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5 Ways to Improve Your Matte Paintings

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Read Time: 10 min

First used in the film industry over 100 years ago, Matte Paintings are today used for a much wider range of purposes ranging from video games to television shows, and more. Matte paintings are used to create backgrounds or environments that would be too difficult or expensive to shoot in real life. While the first matte paintings may have been created by painting a scene on a sheet of glass, today's matte paintings are created using a variety of techniques including photo manipulation, 3D modeling, and animation. In this article, we will explain 5 ways you can improve your matte painting skills. Let's take a look!

1. Photo References

Quality and Resolution

When working at high resolutions, above 3 or 4k, it can be difficult to maintain a certain degree of quality in your work. Finding great photo references can be challenging, especially at high resolutions. Unless you shoot your own photo references, you will have to depend on photographers to shoot the photos that you need. Sometimes, these images will be provided to you but most of them time, you will need to find them for yourself.

Stock sites such as CGtextures, Mayang, Texture Pilot, Texture Library, SXC, and Photodune are great resources. When looking for photo references, you will always need the highest resolution possible (I wouldn't go any smaller than 2k). This will allow you the greatest flexibility when creating your artwork. Start creating a library of images that you can use for your work and refer to it when editing.

In order to maintain the quality of the reference images you have, there are a couple tips that I will leave you with. For one, never upscale an image (resizing it to a higher resolution). If you absolutely have to, make sure it is only by a little bit. Upscaling will destroy the image quality, making it soft and pixelated, which is the opposite of what you need.

Second, don't be afraid to use multiple photos for a single area. This is the point of matte painting, to explore and work with several different photos at once. You're going to building up a library full of them, so use them to their potential and mix them up. When using photos correctly, you will almost never need to upscale an image to fit with what you need. This will require practice, but the more familiar you become with the process, the more you will understand the limitations and possibilities of the photos you work with.

When searching and downloading photo references, please make sure they are under Creative Commons and are able to be edited and manipulated. Not doing this can bring unwanted legal problems later on. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Let Your Images Do the Heavy Lifting

Photo references help you create believable and photo realistic scenes that the viewer can immerse themself in. When you create your matte paintings, make sure to let your imagery do the heavy lifting. Keep as much of the photo references as possible. Practice stitching multiple references images together to get a better result.

Below is an example of stitching several different photos together to create a panoramic image. The same methods and techniques can be applied to matte painting and how multiple mountain/rock photographs can be combined together to create a complex mountain side, for instance.

Stitched Photo ExampleStitched Photo ExampleStitched Photo Example
Example of multiple photos stitched together to create a panorama. Photo by Tom Harvey.

2. Versatility

Digital Painting

Painting is an integral part of matte painting (in case you didn't know) and every matte painter should have some knowledge of how to paint something from scratch. Knowing how to emulate a specific material or surface can come in handy when you need it for a project. I'm not saying you should be able to recreate an exact match of Caravaggio's Calling of Saint Matthew, but you should, at the very least, have some knowledge of what you need to do. Keep in mind that the more you practice, the better your mattes will be. Not only will you be able to paint from, and on top of your references, but your eye will be trained enough to replicate many surfaces, and that will make your work that much more realistic.

After some practice, you will begin to notice a steady increase in your work's quality. In addition, your understanding of materials and surfaces will increase, as well. Knowing how these elements react to light, color, shadow, and other materials will allow you to create a better sense of realism in all of your work.

Remember to pay attention to the different surfaces (for example, rock, chrome, grass, etc.) and their specific attributes. How they reflect, absorb, refract, how much specularity they have. All of these factors affect how realistic your end-result will become. A lot of this knowledge will come with time, practice and study, but the more attention you pay to these details, the more progress you will see in your work.

Tip: See our Digital Painting Category on Tuts+ to improve your digital painting skills.

Scheherazade Castle of One Thousand and One Nights by Frederic St-ArnaudScheherazade Castle of One Thousand and One Nights by Frederic St-ArnaudScheherazade Castle of One Thousand and One Nights by Frederic St-Arnaud
Scheherazade Castle of One Thousand and One Nights by Frederic St-Arnaud.
By Mat GilsonBy Mat GilsonBy Mat Gilson
Image by Mat Gilson.
The Long JourneyThe Long JourneyThe Long Journey
The Long Journey by Kaioshen.

Incorporate 3D Assets

Just like painting, 3D modeling is a big part of creating digital matte paintings, especially with recent advancements in technology. Now more than ever, we are able to create exactly what we want with the help of digital sculpting and 3D modeling. Software such as Zbrush, Maya, 3DS Max, Mudbox, Cinema 4D, Vue, and Terragen offer so many modeling tools and features that weren't available just a handful of years ago.

This is one of the more technical savvy areas of matte painting, so you're going to have to really dive in deep in order to learn. Starting is the hardest part, but spend a little time with it and you will catch on to how things work and the basics of 3D modeling. As with digital painting, there are many tutorials and guides online that can help with learning both areas.

