Fantasy digital matte painting

Professional digital matte painter Sarel Theron shows you how to create an epic, Hollywood-style scene that recreates the fabled Lost City of the Incas in incredible detail with the liberal use of the Clone Stamp tool.

Since the birth of cinema, movie- makers have created stunning special effects by combining still matte paintings with live-action film. Matte painting techniques were once closely guarded secrets that never left the big studios.

Today however, with the aid of modern personal computers, creating epic Hollywood-style matte paintings is finally within everyone’s reach.

For this masterclass, professional matte painter Sarel Theron reveals the process and insider secrets of matte creation.

Using reference images and Photoshop’s Clone Stamp tool, he focuses on the creation of a 2D digital matte painting, from beginning sketch to final work.

For an image of this complexity, you should expect to spend 24 to 32 hours illustrating it. In this masterclass we will re-create a mythical version of the ancient Inca city, Machu Picchu, also known as the Lost City.

01. Open a new document by going to File > New and create a blank canvas of 5,700-x-3,900 pixels. Open the included iStockphoto image, iStock_ 000002312743Large.jpg, from the CD. Hold down Command (Mac) or Control (Windows), and click-&-drag the photograph of Machu Picchu as it appears today into your new document. Place the photo in the centre of the canvas, then move it to the bottom right.

02. Use a large soft eraser to remove the photograph’s sky and then create a new layer named ‘Outlines’ above the photograph. We will now start extending the original plate. Select a soft standard brush of about 30 pixels and start drawing in the general outlines of the new scenery that you are going to add.

03. Now that we have the general outlines of our new image, we can start painting in a bit more detail. Always begin with the element that is the furthest away (usually the sky). Select the ‘Background’ layer and create a new layer named ‘Sky’.

While still in brush mode, hold down Alt/Option to turn your cursor into a colour Eyedropper and select the grey/blue colour of the background mountains in the photograph. Use this colour to block in the sky.

04. Add some storm clouds to the sky and establish the lightsource. Use a variety of different-sized soft brushes and light pen pressure to slowly build up layers of stormy clouds. Don’t forget to add the sunbeam!

05. Ensure the ‘Sky’ layer is still selected and create a new layer called ‘Right mountain’. Use the same technique you used for the sky, by picking the colour of the right- hand mountain on the photograph and then blocking in that colour on your extension.

Add a bit more detail to the mountain by picking various shades from the original photograph and applying it to your new layer. The sky and landscape extensions are all done from my imagination, but you are welcome to use reference photographs if that makes it easier for you.

06. Select ‘Layer 1’ (the layer that is your original photograph) and create a new layer named ‘Right foreground mountain’. Repeat what you did in step five, but add a little bit more detail this time. Use the original photograph as your colour palette in order to keep a uniform and balanced colour scheme throughout your picture.

07. Now create a new layer and name it ‘Left foreground mountain’. Paint in the rough details as you did in the previous step. Once done, select ‘Layer 1’ again and create a new layer named ‘Middle-ground’.

08. We will now add the final extensions over the original plate, which includes the waterfall and another small peak towards the rear of the ruins. Once done you can delete your ‘Outlines’ layer. Your rough should now look similar to the screengrab above. This sketch will give you an idea of what your final composition will look like, displaying elements such as colour, lighting and perspective.

Ideally you shouldn’t spend more than a few hours working on this colour rough. Next we will start to render our matte in a bit more detail and try to give the painted area more of a photorealistic appearance.

09. We will start with the sky again. Select your ‘Sky’ layer and with a variety of different sized brushes, carefully build up the layers of cloud. If you are feeling a bit artistically challenged you can always find a good-sized photograph and paste it in, retouching it a bit with some brushwork. Make use of adjustment layers and colour overlays placed over your sky layer to view changes without affecting your working layer.

10. I have painted in some distant mountains beneath the sky to give the painting more depth. These are just flat colour silhouettes with some highlights added to the edges. Once your sky is finished go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise and add a little bit of Gaussian Noise to help it match the ‘film’ grain of the original plate.

11. Time to add some more photographic textures to our landscape. For texture painting we will mainly use the Clone Stamp tool. Select your ‘Right mountain’ layer and set the Clone Stamp tool to ‘non-aligned’.

Hold down Alt/Option to turn your cursor into a crosshair and select the area of mountain on the original plate indicated by the red circle. Carefully start painting in the photographic textures over your sketch. For the cliffs, I used texture samples from the cliff on the original plate indicated by the blue circle.

12. This is what the right middle-ground mountain looks like once completed. I’ve changed the shape of the mountain on the original plate slightly and added some brushwork set to colour overlay to get the cliffs a little bluer. For the two foreground mountains we will require bigger and more detailed rock and vegetation textures which we will source from a different, close-up photograph of the mountain behind Machu Picchu.

13. Select your topmost layer, open iStock_000002605241Large and 13step drag the photograph into your main image. Press Command/Control+B and set your colour midtone balance to cyan 30, green 25, blue 65. Next, go to Image > Adjustments > Brightness > Contrast. Set your brightness to -30 and contrast to -25. Select your ‘Left foreground mountain’ layer and the Clone Stamp tool. Use the area indicated by the red rectangle on the new photograph as your texture palette, and apply the textures over your sketch varying your pen pressure.

14. With the texturing completed on the left foreground mountain, select ‘Layer 4’ (your new photograph layer). Press Command/Control+B and set your midtone balance to red +10, yellow -10. Select your ‘Right foreground mountain’ layer and paint in the textures using the sunlit part of the texture palette to render the highlights.

15. For the penultimate step, select your ‘Middle ground’ layer and clone in some of the stone textures on your original plate over the cliff edge where the waterfall will be. Paint in the waterfall using a small brush, then lock your layer and use a large soft, low- opacity brush with a light blue/grey colour to create a misty water vapour atmosphere at the bottom of the falls.

Cover the nearer ruins with vegetation and add a few trees. Create your trees by drawing in the trunks and branches, then select an existing area of vegetation and clone it over the tree branches to create the leaves. Finally, delete ‘Layer 4’ (your new photograph layer).

16. Lastly we need to rebuild the ruined city and restore it to its former glory! For the pyramid, I used the Polygonal Lasso tool to select the base of the larger building. I then copied and resized it four times and stacked the layers on top of each other.

You’ll need to do a fair amount of retouching with the Healing Brush, Clone Stamp tool and paint brushes to get the city looking habitable again. As a final step you can add a few adjustment layers on top of the image as well as a universal layer blend mode to set the overall mood.


If you need to quickly adjust the size of the Clone Stamp tool (also known as the Rubber Stamp tool) you can use the same shortcut as with regular brushes. Pressing [ makes the Clone Stamp smaller, and pressing ] makes it larger. Pressing the number keys 1-9 changes the opacity in 10 per cent jumps.

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2 responses to “Fantasy digital matte painting

  1. Its time to sleep here, but I find the tutorial very impressive. I am going to check it tomorrow. Thx for posting great things!!!


  2. I paint & this is excelent!

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