Matte Painting- a return to the discipline

fantasy matte painting

Matte Painting, misgivings and fallacy

For a long time I shied away from the artistic discipline of matte painting. I wanted to experience illustration in (what I felt at the time was) it’s ‘purest form’. I didn’t want to work with photos, early in my career, I even used to paint stuff with “no references” like it was a badge of honour! How crazy I was. I religiously use photographic references for both inspiration and technical pointers these days. How light hits a face, how perspective changes in structures and nature, how pleasing compositions naturally form in day to day life.

I decided for a long time that those that actually incorporated photos into their artwork were charlatans, and couldn’t draw themselves. I felt I needed to prove to myself that I could draw, paint, digitally paint these scenes myself. I don’t want to think about how many times I tried to learn how to render a far off mountain range back in the early days, when popular concept artists were able to do the same in seconds by using their technical creative knowledge to produce beautiful handcrafted scenes in a fraction of the time it took me to draw a portion of a background.

Second chances

It was only when a client showed me an artist they were planning on working with as a different direction from my usual work, I saw the scenes they’d created, and something clicked. These scenes were mind-blowingly good. The render was incredible, and I knew what their process had been. I decided it was time I stopped ignoring this element to modern, commercial art. I asked my client if I could shoot them some samples of my own matte painting to win the job myself and set to work.

On the surface, matte painting relies heavily on photo manipulation, which may seem as I once thought (a scam, not real art, etc), but heck no. The talent, skill, visual understanding that goes into a piece of matte painting is incredible. Everything needs to ‘fit’, from everything being lit in the right direction, the right mood, the right hue of colour. Your mental visualisation has to be on point to get it to where you want it, and I have the utmost respect for those in the career. Especially when I revisited matte painting after so long. Above is the first sample I sent to my client.

How the sausage is made…

I want to show you the photos from which this piece is derived.

These are just some of the images used to create the image at the top of this post. It’s important to note that properly licensed images like the ones above should be used in creating a matte piece. These were from free site (that allows commercial use) Unsplash.

You can see how, when placed next to each other, these images couldn’t possibly fit. But using an understanding of depth, lighting, perspective and all the other good stuff in art, you can create something entirely new. Also, the cobbled together piece is heavily painted over, to add, remove, and invent new points of interest or textures. The character in the foreground is an easy example in the piece at the top of this post of something that was added to the image by simply illustrating what was needed.


You don’t need to look far to see how effectively matte painting is used in the creative industries. One of my all time favourite people to look at is Dylan Cole. His work is used in fantasy and sci films you know and love. In the showreel below, it shows how he uses his 2D images in paralaxing layers to create what look like entirely 3D enviroments. He creates worlds using a skilful combination of photo manipulation/editing and illustration.

Falling in love

As you can probably tell, my feelings about the discipline, having worked in the commercial art industry for over a decade has radically changed. I see this as an incredibly efficient route to goal in the right situation. I’m planning on doing a lot more work combining this new skill with my existing skillset. Adding new strings to my bow, only ever increases my understanding of art, and improves my work, and I’m a whole lotta excited about the future.

If you need fantasy art

If you’re looking for a fantasy artist, feel free to snoop through my illustration portfolio or head straight over to contact me for work, where you’ll find my email address and some handy forms which guide you through some of the starting info I’ll need to be able to quote for you. Typically I’m booked up a month ahead of time, but do drop me a line if you have anything time sensitive, sometimes I’m able to move things around in a pinch. Hope to hear from you!

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I love my job. I’ve always wanted to be an artist working on fantasy settings, creating world that give people real escapism and suspend their disbelief. One of the things I absolutely love though, is the interaction with people who are following along with what I’m doing. Hearing comments, and seeing my work make it’s way around the world makes me so happy!

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