Tip: To learn more about 3D modeling, take a look at our 3D Category on Tuts+.

After the breaking of the world by Jesse Van DijkAfter the breaking of the world by Jesse Van DijkAfter the breaking of the world by Jesse Van Dijk
After the Breaking of the World by Jesse Van Dijk.
Coppernia city by Jamie JassoCoppernia city by Jamie JassoCoppernia city by Jamie Jasso
Coppernia City by Jamie Jasso
Sorcerer's HillSorcerer's HillSorcerer's Hill
Sorcerer's Hill

3. Know Your Subject

Bigger Doesn't Always Mean Better

When you create your matte paintings, you might find that from a storytelling point of view, smaller settings can be just as effective as large, epic environments. This is because smaller settings tend to be a bit more intimate, and don't rely on a grand set of elements to make the scene work. Remember, the larger the scope, the more you will have to do in order to fill up your canvas. Smaller scenes will allow you more time to work on and perfect every element.

This is not to say that you should avoid creating large scale scenes. Just try to keep in mind what type of scene is most appropriate for the project you are working on. Understanding that can save you a lot of time, and remember, when all else fails, keeping it simple is often the best option.

Heading South - Fable 2 Cinematic Environment by Ovilier Vernay-KimHeading South - Fable 2 Cinematic Environment by Ovilier Vernay-KimHeading South - Fable 2 Cinematic Environment by Ovilier Vernay-Kim
Heading South - Fable 2 Cinematic Environment by Ovilier Vernay-Kim
Trollskogen by Andree WallinTrollskogen by Andree WallinTrollskogen by Andree Wallin
Trollskogen by Andree Wallin
Storms PassingStorms PassingStorms Passing
Storms Passing by Kaioshen.

4. Improving Your Workflow

Work Smart

Working digitally means that you can do just about anything you want. But just because you can increase your resolution to 10,000px doesn't mean you should. Unless you know what you are doing, and I mean really know what you're doing, I wouldn't recommend resizing your scene up to a large resolution (anything above 3k or 4k is quite large).

1k is 1024 pixels, 1024px x 4 equals 4096px, which is 4k. Multiply 1024 by any number to get the appropriate sizes.

For one, it can slow your computer to a halt, even if you have a small number of layers. Another reason is unless you are actually painting extreme detail and utilizing the larger real estate, all you are really doing it making your computer work really hard for no reason. So until you feel confident and comfortable working at higher resolutions, keep your files between 2-3k. Remember, work smart, not stupid. Same goes for the tools you are working with.

Non-Destructive Editing

Non-destructive editing involves using layer masks and adjustments so they do not permanently affect your layers or scene. This is the best way to work for any artist as it will allow for extreme flexibility with almost all aspects of editing and creating.

Need only a certain part of a layer to show up? Layer masks are your best bet. They are one of the most useful and versatile functions in Photoshop, and the best way to remove unwanted parts of a layer without completely erasing it away forever. This will give you the option to go back later and use it again.

To add a layer mask in Photoshop, you need to have a layer already selected. At the bottom of the Layers Palette, there will be a button that looks like it has a hole cut out of it. Click this to add a layer mask to the selected layer. To use the mask, you can either use the Marquee Tool to cut shapes out of it, or you can use the Brush Tool to paint inside of it. Layer Masks act exactly like a matte or alpha mask, black will hide, white will reveal. It's an extremely simple function, but very effective.

Layer MasksLayer MasksLayer Masks
Adding & Editing Layer Masks.

To add a Layer Adjustment go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer and select the adjustment you want to add. This will automatically add it as a new layer to the Layers Palette for you. To clip it to a specific layer or group, you can either right click on the adjustment layer and choose Create Clipping Mask or you can hold Alt and click between the adjustment layer and the other layer/group (a little white square will show up when you hover between the layers/group). As always with Photoshop, there are usually several ways of doing something, so it's up to you to find the best way that suits you.

Once you have clipped one layer to another layer or group, the layer that is clipped to it will only show up (or affect) where the parent layer/group is. This is useful when layering textures on top of one another and wanting them to only show up in a specific place.

Clipping MasksClipping MasksClipping Masks
Clipping a layer to another layer/group.

5. Study and Practice

The best way to learn these methods and techniques is to study and practice. Every new project you take on will get you that much closer to mastering these skills and techniques. If you have some spare time, open a new document and begin exploring new ways to create your art. Also, don't feel obligated to work exclusively on your computer. Pick up a pencil and paper some time and sketch your ideas out on paper.


Everything mentioned in this article can be used to speed up your workflow and improve your matte painting skills. Remember, to be smart when using your photographic references, use them effectively and to your advantage. Don't be afraid to mix several different images together, that's the purpose of matte painting and you will get better results from it. Over time you will learn certain techniques that will help you to work faster, but until then, keep it simple and don't try to create a masterpiece right away. Once you are comfortable with the basics, go ahead and explore more options. Good luck and have fun!

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