Matte Painting

When we attended the Master classes that were held out Ravensbourne, we all seemed to agree that Matte paintings were the best way to resolve rendering time. The class made me extremely interested in considering Matte Painting as a career as it somewhat ties in with my desire to do concept. In a way they somehow flow into each other’s fields.

I bought the ‘Digital Handbook Painting Handbook’ and I found it to be extremely useful. It actually teaches you in depth how to do a matte painting and you don’t realise just how complex the process is from designing to the actual projecting. For now I decided to experiment with the projecting.

I had each section in layers, i.e. the castle, bridge and sky. I had the over all matte painting as a single image as well. For this particular projection to add depth I would make each section 3d since the camera would not move much and I could get away with this. As you can see I just created a simple cube for the hill.

I sculpted it to get the general shape of the hill. I then made two more cubes for the castle and bridge and edited it to fit the general shape of each component.

I then created a semi dome for the sky and projected the texture, making sure that the sky image emits the lighting.

This is with all the textures applied. As you can see the bridge is a bit off. Right now it just looks like a plain image but I did a small camera edit to show that I have actually gone through the process of projecting.

My projection test


I’m really pleased with the outcome of this projection test but obviously I need to learn how to create my own matte paintings. I really do think this adds depth.Projection_Test_1

I did some more projection tests with a sky I created and just random cubes since we had the idea of using a dome to cover the whole city and project the sky as a texture. However, as you can see, this looks pretty much like a cheese.


However, I managed to sort this out and experimented with using two cameras. One to project the sky, and one used for the actual animation. I was worried that the objects would block the sky projection but it was fine.


Initially, I had no idea how to approach Matte paintings. These were the first tutorial I tried to somewhat follow:

Due to the fact that this film is to be realistic, it was decided by me and Deon that it would be best if I used photographs rather than actually paint my own buildings. Due to this I would find photographs of buildings and distort it to make it into something different.

I removed the sky from the original images by either masking it off, lasso tool/polygonal lasso tool or magic wand tool and replaced it with a different sky image. Here I tried to change the general mood by adding an orange overlay layer. Something that I learnt from these tutorials were to use a rough brush such as charcoal and just erase parts of the bridge or buildings and to change the size of the brush for variation. Due to the roughness of the brush this gave the impression of ruined buildings.

I can’t say I like this matte painting since it doesn’t look realistic. The light from the sky does not match the buildings and in fact the difference stands out too much. Over all there wasn’t enough applied to this that changed the image drastically.


For another test I tried to change the lighting more drastically by playing with the contrast, brightness, etc. As you can see here, the mood is much darker and Westminster stands out much less in comparison to my first matte painting.

When I posted this up on Facebook, Deon gave me a few criticisms and even highlighted where I went wrong.

 Deon Carlos Litchmore I don’t understand why you’re doing a painting of the big ben?!


He took my image and drew around the areas I needed to improve.

Looking back at this now I can see what he meant, the lighting once again did not match the sky at all. Also, from this point I decided to try and make matte paintings that could be used for the scene rather than continue testing so much with images I can’t use.


With my next matte painting I decided to take a completely different approach and instead of focusing on particular buildings, I decided to actually do a collage of buildings from different images instead. I literally deleted the background of every image and pasted the buildings together. The sky image is a HDRI that Ash bought and Deon edited so that when it is used for the v ray sky dome, it’ll create a nice variation of colours when the camera is moving through the city.

I’ve been using Photoshop CS5 for the first time when doing these matte paintings as I previously used CS2 so this was a huge leap. When exploring the settings I found the auto-align layers. I tried looking this up for this particular matte painting (link: but it didn’t work quite as well as I had hoped. However, underneath that was the auto-blend layers. I tested blending all the layers and it created this nice effect where the distant buildings seem to disappear in the horizon. However, I noticed there’s a giant brown box that appears in the bottom right hand corner.


I decided to go back a step and tried to make the buildings all a similar colour so that this would no longer be a problem by playing with the saturation, brightness and contrast.


