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Use Photography to Create a Scenic Matte Painting From a Sketch in Photoshop

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In this tutorial, we are going to use Photoshop's photo manipulation tools to create a scenic matte painting that was based on a sketch. Let's get started.


Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial.


1. Setting the Bases

Step 1

Let's create a new file with following settings.

New Document

Step 2

Create the following groups. I'll refer as those during the whole tutorial.

Base Groups

Step 3

Import the ref-sketch asset and place it in the Help Group.

Ref Sketch

Step 4

With the Line Tool (U), draw some perspective lines as shown below. You can create a layer per point. Place those layers in a group called Persp, which is under the Help Group. Set that group's opacity to about 40%. We turn it on and off whenever we need to check the perspective.

Persp Lines

2. The Background (BG)

Step 1

Select roughly the background from the Ref Sketch and duplicate it (Command/Ctrl + J). Rename it to BG Ref and place it under the BG group.

BG Selection
Use the Lasso Tool (L).

Now, with the Brush Tool (B), clean the BG Ref such as it is below. Duplicate it (Command/Ctrl + J), apply a Filter > Stylize > Find Edges, and change his saturation (Command/Ctrl + U) to -100. Set his Blending mode to Multiply and call it BG Line Ref

Keep those two layers at the top of the BG group. Use them as some references when you import some photos in the canvas. The BG Line Ref in multiply mode is very useful, because you can place the photo while having some reference lines over it.

BG Ref
Cleaned BG Ref
BG Line Ref
Duplicated BG Ref, modified and renamed to BG Line Ref

Step 2

Import panorama-01. Place it as shown below, and create a Levels Adjustment layer and a Curves one, as well. Those Adjustment layers must always be in Clipping Mask.

panorama-01 placement
Adj Layer Tips
Create adjustment layers here, at the bottom of the layer window.

Set those two Adjustment Layers as below.

2.2 Adj Layer Preview

And that's how it should look.

2.2 Preview

To create a Clipping Mask, simply Alt + Left Click between two layers. The one at the top will be a Clipping Mask and will use the transparency of the one below therefore.

Clipping Mask Preview
You have to click in those areas.

Do a selection such as below to draw some distant mountains. On a new Distant mountains overlay layer, with a light desaturated blue (#a6c8d8), fill the selection (Alt + Del to fill with the foreground color).

Distant mountains Selection
Distant mountains Preview

Step 3

Import lake-01. Place it as below and create a Levels Adjustment layer and a Curves one as well, just as we did previously. Refer to the screenshots for the settings. Please remember very well this step, because this tutorial is about repeating this step until we're done. There are few other tricks and hand drawing needed, but that's for detailing and tweaking.

lake-01 placement
lake-01 at the good placement with the two Adjustment Layers being active.
lake-01 adj layers view

Now, press the Add layer mask button while having the lake-01 layer selected and fill it with black (press D to select black color, then Alt + Del to fill with the foreground color). Make sure you are selecting the layer mask.

Add layer mask button
layer mask selection view

Now we don't see anything from the lake-01 layer anymore. We have to paint some white on the layer mask in order to be able too see few part of the photo. While still having the layer mask selected, paint few stokes and try to match the picture below.

lake-01 preview

If you press Alt + Left Click on the layer mask, you'll see an overview of the layer mask. It must look like mine. Do the same command to return to the normal view.

layer mask preview
Layer mask view mode. The black is hidden part and white visible one.

Step 4

Now, pretty much everything is going to be similar to the previous step, which is, to summarize:

  • Importing a photo from the asset, placing it.
  • Adding a Level Adjustment Layer to match the values. (Set as Clipping mask)
  • Adding a Curves Adjustment Layer to match the hues. (Set as Clipping mask)
  • Adding a layer mask, filling it with black and painting some white where the photo must be visible.

From now, the tutorial is going to be faster and less precise, since it's pretty much always the same step, but with different photos and Adjustment Layer settings. We'll need sometimes few other layers, but I'll give more precise information when it happens. So, please be sure to understand very well this process.

