What are matte paintings?

I'm sitting here at my desk just having recently heard about digital matte paintings and I was wondering 'what does matte actually painting mean?' so I thought I'd share everything I've learned with you today!

Short Answer: A Matte painting is a method to quickly produce a painted representation typically for the film and gaming industry. Also used historically painted on glass panels combined with live action footage to provide the illusion of a cohesive scene, now thanks to new technology this is done digitally often using photo manipulation.

Minas Tirith, The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema
Minas Tirith, The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema

What are Matte Paintings used for?

Matte Paintings have been used since even before movie cameras were invented to create painted elements on photographs, moving forward into the digital age this is now done in Photoshop, and is even moving past this and incorporating 3-dimensional elements using programs like 3DS Max, Maya or Modo.

The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema
The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema

Matte paintings have been used in the film industry from as early as the 1920's, some famous examples of these are; Star wars, The Lord of the Rings, Mary Poppins, Ghostbusters, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Invisible man, Dracula, King Kong, The Planet of the Apes and many, many more contemporary movies.

You'll also find Digital Matte paintings used in the gaming industry to primarily produce cinematic elements, but also to create game backdrops and 'sky boxes' and are now often made using 3D software.

Examples of Matte Paintings

Below I've listed some of the most famous Matte Painters in the Industry. Many of the films they worked on would not be of the standard we see them in today if it wasn't for their hard work and dedication to their craft.

The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema
The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema

I remember when I was just a wee lad that I wasn't even aware that some of these films, like the Lord of the rings for example, contained painted elements, and when I found out it blew my mind! It really stands as a testament to their painting prowess.

Christopher evens matte painting star wars
Matte Painter Christopher Evans working on Star Wars famous Imperial March scene

Matte painting christopher evans star wars
Imperial march Matte Painting by Artist Christopher Evans

Matte painting christopher evans star wars
And the Final Matte painting combined with the film footage.

Mary poppins 1964 matte painting
Mary Poppins, 1964. Matte Painting

A lot of the earlier matte paintings used in the film industry were approached in a more stylistic, impressionist manor. You can see this clearly in the Mary Poppins matte painting from 1964. Many of the brush strokes were kept loose to give an impression of the background rather than a tighter photo realistic approach that is commonly used in today's film media.

One possible reason for this is that they simply spent less time rewinding and analysing films during the 1960's as we do now, and with increasing quality of film, TVs and Monitors these differences are far more apparent.

raiders of the lost ark 1981 matte painting
Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981. Matte painting

Raiders of the Lost Ark, of the Indiana Jones trilogy, is another prime example of Matte painting being used to give an accurate representation of a realistic scene.

This time however the scene itself would have been possible to created feasibly using standard set creation in a film studio, but the studio obviously has opted for a professional matte painter to create the scene to cut down on the financial costs of creating such a massive scene by hand.

the planet of the apes 1968. matte painting
The planet of the Apes, 1968. Matte painting

The reveal scene from the original Planet of the Apes film made in 1968 gives a masterful example of how matte painting can be used to sell a concept or an idea to an audience where it would be impossible or incredibly costly to do so using traditional methods.

Famous Matte Painters

I've also listed below some of my favourite matte painters of the last few decades. Which one is your favourite? Have I missed someone you think deserves to be on the list? Let me know in the comments below!

Heather Abels

Heather is an experienced matte painter currently working in the film industry having worked on titles such as; Deadpool, Avatar, Big Hero 6, X-Men days of future past, Machete Kills and Django Unchained

Heather Abels, Shadow of War. 2017. Digital Matte Painting
Heather Abels, Shadow of War. 2017. Digital Matte Painting

You can find much more of her work and her show reel over at: Link

Jim Martin

Jim Martin, Bioshock. 2007. Digital 3D Matte painting
Jim Martin, Bioshock. 2007. Digital 3D Matte painting

Credited as an Illustrator in movies such as The Matrix reloaded, Big Hero 6, Jurassic world, Captain America the First Avenger and many more. Martin also Produced Matte paintings for animated movies such as Bolt and the hit dystopian adventure Bioshock.

(You should also check out his Matrix Reloaded Illustrations they're gorgeous)

You can find more of his work here: Link

Ivo Horvat

Credited as a Matte painter on the following films; Insidious the Last Key, Beauty and the Beast, Resident Evil: Afterlife, I am Legend, Superman Returns.

Ivo Horvat. Digital Matte Painting
Ivo Horvat. Digital Matte Painting

You can find more of his work here: Link

Dylan Cole

Dylan Cole, Alita Battle Angel. 2019
Dylan Cole, Alita Battle Angel. 2019

Notable credits include Senior Matte Painter on Return of the King, Concept Art Director on Avatar, and Production Designer for Maleficent.   He uses Photoshop for all of his paintings, and Cinema 4D for all his 3D work.

You can find examples of his work and more information over at: Link

There are many more incredible matte painters out there, however I won't go on and list them all. I would recommend taking the time to look through the credits of your favourite films and games for matte painting credits to find more!

How are Digital Matte Paintings made?

There are a number of ways to create a matte painting, but I'm going to focus on digital methods here as I have a small amount of experience doing it myself and should be able to describe the process much easier!

If you are familiar with painting digitally already you're halfway to learning matte painting, as most of the skills are very easily transferable. If not don't worry I'll talk you through the basic process and share with you some of the resources I use that have been very helpful!

Start by opening your canvas and set your size to 150-200% of the size you usually work on, this is a handy trick used by most professionals to avoid some of the little imperfections that occur when painting as they'll be harder to see when they're eventually sized down!

Now you'll want to collect a few photo references you'll want to paint in. I'd start with a basic landscape like a mountain or a field with a cloudy sky to get you going as it'll be much simpler going forward. Don't worry about where you collect your references from as you are just practicing you don't need to worry about copy-right laws just yet as long as you're not posting them all over the web claiming them as your own.

Arrange the photographs in an interesting composition that looks somewhat natural, use a soft brush to erase and blend in the overlapping areas in a way that looks cohesive. You'll want to touch up a lot of the over joining areas by hand by painting over them on a new layer. The goal here is to disguise the fact that several photographs have been blended together.

Remember, matte paintings aren't usually made to be shown as pieces of fine art, so it's fine to use photographic reference to speed up your process! Professional artists will have access to large libraries of high quality photographs they have taken themselves and a wealth of stock photos they have paid for the rights to use in their own projects. This will enhance the quality of the final piece of course, but you can practice using images found on search engines while you improve your matte painting skills.

Adam Figielski, Game of Thrones. Matte Painting
Adam Figielski, Game of Thrones. Matte Painting


Matte Paintings are an incredible efficient way to produce photo-realistic finished paintings that are perfect for the fast paced film and gaming industry. Often polished to a high standard can even be used as backgrounds and the basis for many high budget box office movies and major league gaming titles!

What do you think about matte painting? I'd love to hear your opinions on it! I read through all the comments before so make sure to leave your mark. I hear many artists suggest that it's 'cheating', do you think that's the case?

60 views0 comments