Matte paintings are a excellent way to build your photo-manipulation skills (and expand into digital painting too). Today, I will walk you through the crucial Photoshop tools, steps and hints to get you started. And for those of you who saw my space illustrations in last week's Throwback Thursday, here's the basic process behind my astronomy illustrations.
This is an intermediate tutorial; you'll need to know the basics of starting new layers, painting, the selection tools and creating basic masks.
All matte paintings start with a "plate" and in today's digital world that means a high-res image that you will base the rest of your design on. The term "plate" is a reference from the analog days of Hollywood matte painters where illustrators would hand-paint a piece of glass, which would then be composited with the live-capture film. The plate in this tutorial is a photo I took of the Colorado sand dunes.
I'm also going to use another photo of mine (below) to extend the sky and further establish the mood.
I placed my dunes onto a larger, vertical canvas and then masked away the original sky with a combination of the quick selection tool and a tiny paint brush.
Right now is a good time to mention that you should organize all your layers into folders, because matte painting uses a LOT of layers. It is so much easier to make corrections later when your layers are organized by background, sky, middle ground, etc.
Next, drop in your sky layer behind the dunes layer. Using the Levels and Hue and Saturation adjustment filters, make global changes to balance the lighting and color of both layers so that they begin to match. Don't worry about a perfect match, we'll work on that later. For now, just capture the overall atmospheric feel.
Here's what you'll have after masks and global color and lighting adjustments.
Step 3: Refining the Atmosphere
Now let's roll up our sleeves and break out the paintbrush for some real atmospheric adjustments. Set your brush for a very low opacity, enlarge it and make sure it is fuzzy (0 hardness). Make a new layer, select the white color, and begin painting distance atmosphere over the farthest dunes and the lower part of the sky.
Next, paint in some specific colors to help blend both images. In my image, I needed soft, dusty blues and grey-ish purples. I also needed a global color adjustment, so I made a new layer and filled it with solid blue, then set that layer for a very low opacity. The blue layer helped create the early twilight atmosphere I was seeking.
At this point we have a nice composited landscape as a background for our surreal work.
Step 4: Adding Surrealism
Now we can have some fun and start adding unusual floating objects. The best images will be those of objects on a white background. Drop your image above all your other layers and mask away the background with layers mask and your favorite masking tool (I used a combination of the magic selection and the paintbrush).
Right now, your image is looking pretty cool, but you can take it a step further and use the same atmosphere blending skills you just used to blend your two background images. For my rock, I used Levels to help match the lighting and then further tweaked the lighting with a handy painting trick known as non-destructive dodge and burn.
To use the dodge and burn trick, create a new layer and set the blending mode to Overlay (as shown below). Then paint with white to lighten the image or with black to darken it (make sure your brush is set to a low opacity and slowly build up the effect). Experiment with a combination of light and dark colors too, not just black and white.
Repeat this process as you add other elements. Remember, the further away objects are in space, the more atmospheric perspective, so be sure to reduce the contrast of distant objects and paint over them with low-opacity layers of white and blue.
You now have the basics of photo-manipulation for matte painting and are ready to experiment with your own awesome surreal scenes.