Step 5

Import jungle-08, and repeat the Step 3 (summarized in the Step 4).

jungle-08 placement

Jungle-08 asset position, with Adjustment Layers activated.
jungle-08 adj layers
Settings for the two usual Adjustment Layers, for this asset.
jungle-08 render
Render of this step.
jungle-08 layer mask view
Preview of the layer mask of this asset.

Step 6

Repeat Step 3 with mountain-06.

mountain-06 placement
mountain-06 adj layers
mountain-06 render
mountain-06 layer mask view

Step 7

Repeat Step 3 with mountain-05. Add a Color Balance Adjustment Layer in addition to the two usual ones.

mountain-05 placement
Activate the BG Line Ref layer to see the guide line.
mountain-05 adj layers
mountain-05 color balance
I used this because the Curves Adjustment Layer wasn't enough to color correct this photo well.
mountain-05 render

The layer mask isn't black everywhere, because I did a small change in this step: I left everything visible, therefore, in white, and then I drew some black in the layer mask, to hide unwanted parts of the photo.

mountain-05 layer mask view

Step 8

Repeat Step 3 with mountain-03.

mountain-03 placement
mountain-03 adj layers
mountain-03 render
mountain-03 layer mask view

Now create a layer called Fog and with a soft low opacity brush, separate a bit better the forest from the mountain, such as below. Use the Lasso Tool (L) to erase precise shape in the fog.

mountain-03 layer mask view

This kind of fog adds lots of depth in the picture.

Step 9

Repeat Step 3 with jungle-02.

jungle-02 placement
jungle-02 adj layers
jungle-02 render
jungle-02 layer mask view

Step 10

Repeat Step 3 with mountain-02.

mountain-02 placement
mountain-02 adj layers
mountain-02 render
mountain-02 layer mask view

Step 11

Repeat Step 3 with mountain-04.

mountain-04 placement
mountain-04 adj layers
mountain-04 render
mountain-04 layer mask view

Step 12

Repeat Step 3 with cliff-02.

cliff-02 placement
cliff-02 adj layers
cliff-02 render
cliff-02 layer mask view

Step 13

Repeat Step 3 with jungle-05.

jungle-05 placement
jungle-05 adj layers
jungle-05 render
jungle-05 layer mask view
Make visible and use a grunge brush with black to hide parts to create this forest shape effect.

Now duplicate the jungle-05 layer and both Adjustment Layers, move them as below, fill the layer mask with black and paint, with a grunge brush, some tree shapes on the layer mask.

jungle-05 duplicated placement
jungle-05 duplicated render
jungle-05 duplicated layer mask view

Duplicate those three layers again, place them as below, slightly change the Level Adjustment Layer and repaint the layer mask as shown below.

jungle-05 reduplicated placement
jungle-05 reduplicated level adj layer
jungle-05 reduplicated render
jungle-05 reduplicated layer mask view

Now duplicate those three layers again and change it as below.

jungle-05 rereduplicated level adj layer
jungle-05 rereduplicated render
jungle-05 rereduplicated layer mask view

Step 14

Repeat Step 3 with water-01.

water-01 placement
water-01 adj layers
water-01 render
water-01 layer mask view

Duplicate the three layers we just created, change the position and the layer mask as shown below.

water-01 duplicate placement
water-01 duplicate render
water-01 duplicate layer mask view

Step 15

Repeat Step 3 with cliff-01.

cliff-01 placement
cliff-01 adj layers
cliff-01 render
cliff-01 layer mask view

Step 16

Repeat Step 3 with mountain-01.

mountain-01 placement
mountain-01 adj layers
mountain-01 render
mountain-01 layer mask view

Duplicate those three last layers and change the position and the layer mask, such as below.

mountain-01 duplicate placement
mountain-01 duplicate render
mountain-01 duplicate layer mask view

Step 17

Repeat Step 3 with water-02.

water-02 placement
water-02 adj layers
water-02 render
water-02 layer mask view

Step 18

Repeat Step 3 with lake-01.

lake-01 placement
lake-01 adj layers
lake-01 render
lake-01 layer mask view

Step 19

Repeat Step 3 with jungle-06. We don't need a Curves Adjustment Layer for this one.