Here you can see the outcome is much better.



Deon told me to take the matte painting into Maya and test it out in the scene. When I did this I realised that the perspective was completely wrong for it to be placed behind Big Ben. Although this meant I had to do another matte painting, I guess this could still be used for a different section of the film.

At this point, we had decided to change from mental ray to v ray so my projection tests previously became some what relevant, particularly the sky projection as there was a different approach to it that Ash and Deon had figured out.


Inspired by both methods I used, I focusing on a single image and collaging other buildings into the matte painting. Instead of using the whole of the HDRI sky, I print screened how the sky would look behind the big ben and decided to base the lighting and colour scheme of the buildings from that.

I heavily relied on this Youtube channel’s videos:

Photoshop tutorials explaining how to make a ruined city

These videos have helped me very much when it came to techniques that I feel I would continue using these methods until I found something better. I used the same erasing technique I used earlier but this time I added images of ruined buildings to fill in the gaps to make it more convincing. This can particularly be seen from where I’ve made a hole in one of the buildings. Moreover, I have learnt to use the burn tool to give the impression of the buildings aging. I had some trouble softening the outline of the buildings as I either blurred or erased too much. Deon taught me how to think about light direction and by creating a temporary sun to get an idea. As you can see from some of the buildings I added a white overlay for subtle light.


Here I have once again taken the matte painting into Maya to see how it looks behind Big Ben.


Deon had asked me to try and add lights to the buildings but we soon realised this did not work as the matte paintings would be influenced by the sky’s light and therefore sometimes being affected by shadows. As you can see here, despite the fact I used white, it is very much dulled out.


From all the techniques I have gathered while doing these matte paintings, I’ve somewhat mixed and matched methods to suit what I feel is best. This matte painting I just edited the saturation, contrast and brightness of the buildings so they’re more uniformed. I also added an orange overlay to suit the sunset of the sky. However, when I posted this up on our Facebook group, Deon said that the buildings were far too uniformed and not random enough. Moreover, he said the buildings looked too similar. They lost their individuality.


As you can see here, I made the buildings a lot more random as if they’re sinking in on one side. I do feel this makes it look more like ruins that have been abandoned. I also decided to add rubble and telephone pole images to add to the desolate atmosphere. This time I didn’t edit the buildings to be a similar colour, I let them stay as more individual but kept the orange over lay. As you can see I also tried adding some light to the buildings as well as shadows according to the sky. In comparison to my first matte painting, I do feel I have improved a lot. Instead of merely slightly editing the images, I have a better thought process and a better understanding of how to use Photoshop tools. I still feel I have a long way to go until I become good at matte painting but the fact I have definitely improved is a good progress.

I also wanted to add that in some of the matte paintings, the sky may seem pixelated but it’s only used as a template to let me know what the sky will look like in the scene. The v ray dome will be much higher resolution.


I imported the matte painting into the scene again and here you can see what it looks like. However, this is without the sky.

Deon helped me add the v ray sky and as you can see here, it looks a LOT better. The matte painting seems more realistic because it has taken on the sky’s lighting and it blends better with the model (despite it not having textures yet). Over all I am pleased with the outcome. It is a major improvement from my first matte painting test.

future collage

To help Deon with the next set of matte paintings, I decided to make a collage to help inspire him. These were taken from Tron Legacy, Mass Effect 3 (from actual trailer, game or concept) and Lost Odyssey. The reason why I chose these as influences is because they all have a futuristic look and an emphasis on technology. As you can see, the cities aren’t simple designs, there’s usually spires and complex looking textures.

Unfortunately, Deon didn’t have time to make more matte paintings, instead Gerome duplicated the matte paintings I did so give the illusion of many buildings in the horizon.

It’s a shame I didn’t use the projection techniques that I learnt from when I looked at matte paintings for the very first time. However, this would’ve been impractical due to the fact that the camera is very erratic. Projecting the matte paintings onto 3d objects would only work with subtle camera movements. This is why we used planes instead.


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