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By David Mattingly | Friday, March 28, 2014

Digital Matte Painting is Just Good Painting!

Matte painting is just good painting!

Matte painting is meant to fool the viewer’s eye. It is a special effects technique that combines live-action footage with painted imagery that dates back to 1907— the very dawn of filmmaking. Mattes were originally painted on a sheet of glass, which was suspended in front of the camera. Today, with digital imaging, artists can work in Photoshop, and combine their paintings with a live-action plate in programs such as After Effects, Maya, or Nuke.

The tools and techniques I advocate aren’t just helpful for matte painting, but form the building blocks of all good paintings. If you want to learn the tools and techniques I use for creating a strong digital matte painting, here are five artistic principles to set you on the right path:

Concept: To begin, let your imagination run free, and capture a lot of ideas until one eclipses the others. For now, only focus on creating the basic shapes and environment of your scene and establishing a look and mood: Are you building Count Dracula’s dark, forbidding castle-fortress, or a sunlit Disney-like castle in pretty pastels? And don’t think of this conceptual work as the easy part—you’re creating the underpinnings of your entire project. No matter how beautifully rendered it may be, a bad concept rarely works well.

Perspective: With a raw concept in hand, you can then concentrate on the technical details of your scene, such as perspective. Perspective is non-negotiable—you either get it right, or lose the illusion of reality. We have an innate understanding of spatial distances and how things should look based on their location in a scene, so it is important for any artist who wants to paint realistically to master the basics of a 2-point perspective drawing.

Form: A well-painted scene must be properly lit. Many realistic paintings aren’t convincing because the artist failed to establish a well-delineated light and dark side. Working in black and white helps to establish your project’s lighting scheme. The odd thing about form is that once the properties of light are correctly set up in your scene, you can make the color and texture anything you want and the project still holds together. To test this notion, check out the work of LeRoy Neiman, the legendary sports artist. Even though he paints the faces of his subjects in pink, green, and violet, they still “read” correctly because of the well-conceived black-and-white values of the forms.

Texturing: Many digital artists make the mistake of directly using a photo reference as a texture early in their projects. I recommend waiting until this point of your painting’s development before incorporating photography into your project. Photo references serve well as a shortcut to photorealism, but if you use them too early before strongly establishing the concept, perspective, and form of your project, you can end up with a “patched together” montage, rather than a painting that represents your vision.

Camera Projection: Once you’ve created your painting in 2D, you can turn it into a digital matte painting by transforming it into a 3D environment with a technique called camera projection. While this process is highly technical, the reward is worth the extra effort. The first time you see a 3D version of your painting, it’s nothing less than mind-blowing! By projecting your painting onto 3D geometry in Maya, your image comes alive before your eyes.

Ready to dig in further and create immersive matte paintings for your next production? Watch my course Digital Matte Painting Essentials, designed to enhance your skills and working knowledge of digital matte painting. Let’s get started!

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