Throwback Thursday - Matte Painted Space Scenes

I've spent the past five years training to become a professional graphic designer and photographer, but for a while I was almost converted to the alluring vocation of digital matte painter!  Dreams of freelancing for Hollywood or scientific journals never came to fruition as my love for graphic design and photography was too great to give up, but I did have an adventure building an astronomy illustration portfolio.

I began astronomy matte painting my first year of college. I hadn't yet obtained college drawing and painting courses, so my attempts at digital painting and drawing were rudimentary.  I also didn't have much of an image library to incorporate (matte painting isn't all painting--there's a good deal of photo manipulation as well). 

I struggled with just the rendering of a single star or planet so much that my compositions were simple.  But never the less, I hit the books, practiced like nuts and I observed the real world with a sketchbook (building up my drawing skills and compositional skills). I also brought my camera and began building my own stock library of clouds, rocks, textures, skies and landscapes.

The following year my images improved by leaps and bounds.  After all that sketching practice, my compositions were improving and after college drawing and painting classes, my rendering and detail skills sky rockted. I had also built up a sizable image library which let me texture my paintings as well as depict detailed landscapes in half the time of painting the entire scene.


My third year I was in full swing.  I now could draw whatever I wanted and my painting skills weren't far behind (at the very least, I could block in shapes and colors and then overlay my photos for details and textures). I might not have been up to Hollywood snuff, but I was finally a matte painter.

My process had changed drastically. This work-in-progress gives you a glimpse of how all my newer images started as little graphite sketches that I scanned in and then colored with digital painting. This image is the "in-between" stage where I have blocked in all major details with painting, painted the main planet and rings, and begun overlaying my photos for added depth, detail and realism.


My image library now included thousands of landscapes, skies and rocks.  This image above uses two photos I took of the Royal Gorge in Colorado. The star field was textured with very transparent layers of rock and cloud photos.  The moons were textured with close-ups of various rock and lichen surfaces.

Every star in this image was painted and the galaxy arm was digitally "airbrushed."  The asteroids are actually volcanic rocks that can fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. 

2012 was my last productive year for astronomy matte painting. For three years space scenes were my domante personal project and I devoted every day to at least a few minutes of painting time. But in 2013 my courses intensified and I had to dedicate myself to graphic design, photography and mass communications. 

However, in my advanced graphic design class one of my assignments included cover designs for a student literary magazine using artwork of our choice.  I jumped on the opportunity to revisit astro illustration and developed these three artworks.

This image used five different Colorado images blended together with digital painting.  The planets, cirrus clouds and birds were painted from scratch.

I only had a week to create three illustrations while balancing other homework such as photo assignments, history papers and feature story interviews, so I didn't get to incorporate the same level of detail as the 2012 images.  But by this time I was a fast sketcher and conceptual thinker so the compositions did not suffer, at least.

This illustration incorporated multiple cloud photos that needed a lot of painting and levels adjustment to blend correctly.  The planets and aliens were scratch-painted.

A mock-up of the final covers that were proposed to the client.

It's been nearly two full years since my last astronomy illustrations and while I am still married to a career in visual communications using graphic design and photography, I do miss the challenge and the relaxation of matte painting. Maybe it's time to dive back in for a little personal astro work.


Popular Posts