jungle-06 placement
jungle-06 adj layers
jungle-06 render
jungle-06 layer mask view

Step 19

Repeat Step 3 with jungle-07.

jungle-06 placement
jungle-07 adj layers
jungle-07 render
jungle-07 layer mask view

Step 20

Repeat Step 3 with mountain-05.

mountain-05 placement
mountain-05 adj layers
mountain-05 render
mountain-05 layer mask view

Duplicate those three last layers, place them as below, change the layer mask and the Levels Adjustment Layer.

mountain-05 duplicate placement
mountain-05 duplicate level adj layer
mountain-05 duplicate render
mountain-05 duplicate layer mask view

Duplicate those three last layers, place them as below and change the layer mask.

mountain-05  reduplicate placement
mountain-05  reduplicate render
mountain-05  reduplicate layer mask view

Duplicate those three last layers, place them as below and change the layer mask.

mountain-05  rereduplicate placement
mountain-05  rereduplicate render
mountain-05  reduplicate layer mask view

Step 21

Now we're done with the photos for the background. We need more small details, simply draw them on a new overlay layer with a brush which has some small noise on it.

2.21 draw overlay without effect preview
2.21 draw overlay
It's a good idea to have a look at the perspective while drawing details like this, because it gives a lot of information.

Step 22

Let's add some shadow. Create a new Levels Adjustment Layer, set it as below, full the layer mask with black and paint some white where you want the shadow to appear. Refer below.

2.22 levels adj layer
2.22 render
2.22 layer mask view
The shapes don't have to be too precise, just do the necessary in order to have nice shadows.

Step 23

Now, on a new Water fog layer, draw some fog generated by the waterfalls.

2.23 before
Before.
2.23 after
After.

Step 24

Now, on a new Depth fog layer, draw some fog to separate few layers.

2.24 before
Before.
2.24 after
After.

Step 25

Now, on a new Global fog layer, draw some ambient fog, such as shown below. It helps to add depth and to have a bit less contrast than we had before.

2.25 before
Before.
2.25 after
After.

Step 26

Create a new layer called Ambient light, set the blending mode to Linear Dodge (Add), fill it with black, take a soft brush with 10% opacity, change his mode to Screen, and with a middle brightness full saturated yellow (#827700), paint some rays of light from the right top to the left bottom.

2.26 before
Before.
2.26 after
After.

Here is a preview of the layer if you switch his mode back to Normal. As you can see, you don't need to paint too much. Abusing of this trick will result having a surreal lightning. But having a bit of this adds a very interesting effect.

2.26 effect view

Step 27

Add a new Color Balance Adjustment Layer, and set it as below. We need more blue because of the atmospheric perspective. We need the shadows to be more blueish as well.

2.27 before
Before.
2.27 color balance adj layer
2.27 after
After.

Step 28

Now Create a new Vibrance Adjustment Layer, set the Vibrance to + 52, and paint some black in the sky and distant mountains, because we don't want them to be more saturated, due to the atmospheric perspective as well.

2.28 before
Before.
2.28 after
After. The change is pretty subtle, but add some very lovely colors.
2.28 vibrance adj layer view

We're finally done with the background. Let's move on after a small break maybe.


3. The Midground (MG)

Step 1

As we did for the FG, we create a MG Ref layer based on the sketch. I changed it a bit since I wanted the MG forest to be more dense and more correctly placed in perspective. We might miss a real midground, but it gives that isolated hill's effect and I find it pretty cool. Close the BG group, and let's work on the MG one.

3.01 sketch

Step 2

We have less color correction to do for the midground. I'll give you only necessary settings. If there isn't any Curves Adjustment Layer settings given, consider there isn't that correction for the specified step. Let's start with the tree-03 asset.

tree-03 placement
tree-03 adj layer settings
tree-03 render
tree-03 layer mask view
I use a foliage brush to have some nice shapes here.

