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Create a Misty Landscape Using 3D Renders and Stock Photography

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Read Time: 21 min

When working on a matte painting in a production environment, you will likely be provided with either a 3D render or a photo to use as a base for your artwork. In this tutorial, we will combine photo manipulation with digital painting to create a misty landscape. This tutorial includes both written and video content. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

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

Step 1 - New sky and sketch

So here we go; for the base image I will provide you with a base render I made for you guys specifically for this tut. In a production environment for matte painting, 99% of the time you will be provided with either a 3d base or an image from the production to work with, at least you get a storyboard or sketch to start. Go ahead an open up the bas image here.

First thing we need its a new layer where we can start sketching out our plan for the image.

Now let's pick up this chalk brush here; we will be using this one quite a bit.

Other thing we will be doing all the time its sampling color from the base next to the different sections we will be painting on.

We quickly sketch out some nice overhang peaks, and when we move further back in z space we sample color accordingly from the plane in which we will paint. We are just painting quick shapes, we are more interested in the overall look and positioning of the shapes; avoid getting into any detail, and keep in mind only the overall image. We need to train our eye and get something that pleases our vision. Don't worry if you paint something that doesn't look good just remove it and paint somewhere else.

You can see here how we are building up shapes on to the horizon, it also doesn't matter if you paint yours in different positions, or maybe even different shapes, we must be creative. Also you can see as mentioned earlier that its only very rough shapes, while you paint, zoom out and look at the overall image constantly to see how the composition feels.

Once we have the rough shapes in place we sample highlight color to start planning on where these highlights need to be positioned according to the light source.

In the same way just paint in some rough highlights as shown here, that quickly give us the light direction and feel from our light source.

Once we are satisfied with what we have, let's grab the eraser tool with the same brush.

With our eraser tool let's just polish the edges of our painted peak shapes just a bit, and check our scene and decide if we want more peaks or maybe even remove some.

Once we are all set with the initial sketch, let's grab the magic wand tool.

On the base plate let's use it to select the whole sky, which wont be a problem since it is mostly well defined. This is a basic on matte painting, you will be asked to replace skies all day.

If you have some section where the magic wand spills off such as this one, just use your lasso tool to remove that section from the selection.

Once you have a good selection of the sky, just inverse the selection, and click on the mask icon which will give you and instant mask of what we selected. This is a non destructive way in which I like to work, where you can edit the mask if something is not correct, and also so you can easily detail the mask as you need. Take a bit of time and check if there is any left over from the sky that needs to be removed.

Once you have detailed the mask you should have a clean sky extraction, ready for the new sky. If you miss something you can always go back to the mask and detail it further.

I selected this image for our new sky, yet you can choose some other sky. As its usual with low sun images there is always heavy noise and artifacts in them, so we will use the reduce noise tool to get rid of all this.

Adjust the dialog settings as shown here to get full noise reduction.

Bring the image on to our main project.

Scale it wide and flat as shown here.

Now let's make a new layer on top of the sky layer.

Now let's grab the brush tool again and select a big soft tip.

Sample a very light color from the landscape horizon, and paint in all across so we blend the new sky with the landscape.

Now let's create even another layer on top of the sky and fill it in with black.

Use the lens flare filter as shown here and set the layer mode to linear dodge.

Let's scale and rotate the flare a bit as shown here..

With the soft brush tip and the eraser tool just erase a bit of the sharp edge from the top right.

On top of the horizon and sky layer we need a color balance layer, and adjust the levels as shown below.

Over the flare layer we also need a color balance layer, yet this time clipped so it only affects the layer below, and we can now bring the colors of it to match our sky.

Adjust the color balance as shown here so the warmth and balance matches as seen below

To get rid of the obvious lens artifacts we can apply Gaussian blur again.

Let's now go back to the layer where we sketched our overhang peaks.

Let's select the brush tool and enable transfer and pen pressure on the brush palette.

Let's use the same chalk brush again and make it only 2px.

It's now time to make our sketched shapes shown here on to rocks that match the detail of the rest of the landscape. The most important step to start with is to sample color correctly from highlights and shadows that match the landscape close by.

