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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Matte Painting

How to Create a Landscape Matte Painting in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial we are going to learn how to create visual development concepts for animation using matte-painting techniques.


The best thing you can do while starting your new piece is research. This first step is vital and will pay off once you start creating your image. Mood research is what I personally focus on, as it gives me ideas in my mind before I begin my actual piece.

For this particular piece, I wanted to focus on a relaxing ambient mood. I love sunsets and sunrises as I have the pleasure of witnessing both from my balcony every day. This has given me the inspiration for this piece due to the colours I see, which are always a beautiful warm pink against a bright blue sky.

Kung Fu Panda played a role of inspiration in this piece probably more in an indirect way also due to it being a piece of concept art/visual development for an animated movie.

Tutorial Assets

Photo references are one of the most important steps when creating a piece of such style. 

Spend as much time as you can searching for references. I usually spend around 3-4 hours finding references to use for my work.

You will need the following assets to complete this tutorial:

Reference Images

The following images were used as a reference point in terms of mood and colour and not in the tutorial itself as assets.

1. Create a Sketch

There are times where I’ll begin my pieces without a sketch, and there are times when I’ll have the exact idea in mind and proceed from there.

In this case, I already imagined what I wanted to create, so I began exploring thumbnail sketches until I decided on this one.

Sketch Image

2. Create the Background

Step 1

We begin by placing our reference photos on top of our sketch.

It’s a good idea to start with the background and work your way up. This may not be for everyone and may not be for every piece you create, but I believe that once the background is settled, you can determine where the light is coming from, the mood, ambient, etc.

Placing the reference image on top of the sketch

Step 2

You can lower the Opacity of the Layer to test how it may look.

Lowering the opacity of the reference image

Step 3

Start selecting the parts that you want from the photo you are using.

There are a few tools to use, but in this case, the Selection Tool is the easiest and the fastest.

  • Invert the selection by holding Control-Shift-L.
  • Click Delete.

If you want to keep the original layer, use Masking as you will still have the file there in case you want to retrieve some parts of it later on.

Using quick selection to create a selection

Step 4

For colour correction, we are going to use Curves.

I find the use of Curves very powerful, and I find it to be a controllable tool to use in colour correction and contrast balance.

  • Below preset, you can choose the colour channel you want to adjust: RED, GREEN, and BLUE.

Example: If the image is red and you want it to be blue, you must lower the Red Levels and increase the Blue Levels.

In this piece, we want the mountain to be high in the Red Channel as we are going for a pink-red mood.

First Curve Adjustment Layer
Second Curves Adjustment Layer

Step 5

After curves adjustments, we are going to use Vibrance to increase the image's vibrant colours and make it look more saturated.

Set Vibrance to +19 and Saturation to +8.

Using Vibrance to change the saturation

Step 6

It would make more sense to settle the sky and then try to work on the mountain again.

To create the sky, we must use a big soft brush and two colours:

  • #737d9f for the upper section
  • #737a95 for the lower section
Upper section of the sky color
Lower section of the sky color

Step 7

We’re going to create a simple ground by using the blue colour as this will be the part that is situated in the shadows.

We'll use the technique of warm light – cold shadows. I find blue to be the most pleasing colour against the warm light colour we have.

This can be created by painting with any brush of your choosing. There is no technique for this (it’s as simple as brushing however you like).

Imagine it as a shape that you are trying to break with different Contrasts and slight changes of hue.

Painting the ground in blue color

Step 8

We’re now going to put the mountain that we previously colour corrected on top of what we just painted.

Placing the mountain on top of the ground

Step 9

In this step, we are going to paint over everything we have with the brushes you possess. I call this stitching up time as in this case, you are essentially stitching everything together.

At this point, I added a cinematic movie frame to give the feeling of a screen cap.

Painting everything up - Stitching everything together

Step 10

The light that is hitting the mountain is coming from the right side. In order to emphasise this, I added a light bloom.

  • Use colour #ffbaac and a relatively big soft brush.
  • Set the Layer to Lighten mode.
Creating a light layer

3. Create the Mid-Ground

Step 1

Now we are going to paint a mountain separate from the one we have in the background by using the blue colour as it is in the shadows.

  • Use a brush with a hard edge.
  • Colour pick from the warm light source.
  • Paint some rim light on the edges of this mountain.
Painting a mountain seperating it from the background

Step 2

Select colour #ffbaac, and set the Layer on Screen and on top of the Mountain Layer, and brush over.