Step 3

Repeat the step with the tree-02 asset.

tree-02 placement
tree-02 adj layer settings
tree-02 render
tree-02 layer mask view

Duplicate those two previous layers, transform (Command/Ctrl + T) them as shown and change the Levels Adjustment Layer and the layer mask.

tree-02 duplicate adj layer settings
tree-02 duplicate render
tree-02 duplicate layer mask view
tree-02 duplicate layer mask view

To separate the layers, create a new overlay layer and draw some dark grass as shown.

3.3 before
Before.
3.3 after
After.

Step 4

Duplicate the two first layers we created in the step 3 (tree-02 his Levels Adjustment Layer), place them and change the Levels Adjustment Layer and the layer mask such as shown below.

tree-02 reduplicate placement
tree-02 reduplicate adj layer settings
tree-02 reduplicate render
tree-02 reduplicate layer mask view

Step 5

Now let's move on. Import the asset tropical-foliage-01 and do the usual steps.

tropical-foliage-01 placement
tropical-foliage-01 adj layer settings
tropical-foliage-01 render
tropical-foliage-01 layer mask view

Step 6

Import the asset jungle-03 and do the usual steps.

jungle-03 placement
jungle-03 adj layer settings
jungle-03 render
jungle-03 layer mask view

Step 7

Import the asset tropical-foliage-02 and do the usual steps.

tropical-foliage-02 placement
tropical-foliage-02 adj layer settings
tropical-foliage-02 render
tropical-foliage-02 layer mask view

Step 8

Import the asset jungle-01 and do the usual steps. We create some foliage here.

jungle-01 placement
jungle-01 adj layer settings
jungle-01 render
jungle-01 layer mask view

Duplicate the two previous layers, change the position and the Levels Adjustment Layer. Refer below.

jungle-01 duplicate placement
jungle-01 duplicate adj layer settings
jungle-01 duplicate render
jungle-01 duplicate layer mask view

Duplicate the two previous layers, change the position and the Levels Adjustment Layer, as shown below. As you can see, you need to add a Curves Adjustment Layer.

jungle-01 reduplicate placement
jungle-01 reduplicate adj layer settings
jungle-01 reduplicate render
jungle-01 reduplicate layer mask view

Step 9

Import the asset jungle-04 and do the usual steps.

jungle-04 placement
jungle-04 adj layer settings
jungle-04 render
jungle-04 layer mask view

Duplicate the three previously created layers, and place them as shown below.

jungle-04 duplicate placement

Duplicate again the three previously created layers, and place them as shown below.

jungle-04 reduplicate placement

Step 10

Import the asset water-02 and do the usual steps. Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer.

water-02 placement
water-02 adj layer settings
water-02 render
water-02 layer mask view

Step 10

Import the asset cliff-02 and do the usual steps.

cliff-02 placement
cliff-02 adj layer settings
cliff-02 render
cliff-02 layer mask view

Step 11

Okay, now we imported every photo for the MG. Let's select the MG group, and create a new group called MG as well. We do is in order to be able to use the transparency of that group to do a Levels Adjustment on a Clipping mask applied to that group. Let's do it, and set the following settings. Fill the layer mask with black and paint some white where you want the shadows to appear.

cliff-02 layer mask view
3.11 before
Before.
3.11 after
After.
3.11 layer mask view

Step 12

Create a new layer and paint details such as grass, shadow, highlight, etc.

3.12 details
Poor parts will be hidden by the foreground.

Step 13

Create a new layer called MG Ambient Light, set the blending mode to Linear Dodge (Add), fill it with black, take a soft brush with 10% opacity, change his mode to Screen, and with a middle brightness full saturated yellow-green (#4f8c00), paint some rays of light as shown below, when the mode is set to Normal.

3.13 normal mode switch
Preview of that layer if you switch the mode back to normal.
3.13 render
Render in Linear Dodge mode.

That's it for the midground. We still have to do the foreground, the ship and the final fx, so, let's move on.


4. The Foreground (FG)

Step 1

Okay, let's have a quick preview with a small resketch of the FG. We'll have a lot to do for this step, because the FG really needs to be well done, precise and nothing is going to hide any parts of it. Let's get started.