Then with this very small brush and taking advantage of the settings we have on the brush palette we add detail a bit more to our peaks as shown here, yet keep in mind that we will add even more detail later on, but I like to add my detail in increasing stages, so there is always a chance to modify something without the need to waste any work.

If you arrive at a section that is way to rough, it is always better at this stage to refine the border a bit with the eraser tool..

Just quickly go around the edge making it more defined.

And next once again sample color from the plate for both highlights and shadows. Then let your eye guide you to our new increased level of detail as shown below.

You have to pay close attention to sections where there is influence from haze and fog as shown here where you need to match your color pick for both depth and altitude to match.

Different sections provide you with the color for different altitudes as shown below, so it blends with the landscape.

Now for the next level of detail once you have worked on all peaks and painted rocks up to this level; we will use this brilliant brush that I will include on the tut files, that will help us speed up the detail we need.

OK now if you are confident you can bring all these detail in without messing it up you can paint directly on the same layer we have been working on, if not, don't kill yourself and use one new layer for each added detail. In these two images you can clearly see that we are aiming for tiny detail that will almost match the painted structures to the landscape.

If you zoom out a bit at least to actual pixel size you must see and feel that the painted rocks merge and match the landscape.

Pay close attention to all the peaks and different distances, since you need to have individual care for each, it doesn't matter if they are way back in the horizon.

Once we have all the detail painted in, let's grab the eraser and the chalk brush tip as shown below.

To finalize this first step in our tutorial, let's check all of our rocks and see where there are soft edges around and erase those carefully, so we have sharp detail on each of our peaks.

Step 2 - Man made structures.

We will now add some buildings and structures on our image, and we will use several stock images to build up some locations with a few buildings. Let's start with the foreground building we will use, so open up this image and copy paste it on to a new layer on top.

Flip the image horizontally.

Let's distort it a bit so we change the perspective a little bit.

Let's use the layer mask to get rid off what we don't need, I have previously tested this building for placement and overall look so I know it fits, yet if you want to use another building be sure to test it first with a rough cutout so you don't waste time extracting what will not work.

Let's add a levels layer clipped to it so we can start blending it in.

At this point I also changed the perspective a bit more with the distort tool.

OK now to make it sit better let's add some rocks to support it, open up this image and make a selection of the right side rocks.

Copy it to our document and again add a layer mask and extract it out as shown.

Place it behind the building as shown here.

And of course we also add a levels layer to it so we can darken it down.

Be sure you like the placement and overall shading of it so it doesn't distract while we continue.

Now for all the buildings we will introduce we will more or less follow the same path as the previous building, yet this one I will use a tool so we can extract it a bit easier. Open up this image and select close to the building.

Copy paste it on to a new layer and make a magic wand selection of the leftover sky.

Once you have the selection, right click on it to access this menu here where we will choose "Refine Edge"

On the resulting dialog we will adjust the settings as shown here.

Invert the selection, then click on the layer mask; And voila ! this gives us a nice smooth extraction quite fast. Yet be sure you check it around and look for missing spots.

Now just scale it into position as shown here.

And with our brush we will work on the mask so we can make the base of it sit better on the rock.

We will repeat the same steps to get the rest of the buildings in, taking care of perspective differences as shown here, yet we will not worry about shading for now, only extractions.

Extract the sky and scale it into position as shown.

Also paint in the mask to cut the base as shown here.

Repeat the steps for this other building and scale it into place as shown below.

And again this other building we will do the same.

For this one I will make a couple of duplicates of it to place behind the main one and give the shape some more interest with more towers.

Set everything up as shown below.

Now this building here its great, yet we won't be able to use the sky simply to extract it, and in this case its better to take the time to go around the edge manually and extract it with the mask.

Once you have it extracted, scale it down as shown below into that position.

Of course also mask off the base a bit so it sits better on the rocks.

OK perfect, at this point its a good idea to go back to our foreground building and remove the metallic stairs; for this we will use the clone tool. And disable the levels layer for now so we see what we are doing.

Let's start with this section here, and cloning from the same building, we will remove both stair sections as shown below.

And repeat the same for the right side as shown.

We are left with this section here in the middle, so we will use a selection of the wall to the left, and copy it to a new layer.