Creating a light layer

Step 3

Create another Layer set on Screen mode using colour #963912 with a big soft brush.

Creating a light layer

 Stylise the top of the mountain with very tiny detail to give it a better look.

Stylizing the top fo the mountain by painting in with sky color

4. Create the Foreground

Step 1

We are going to put the reference that is best fitting to create the mountain hill in the foreground.

Use the Quick Selection Tool to select what you need.

Creating a selection of the mountain hill in the foreground

Step 2

Use curves to correct colour, brightness and contrast.

We are now aiming for a blue-ish feel to create the cold shadow.

  • Lower the Brightness to make it darker.
  • Adjust the Red Channel by lowering it.
  • Increase the Blue Channel.
Using curves to correct colour and brightness

Step 3  

Paint an extension to follow with the sketch completed before, by using a brush you prefer.

TIP: Colour pick the local colours already used in the photo to maintain consistency.

Painting the extension of the mountain hill in the foreground

The results after adding the extension

Step 4

I felt the need to add a bit more highlight coming from the right side of the sky. This is to support the highlight from the mountain. To complete this step, you must:

  • select a brush and paint directly on the sky
  • stay on the local colours of the sky and slightly increase it to show a lighter light

 You can use the Smudge Tool to smudge the paint here to lessen the crispiness.

Painting source of light in the top right of the sky

Step 5

Increase a small amount of the overall Brightness of the image.

Use Curves by adjusting the slider in order to add Brightness.

Increasing brightness of the overall image

Step 6

Select colour #23324C and a big soft brush.

  • Paint a small section on the foreground.
  • Set the layer Opacity to 71%.
Colour picking
The result after the haze has been added

Step 7

Increase the overall Brightness again.

Increasing overall brightness

Step 8

Pick a local colour. Use a big, soft brush and paint where you think the sky needs to be unified.

Painting the sky in order to unify it more

Step 9

We’re going to add the tree shown in the bottom right part of the piece. Select the photo reference you want to use.

The next point is a nice trick in order to select things like the tree's foliage. Keep in mind that this won’t work on every photo.

  • Go to Channels and select the Blue channel.
  • In this case we want to duplicate it.
  • Hold Control-Alt-L to bring up the Levels.
  • Adjust the sliders until you have a black and white separation of what you need (black being the part that you will need to use).
  • You can use the Value Pickers situated below Options to pick the darkest light and the lightest dark.
Using Channels to create a selection of the tree

Step 10

While still on Channels after adjusting the Level, hold Control and click on the blue copy we created.

Clicking on the selection on channels section

Step 11

This is going to create a Selection. Go back on Layers and click on the actual photo we have.

Going back to normal layers with the selection

This is so we have the colour back but we also have the Selection. In this case, I want to create a Mask in case I need it later. I will do so by Invert selection (Control-Shift-I) and then Mask.

You can create a Normal Layer on top of it and Merge them together (Control-E). This is so we don't have to deal with Mask and allows us to work on it further. We are now left with the tree on a separate Layer without Selection and no Layer Mask.

Inverting the selection and masking it out

Step 12

Click Quick Selection (W). Then click Refine Edge located on the toolbar above.

Clicking on quick selection tool in order to acces refine edge

Step 13

Refine Edge is an amazing tool that turns your selections into great ones simply by refining them. Make sure to click on Black when you are in view mode as this will allow you to see what is happening with your photo.

  • Adjust the sliders until you have something that you are happy to use.
On the Refine Edge options menu       

Step 14

Refine Edge does a very good job, but sometimes I like to combine it with Defringe (Layer > Matting > Defringe). This tool removes/cuts the edges of an image by pixels. In this case, it’s an amazing tool as we can still remove some white pixels that are left in our photo.

Using Defringe on the selection
  •    In Width, enter number 3 and hit OK.
Putting in the number 3 on width

You can choose a number depending on how many pixels you want to cut out. You can Defringe more than one time.

The result after the Defringe

Step 15

Create a new Layer and hold Control-Alt-Shift-E to create a super Merge.

Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to make a Selection of the desired colour that you want to affect (in our case, it’s the tree).

  • Copy that Selection and paste it into a new Layer.
  • Delete the super Merge as it is no longer needed.
Creating selections on the image

Step 16

NOTE: In this case, the Layer for me is “LAYER 39”. This is so you can follow when I mention it again.

The reason for Step 16 is because we are going to use it for a very nice technique which will make our tree fit in in terms of Colour, Brightness and Contrast.

