Let's now open up the "pyramid 1 [main]" folder and add a layer of haze to it. Our goal here is to push this pyramid back just a bit so it reads as being a little further away from the others. It'll also make it appear larger in scale since it'll look as if it's further in the background.
Create a new layer and name it "haze". Make sure this layer is the top layer in the "pyramid 1 [main]" folder and is clipped to "base" just like the others. Now, using the Rectangular Marquee tool (M), we need to make a selection around the entire pyramid. Look at the image below as reference.
Change your foreground color (in the Tools Menu on the left side) to #a5b3a5 and fill the selection by hitting Alt + Delete. Deselect (Ctrrl + D) and change the opacity for the layer to 10%.
As you can see by my example, there is a little extra haze at the bottom of the pyramid. To create this, first make a new layer (name it haze as well and put this at the top of the layer order above the "color grade" folder, just to match my example) and use color #c0ac8e with a Soft Round Brush and varying opacity levels and mouse click in areas like you see below.
Now, move the layer to the top of the "pyramid 1 [main]" folder and clip it to the rest. Change the opacity for the layer to 70%.
Odds are that because of the haze additions, the color of the pyramid seems a little dull. To combat this, you could either increase the saturation of the "tex" layer by selecting it and hitting Command/Ctrl + U to bring up the Hue and Saturation controls. Or you can create a new Hue and Saturation layer adjustment directly below the "haze" layers and increase it there. Either way, that is totally up to you. But with those adjustments, it should now match closely to what I have below.
Another thing we must do is move (and remove) the shadows that are casting onto the pyramids themselves. Head into the "pyramid 1 [main]" folder and using the image below as your reference, remove the cast shadow that is marked as red. It should be labeled as "Layer 2 copy 6". Next use the Eraser and erase what is marked in red at the bottom of the pyramid (we no longer need this). It will be in "Layer 26". Once erased, move the layer over until it matches closely to what I have below.
Now go into the other pyramid folders and move the remaining cast shadows that are marked in blue below to match the other image.
The pyramids are now officially done. A couple more things remain though, but they are simple and quick. Create a new layer and place it in between the "BG" folder and "plate" layer. This will be the last haze we put in, only now it will be going under the pyramid layers to have the ground match them in value and color (for blending).
With the new layer selected, change your color to a light dull orange (not too saturated at all) and paint across the horizon until you have close to what is shown below. Make sure you go all the way across the canvas to the other side.
Once painted in, change the blending mode to Soft Light and the opacity to 90%.
We need to now paint in some mist clouds that are over parts of the grass and water. Open up the "MG" folder and create a new layer called "blue mist". Move the layer to be directly above the "palm valley" folder.
Now choose a nice cool blue color (as always, not too saturated) to use as our mist. Select the Brush tool and the cloud brush (at 50% opacity) and paint in some mist clouds like shown below.
We're getting to the last steps, but for right now we need to create a new layer and name it "sun HL". Place it in the "MG" folder above "blue mist" and set it to Overlay.
Select the Brush tool and get a large Soft Round Brush with a dull light orange color. Set the brush opacity to something low like 20-30%. Now, paint along the dunes in select areas when we think the lighting should be more intense. If you do not know where, use the image below to get some ideas.
Another thing we need to do is create some more depth in the background by painting in some extra dunes/mountains. Create a new layer, name it "BG mtns" and place it in the "BG" folder between "Layer 22" and the "sky" folder. Copy the layer mask from the "sky" folder over to "BG mtns".
Get your Brush tool, select a Hard Round Brush (with a Hardness of about 50-75%) and change your foreground color to #6d6f76. Now, using the image below as your reference, paint the mountains/dunes as you see below. Feel free to paint them another way if you want.
Once you are finished painting them, set the layer opacity to 70-90%.
The final step! All we have left do to now is create some more fog around the pyramids. Get your Brush tool and select a cloud brush. Color pick from the ground area around the main pyramid to get our color for the fog. Set the brush opacity to about 30-40% and start lightly brushing around the base of pyramids until you have something like what we see in the final matte painting below.
Thanks for taking the time to read this tutorial and if you follow the advice given, you will be able to pick up on some techniques suitable to create and experiment with your own matte paintings well beyond this. I hope I was able to give you some insight to not only how I personally go about making matte paintings, but some of the fundamentals that go into it as well.
My personal goal with this tutorial was to show you all some of the thinking that goes on in my head (as frightening as that sounds) while producing one of these. It would have been enough for me to give a point and click journey throughout, but I’m not a robot and that’s never been how I learned. For me, learning was an experience to go behind the art and get into the artist’s head and see what they were thinking while creating their work and why they chose do to one thing over the other. Techniques and skill can get you very far, but there is a whole other side to it that enables you to create art not just because you can, but because you have a reason to.
I hope you take this knowledge and keep expanding on it far beyond this tutorial to create your own worlds and experiences.