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.
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:
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.
2. Create the Background
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.
You can lower the Opacity of the Layer to test how it may look.
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.
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.
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.
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:
#737d9ffor the upper section
#737a95for the lower section
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.
We’re now going to put the mountain that we previously colour corrected on top of what we just painted.
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.
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
#ffbaacand a relatively big soft brush.
- Set the Layer to Lighten mode.
3. Create the Mid-Ground
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.
#ffbaac, and set the Layer on Screen and on top of the Mountain Layer, and brush over.
Create another Layer set on Screen mode using colour
with a big soft brush.
Stylise the top of the mountain with very tiny detail to give it a better look.
4. Create the Foreground
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.
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.
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.
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.
Increase a small amount of the overall Brightness of the image.
Use Curves by adjusting the slider in order to add Brightness.
#23324C and a big soft brush.
- Paint a small section on the
- Set the layer Opacity to 71%.
Increase the overall Brightness again.
Pick a local colour. Use a big, soft brush and paint where you think the sky needs to be unified.
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.
While still on Channels after adjusting the Level, hold Control and click on the blue copy we created.
This is going to create a Selection. Go back on Layers and click on the actual photo we have.
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.
Click Quick Selection (W). Then click Refine Edge located on the toolbar above.
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.
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.
- In Width, enter number 3 and hit OK.
You can choose a number depending on how many pixels you want to cut out. You can Defringe more than one time.
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.
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.
The Match Colour menu will be displayed on the screen.
- 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.
#1F304F and use a soft brush to paint
the area behind the tree.
Set this Layer behind your tree Layer.
This is to create a bit of fog separation between the tree and the background.
#2b3c68 and paint with a soft brush all
over the bottom part of the image (on
top of your cliff and tree).
- 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 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.
Cut it out by clicking Delete and change it to Soft Light mode with the Opacity at 87%.
Use the Erase Brush to erase out some areas and use the Smudge Tool to smudge some parts.
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
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.
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.)
Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. Set the Hue slider to -2, and set the Saturation slider to +49.
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.
#132f4a and paint using a soft brush on
top of the tree.
- Set the Layer mode to Lighten.
- Set Opacity to 12%.
5. Finalize the Image
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.
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.)
On the second copy, right click and go to Blending options.
On Advanced Blending, Deselect the B Channel and hit OK.
While still being on that Layer, hold Shift and move your image horizontally but only slightly.
What this does is it creates a Chromatic Aberration of the image as the real lens of a camera does.
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%.
This creates a neutral grey colour.
Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise.
- The menu is displayed.
- Set amount to 10%.
- Set Distribution to Gaussian.
- Tick Monochromatic and hit OK.
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.
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