  • Make sure you have clicked on the tree image.
  • Go to the top Image > Adjustments > Match Colour.
Clicking on match colour

The Match Colour menu will be displayed on the screen.

On the Match Colour options menu
  • On Source, select the psd file that you are working on.
  • On Layer, Select your Selection Layer (mine is LAYER 39).

This should match the Colours, Contrast, and Brightness with the layer you have just selected.

You can adjust the sliders if it doesn’t look like what you want.

Step 17

Pick colour #1F304F and use a soft brush to paint the area behind the tree.

Colour picking

Set this Layer behind your tree Layer.

This is to create a bit of fog separation between the tree and the background.

The results after the fog seperation layer has been created

Step 18

Pick colour #2b3c68 and paint with a soft brush all over the bottom part of the image (on  top of your cliff and tree).

Creating haze on the foreground
  • Set the Layer mode to Lighten.
  • Set Opacity to 28.
  • This will add a nice haze effect and adjust the Opacity if it is a bit excessive.
The result after adjusting the opacity

Step 19

The middle ground feels as if it needs a bit more of a break in terms of shape and needs a bit more detail.

Select the area inside the red rectangle seen in the image below.

Cutting out the red area

Cut it out by clicking Delete and change it to Soft Light mode with the Opacity at 87%.

The result after inserting it into the midground

Use the Erase Brush to erase out some areas and use the Smudge Tool to smudge some parts.

Step 20

Time to add the tree and foliage on the left side of the image—your target is what is Selected in the red area. We are going to follow the points mentioned before regarding the Channels technique.

Cutting out the red area
Using levels and channels to create selection

Step 21

After we’ve completed the previous step, we will create a Curves Adjustment Layer.

  • Lower Brightness.
  • Increase the Level of blue colour.
  • Decrease the Level of green colour.
Using Curves adjustment layer to make changes to colour and brightness

The result after curves adjustment layer 

Step 22

Add another Level Adjustment Layer. Adjust the Output Levels to 5 ; 113. (You will need to Clip Mask it to affect only the Layer you need.)

Creating a level adjustment layer

Step 23

Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. Set the Hue slider to -2, and set the Saturation slider to +49.

Creating a huesaturation adjustment layer

Step 24

The right tree image needs a bit more noise added to it—as mentioned, this is to break the big shape. After Selection and cutting the part we need (as shown in the red rectangle), we will use Curves again to adjust the image.

Cutting out the red area
Lowering brightness of the selected image

Step 25

Pick colour #132f4a and paint using a soft brush on top of the tree.

Colour picking
  • Set the Layer mode to Lighten.
  • Set Opacity to 12%.
Setting the layer mode to lighten and opacity to 12

5. Finalize the Image

Step 1

It’s time to finalize our image.

Create a new Layer and do a super Merge (Control-Alt-Shift-E) and then make two copies.

On the first copy, Select it and go to Filter > Other > High Pass.

Clicking on High Pass 

The High pass menu will be displayed on the screen.

  • Set Radius to 2.1 and select OK.
  • Set the Layer to Soft Light mode.
  • Adjust Opacity to your preference.

(This creates Sharpness to your image—be careful not to make it too sharp.)

Adjusting the High Pass menu

Step 2

On the second copy, right click and go to Blending options.

On Advanced Blending, Deselect the B Channel and hit OK.

Making changes on the blending options

While still being on that Layer, hold Shift and move your image horizontally but only slightly.

Shifting the layer horizontally

What this does is it creates a Chromatic Aberration of the image as the real lens of a camera does.

Step 3

Now we are going to create Noise to give the effect of the real film grain, but at the same time, this also blends everything together.

  • Create a new Layer on top of everything.
  • Go to Edit > Fill.
  • On the contents, select 50% Gray mode.
  • Set to Normal.
  • Opacity to 100%.
Creating a layer filled with 50 gray on top of everything

This creates a neutral grey colour. 

Step 4

Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise.

Adding noise to the image
  • The menu is displayed.
  • Set amount to 10%.
  • Set Distribution to Gaussian.
  • Tick Monochromatic and hit OK.    
Adjusting the Add Noise menu

Step 5

Set the Layer to Soft light. Adjust Opacity to your preference. In this case, I adjusted it to 50%. Make sure this is not overused.

Congratulations, You're Done!

Thank you very much for viewing and reading this tutorial. I hope that you have picked up some useful techniques to use in your own work! It takes a lot of practice, and it's always a challenge when you create an image, even when you're at a certain level, so make sure you keep practising. I will be back creating more tutorials, with different topics and techniques.

Final result
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