We will use this little piece to replace the floor in the last section, so first of all distort it so its seems on the same plane as the original floor and then flip it horizontally. Then use the clone tool and clean sections to make a clean rock surface.

We are left with this little square that we need to distort a bit more so it matches the blue horizontal shown here.

Once we have that we only need to clone a bit to fill the floor as shown.

And that is it, we have our tower clean without any modern interference.

Enable the levels layer. on. Adjust it as shown below.

Then for each step, just write some text describing the step and provide an image which is less than 600px wide. Make sure to include your image below the text.

Next we will need a new layer in this tower group set at multiply so we can complete the shadow shown below

Set the opacity at about 49 and make sure the painted shadow follows and matches the original shading

OK now we will work on highlights for the tower, so we will need a new layer set to overlay and our brush with a bright highlight color.

Also for this remember to enable transfer and pen pressure on the brush palette.

Now simply paint in highlights where needed as shown here.

To get a good result you both have to paint large highlights but also you need to zoom in to paint highlight detail. Of course through this process you can change the size of the chalk brush as needed.

In the same way add some subtle highlights to the rocks behind to match the building.

Let's also adjust the levels for the rock a bit as shown here.

Also to further match the colors of the rocks let's add a color balance layer.

Now to match it in detail we will make separate adjustments to the mid tones highlights and shadows as shown here.

OK now let's move on to the other building structures, where we will do mostly the same adjustments; let's start with this group here.

First, since this group is in three separate layers we need to merge them together, so check each mask for errors and then select the three layers and merge them.

Now that we have them merged, we now can apply the adjustment layers starting with a levels layer as shown below.

This brings the overall shadows on par with the landscape.

Next we will add the highlight layer on overlay.

Arm yourself with the brush tool, the highlight color, and our trusted chalk brush, at a very small size.

And now as we did before paint in highlights as shown here.

After that on top the levels layer let's add a hue saturation layer, and adjust it as shown below, which will reduce the original saturation and match it with the bluish mountain.

Finally on the last two buildings let's repeat the same process of adding highlights and shading, yet this time take into consideration that these buildings are almost directly behind the light source so the highlights will be almost like a rim light. And that is the end of our step where we should have all of our buildings shaded and blended on to the scene.

Step 3 - Bridge

OK on this step we will paint in a bridge in this section here, on a new layer with a solid tiny brush just paint in the basic structure, you don't have to follow the design exactly, you can come up with your own, plus also maybe you have and prefer to use an image of a bridge and shade it in the same way as the buildings. For the tut and the limitations in stock I will paint it in since its quite far away.

Once you have the basic structure let's paint in some tiny hand rail.

Then let's grab the highlight color and paint in highlights following the structure in a new layer.

Just follow the structure and paint in some highlight where you think the sun would hit the strongest.

OK at this point while painting the highlights I decided to remove the sections that are the base and replace them with some more solid looking structure.

Let's grab our paintbrush once again at about 8px.

Sample color from a close by rock.

And paint in a new base for the bridge as shown here; again the design is up to you.

And of course this new section requires some highlights, so switch to the highlight color back again.

Make your brush small enough for this.

And paint in the highlights as shown here.

Now make the brush even smaller at the minimum.

And switch back to the dark sampled color, or sample a new one.

Now paint in some darker detail that suggests rock or bricks.

Perfect, now we have our bridge in place.

Next we will add some kind of hanging weeds from the bridge so let's grab the paintbrush with the dark sampled color, and the brush shown here.

Then let's paint in some hanging weeds as shown here. And that is it we have our bridge finished, you can stop here or add some more to it as your imagination dictates.

Step 4 - Misty clouds

Now let's add a bit more atmosphere to our image bi painting in some misty clouds all over. For this we will use this brush here, so find it in the downloads and select it just as it is.

Let's use this highlight color.

And in a new layer on top of the main landscape layer, let's paint in as shown here; this brush will make it very easy.

Then let's grab the eraser with a big soft brush as shown below.

And erase around until it feels more natural as shown here. Then feel free to add a bit more as you see fit, and that is it for this fast step.

Step 5 - Trail and lights

OK we will start this step by adding a path on the mountain side; so let's create a new layer as shown.

In this section here sample a light gray from the rock face as shown.

Let's use this brush here again and at about 2 px.