4.01 sketch

Step 2

Import the asset tree-01 and do the usual steps.

tree-01 placement
tree-01 adj layer settings
tree-01 render
tree-01 layer mask view

Step 3

Create a Draw overlay layer and draw some branches. We'll draw a lot more in the foreground, since we really want to have the full control on every foreground's pixels.

4.3 render

Create a Foliage shape layer and draw some foliage with a custom brush, easily findable on the Internet. Pick a very dark and saturated green such as #031201. Since this area is very dark, we don't need lots of details to have a realistic render.

4.3 render 2

Step 4

Import the asset tropical-foliage-01 and do the usual steps. We don't need any Curves Adjustment Layer for this step.

tropical-foliage-01-01 placement
tropical-foliage-01 adj layer settings
tropical-foliage-01 render
tropical-foliage-01 layer mask view

Step 5

Create a Draw overlay layer and draw some details such as below.

4.5 before
Before
4.5 after
After

Step 6

Import the asset jungle-04 and do the usual steps. We don't need any Curves Adjustment Layer for this step.

jungle-04 placement
jungle-04 adj layer settings
jungle-04 render
jungle-04 layer mask view

Step 7

Import the asset ground-01 and do the usual steps. We don't need any Curves Adjustment Layer for this step.

ground-01 placement
ground-01 adj layer settings
ground-01 render
ground-01 layer mask view

Step 8

Import the asset jungle-04 and place it as below.

4.8 placement

Add a layer mask and remove some parts, such as shown below.

4.8 prerender
4.8 layer mask view

Set the layer's mode to Overlay.

4.8 render

Step 9

Import the asset moss-01 and place it as below.

moss-01 placement

Add a layer mask and remove some parts, such as shown below.

moss-01 render
moss-01 layer mask view

Step 10

Import the asset jungle-06 and do the usual steps.

jungle-06 placement
jungle-06 adj layer settings
jungle-06 render
jungle-06 layer mask view

Step 11

Create a Draw overlay layer and draw some details such as below. Use the Clone Stamp Tool (S) if needed.

4.11 before
Before
4.11 after
After

Step 12

Import the asset tree-03 and do the usual steps. We don't need Curves Adjustment Layer.

tree-03 placement
tree-03 adj layer settings
tree-03 render
tree-03 layer mask view

Step 13

Import the asset cliff-02 and do the usual steps.

cliff-02 placement
cliff-02 adj layer settings
cliff-02 render
cliff-02 layer mask view

Step 14

Import the asset tree-02 and do the usual steps. We don't need Curves Adjustment Layer.

tree-02 placement
tree-02 adj layer settings
tree-02 render
tree-02 layer mask view

Step 15

Import the asset jungle-01 and do the usual steps.

jungle-01 placement
jungle-01 adj layer settings
jungle-01 render
jungle-01 layer mask view

Step 16

Import the asset mountain-03 and do the usual steps.

mountain-03 placement
mountain-03 adj layer settings
mountain-03 prerender
mountain-03 layer mask view

Now add a new Level Adjustment Layer, set it as below, fill it with black and paint in white where we want more dark. It was a bit too bright in the shadow area, but we have to keep this brightness in the edges.

mountain-03 extra adj layer settings
mountain-03 render
mountain-03 extra layer mask view

Step 17

Create a Draw overlay layer and draw some details such as below.

4.17 before
Before
4.17 after
After

Step 18

Import the asset man-01 and do the usual steps. Add a Color Balance Adjustment Layer.

man-01 placement
man-01 adj layer settings
man-01 color balance settings

Apply the layer mask (you might need to Rasterize layer if imported as a Smart Object) and tweak the arms using the Lasso Tool (L) and some brush strokes. Remove some water on him as well, but it's a good idea to let some wet and shiny areas, since it's pretty much a tropical and water world and humidity might be very high there.

man-01 render

On a layer called Weapon, draw a spear

spear

On a layer called Wear, draw the man's wear.

war

Step 19

Let's add some patches of grass. We have to make the feet disappear well. Hiding everything and using a grass custom brush with white color is a nice way to achieve this. Import the asset cliff-02 and do the usual steps.

cliff-02 placement
cliff-02 adj layer settings
cliff-02 render
cliff-02 layer mask view

Duplicate the three last layers, move it and redraw the layer mask such as below.

cliff-02 duplicate placement
cliff-02 before
Before
cliff-02 duplicate render
Render
cliff-02 duplicate layer mask view

Step 20

Create a Draw overlay layer and draw some extra details such as below.

