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The Fundamentals of Matte Painting

The Ultimate Guide to Matte Painting

What is Matte Painting?

Ever wondered how the sci-fi backgrounds and landscapes in your favourite movie came about? Well, it’s matte painting. A matte painting is a photo-realistic, painted rendition of a fantasy background, landscape or scene that is used in the background of films to create an illusion that the scene is set elsewhere. Although often associated with fantasy and sci-fi, matte paintings can be buildings, landscapes, skylines, libraries, mountains and more.

Jaime Jasso NeoShanghai Cyberpunk Matte Painting
Neo Shanghai Downtown Metro Station by Jaime Jasso

The Basics

Matte painters need to be increasingly familiar with realism, in order to create scenes that are able to hold the illusion that the background is real. They should also be meticulous, pay attention to detail and have a vast imagination. Lighting, shade, texture, line work and most importantly, perspective and depth are also crucial skills for matte painters.

The most important element of a successful matte painting is the attention to colour use – colour has the ability to ruin the illusion by creating visual errors of lighting or perspective. The process of matte painting is lengthy and includes creating visual shortcuts and extreme detail for backgrounds that will be on screen for a long time.

The history of matte painting

The earliest matte paintings were created on either large boards, which were durable and sturdy, or pieces of glass that had the ability to be backlit. Nowadays, matte painting is almost solely digital.

Contemporary matte painters need to possess a skill set that allows them to have full control over all individual elements and manipulate these elements in terms of position, lighting, depth and colour. The technicality of this art has multiplied ten-fold but the large size requirement has stayed the same. Digital matte painters work with extremely large file sizes and high resolutions.

Satyaki Sarkar Rocky Scene Matte Painting
Rocky Scene Matte Painting by Satyaki Sarkar

How do I get started?

When getting started with matte painting, first decide what genre you’d like to work in and go from there. Perfect your Adobe Photoshop skills, colour theory knowledge and attention to detail so you can get started on your portfolio. A good understanding of 3D and 2D painting skills is essential.

You can go about mastering these skills by attending school or teaching yourself through online courses and tutorials. When it comes to matte painting portfolios, make sure that you display your best work and demonstrate to prospective clients what you can offer. Also try and get involved with other creatives in the matte painting industry! ArtStation is a great place to start!

Satyaki Sarkar Landscape Matte Painting
Landscape Matte Painting by Satyaki Sarkar

What skills do I need?

First, you’ll need to make sure you can cover the basics of traditional medium, like painting and drawing. Start off with the foundations of perspective. By being able to draw 3D shapes and objects, you’ll be able to master more detailed work later on.

You will also be expected to understand how light functions in relation to your drawings. Mastering this skill is no easy feat, but with the right level of motivation and dedication, you’ll be a matte painting pro in no time!

Learn more about perspective in an online course or book.

Satyaki Sarkar Ankor Wat Sunrise Concept matte Painting
Ankor Wat Sunrise Concept matte Painting by Satyaki Sarkar

What software do I need?

Once you’ve mastered the basics of matte painting, you can move onto working digitally. Most importantly, you’ll need to have a strong understanding of Adobe Photoshop – the software most commonly used to create matte paintings.

In addition to Photoshop, you’ll also need to integrate CGI, digital painting and photography into your skillset. 3D generalist skills are also a requirement, with experience in programs like 3DS Max, Substance Painter, Maya, UVLayout, Daz3d (free) and Renderman to name a few.

Jaime Jasso Destroyer Landing Matte Painting
Landing Matte Painting by Jaime Jasso

7 tips and tricks on getting started with matte painting

  • Be passionate about what you do!
  • Work towards clearly defined goals
  • Actively look for inspiration
  • Watch tutorials
  • Practise, practise, practise!
  • Master the basics
  • Have fun with it!

In our Meet the Artist section we have interviewed Jaime Jasso. He participated in block busting movies as Avatar, Star Wars, Avengers and Transformers. In this interview he shares some valuable tips and tricks for matte painting artists.

How to learn Matte Painting?

Websites where you can learn Matte Painting

1. Mattepaint.com

If you’re willing to pay a monthly fee for access to great content, mattepaint.com is a great place to get started. You’ll be granted access to a huge library of 50k+ ultra HD images that you can use copyright free. You also get access to the MattePaint academy and any of the incredible matte painting courses they offer.

Get 15% discount off the monthly plan with the MattePaint.com Discount Coupon

Use this exclusive coupon for Mattepaint.com to receive 15% discount on their monthly plan. It will give you access to the academy and the sample images. We received only a few discount codes, so don’t wait too long to use it!

Coupon code: xquispaint

2. Udemy.com

Udemy offers online courses that are both affordable and of a high quality. We selected 3 interesting courses that you can get started with:
1. Learn to Concept Matte Paintings for Games and Film
2. It’s NOT Matte Painting! EZ Video Compositing in Photoshop!
3. Concept Art Architecture, Design and Paint Stunning Cityscapes

3. Tutsplus.com

Tutsplus.com is part of Envato – more specifically, Envatotuts+. Here you can find some great courses, like an “Introduction to Matte Painting“, “Matte Painting for Beginners” and “How to create a Landscape Matte Painting in Adobe Photoshop

Matte painting tutorials on Youtube

We’ve included some informational and how-to tutorial videos for both beginners and professionals on matte painting. They’re a great place to start, or to brush up on some skills!

Other useful books & courses

Books about matte painting

If you’d like to learn more about matte painting or get inspired, these books will definitely help you!

Books about perspective

A good knowledge of perspective is important. In complex matte paintings, you’ll need to have a good understanding of dimension to achieve realistic results, as well as understand the process to achieve those results. This list of books we’ve suggested will give you some perspective – yes, pun intended. If you tend to learn better by watching videos, we recommend checking out these courses.

Learn about light and colour

As you’ve read, it is important to understand both colour and light theory, as well as the relevant techniques. These books should help you get started on the basics.

Photo resources for Matte Painting

Having access to a large library of stock images is essential as a matte painting artist. Matte paintings are often created using dozens of images to achieve a final result. Another advantage of having access to a large library of stock images is that it will undoubtedly bring you a lot of inspiration.

Some of the best places to get images for Matte Painting

Interview with Jaime Jasso

Jaime Jasso

Make sure to check out our interview with Jaime Jasso. He has valuable tips and tricks if you aspire to be a matte painter, gives an insight in what equipment he uses and what software application he uses. It is worth checking out, bec

We also want to say special thanks to Satyaki Sarkar who was as kind as Jaime Jasso to let us use their images in this article.

This post can contain affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something we may earn a commission. It will help us to provide you with more content. Our opinions are not influenced in any way by this. 

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