Now paint in what suggests a trail coming down the mountain as shown.

Now let's move on to the lights we are going to paint, so switch back to the highlight color.

Make a new layer on top of everything.

And find the brush shown here.

And let's start with the windows in the distant buildings, so just paint in some light in random windows as shown here.

Then continue with the other distant buildings.

And also add some to the trail, you can see this great brush gives us variations in both color and intensity, so I suggest you study the brush palette settings so you know what its happening and provide you with information so you can make your own similar brush.

Now let's move on to our foreground buildings. If you are interested, the distant light layer can be easily animated on nuke, yet these front lights would probably be replaced with actual fire or candle footage.

For these close up lights we will use this other brush here, and make it about 176px

Now simply tap in some nice light sources on the windows.

And erase a bit of the window edges to suggest the light sits well inside the tower and gets blocked by the walls.

Now let's switch to the big soft brush and keep the highlight color.

Then in a new layer still clipped to the tower stack and in overlay mode; let's paint in some light spill coming from the windows, and that is it we have finalized our step.

Step 6 - Ganesh

OK now for this final step we will setup and integrate this image of Ganesh, so go ahead and open it up, and copy paste it on to a new layer.

We will extract it in the same way as we did the buildings, make a selection of the background as shown here.

Then inverse the selection.

And create a mask to have it automatically masked off.

Then proceed working on the mask to have it all extracted as shown here.

Now you might noticed I decided not to include one of the arms, and this leaves us with some fixing to do, so grab the clone tool.

Let's work on this section here to eliminate the traces of the original arm.

And then once you are finished with the cloning, let's scale it down into position as shown here.

Also let's access the warp tool to adjust the perspective a bit.

Modify the warp mesh just a bit as shown here.

At this point I decided to remove a bit more off the base with the mask as shown, to make it sit better on the terrain.

Now let's begin with some levels to bring the shading down.

Then the position in which place it has some challenges as for the color balance, so make a new layer also clipped on top of the levels; set it to screen mode and reduced opacity of about 55 %

Select this blue color.

And with the same big soft brush we used in previous steps, paint in a couple of strokes as shown.

Now let's select this other shade of blue.

Create another clipped layer on screen mode.

And with the same big brush paint in as shown.

Now below these two layers create a new color balance layer.

And adjust the mid tones and shadows separately as shown here.

OK next up let's paint in some detail on the statue, so make a new layer for it.

And let's go back to this brush shown here plus a dark color to paint with.

Let's have fun painting in detailed cracks and wear on the statue as shown here.

Once we are happy with the detail let's make a new layer on top of the stack and set it to overlay so we can add highlights.

Grab this color for the highlights.

And let's go back to the chalk brush for this.

Don't forget to enable the settings in the brush palette below.

OK now let's paint in highlights for the statue as shown here.

And at this point I decided to remove the rest of the square base shown here, so its feels better on the terrain.

Next we will help our highlights a bit by masking of just a tiny bit from the levels layer, revealing a some increased light at these sections shown here.

OK perfect, now what we need is to make the base of the statue feel more integrated with the land, so let's make a new layer and select the clone tool.

So in this section here let's use the clone tool with a very small chalk brush to add some detail to the base as shown here.

Now what we are missing is shadow for the statue, and it will be a bit challenging getting it exactly right as the shadow crosses some sections with and without haze. So let's grab our big soft brush and a dark gray to start with.

Paint in a big shadow as shown here.

To balance it and make it match the landscape let's apply some color balance directly as indicated here.

Reduce the opacity of the layer to about 78%

Then pick this shade of blue shown here.

Lock the pixels on the shadow layer and with the big soft brush stroke once or twice as shown here.

Then pick this color shown here and paint in as shown below.

And finally let's make some adjustments to our statue with yet another levels layer.

And then adjust the blue channel separately as shown here and then the RGB as shown below.

And that is the end we have our statue matched and sitting correctly on to the landscape.

Final Image

There we go we have reached the end of the tutorial and we have successfully created a nice image, as always in all of my tutorials there are video captures of each step that fully covers all the action that took place on over 6 hours of continuous work, so don't forget to take a look at those while you follow the tutorial. Thanks a bunch and hope to see you soon on the next one.

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