4.20 before
Before
4.20 after
After

We're done with the photos for the foreground. Let's to the final tweaks.

Step 21

As we did with the MG, Select the FG group, create a new one called the same, and add a Levels Adjustment Layer renamed to Shadows. Set it as Clipping mask to the group. Use following settings, help yourself with the preview of the layer mask. Keep in might that the main light comes from the right side while painting the shadows with a white brush on a black background.

4.21 adj layer settings
4.21 before
Before
4.21 after
After
4.21 layer mask preview

The render in the FG is a bit too green. Add a Color Balance Adjustment Layer set as Clipping mask as well, and use following settings.

4.21 color balance
4.21 render

Step 22

Create a Draw overlay layer and draw some details such as below. Help yourself with the red guide that shows where I draw some extra details.

4.22 before
Before
4.22 after
After
4.22 guide
After

Step 23

All right, let's do the Linear Dodge once again. Use this kind of color : #708c00

4.23 normal mode preview
The layer in normal mode
4.23 render
Render with the layer in Linear Dodge mode.

That's all for the FG. We did lots of drawing work, but it's sometime easier to draw a bit than finding some specific references for every small details we want to add. Let's move on with the aircraft.


5. The Ship

Step 1

It was hard to find a good reference to draw this. I finally managed to imagine something starting from a battleship. Let's see how it's done. Close the FG group, and work on the Ship one from now. Import the ship asset and place it as below. Add the two usual Adjustment Layers, the Levels and Curves ones. Add a layer mask as well, and erease unwanted area to get the same shape.

ship placement
ship adj layer settings
ship render

Step 2

Now with the brush and lasso tool, transform it into a believable aircraft. Since we already have lots of details, you don't need to have 100% perfect details.

ship render

Step 3

Now rename the group to Base ship, select it and create a new Ship group. Select the Base ship one, duplicate it (Command/Ctrl + J) and merge it (Command/Ctrl + E). Apply a Filter > Blur > Motion Blur... with following settings.

motion blur settings

Create a layer mask and erase the front areas of the aircraft with a soft brush.

motion blur settings

Step 4

Now let's do a Ship Lights layer, and do the Linear Dodge trick to add lights (#0f8000), flare and fuel burning effect (#8c1100).

motion blur settings
Normal mode preview
motion blur settings
Render with Linear Dodge.

And that's it for the aircraft. Let's move on the the final step, the FX.


6. The Final FX

Step 1

Let's create a new Ambient colors layer. Fill it with black and with a soft brush in a Screen mode, paint something similar to below. Set the layer's mode to Linear dodge once again. It adds nice variations and a fantasy look. Set the opacity to 50%, because the effect is a bit "too much."

6.1 normal mode preview
Render with Normal mode.
6.1 render
Render with Linear Dodge mode, 50% Opacity.

Step 2

Now we need four Adjustment Layers. Let's create them. Create a Levels one with following settings. It makes everything a bit darker.

6.2 1st level adj layer

Create a Color Balance one now. I wanted higher blue hue in the depth with it.

6.2 color balance adj layer

Now create a new Levels one, which is going to darken a bit more the FG. Use the sample for the layer mask.

6.2 2nd level adj layer settings
6.2 2nd level adj layer render
6.2 2nd level adj layer layer mask view

And finally, create a third Levels adjustment with following settings. We want to up a bit the blacks here.

I decided to add two black borders for this work. The idea is to have a nice framing and movie effect. I consider I don't need any explanation on how to achieve this. Fill it with 100% black.

6.2 3rd level adj layer settings
6.2 3rd level adj layer render

Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to complete this tutorial. I hope that you have learned something and will now be able to create some advanced photo manipulations and matte paintings on your own. The process may take a considerable amount of time, but it is worth it. Good luck!


Final Image