Matte Painting: From Photo to Artwork

Matte Painting: From Photo to Artwork

Mark Trafankowski briefly talked about the way he created a sci-fi matte painting piece created during CGMA's course mentored by Eric Bouffard.


My name is Mark Trafankowski and I am a CG artist currently working in the architectural visualization industry. I have been working as an architectural visualizer for the past ten years. Сurrently, I work for a London-based studio The Boundary

Initially, I became interested in digital art from an early age and I have always been playing around with Photoshop as well as 3D packages such as 3ds Max.

Choosing CGMA

The reason I chose the Matte Painting course at CGMA is that I needed to find a new skill set that could help me with my everyday workflow. Apart from this, I had developed an interest in matte painting and became fascinated by the art and process of creating such amazing environments, plus, the fact that this has contributed to so many amazing movie scenes over the years.

After doing some research into what courses were available, I came across CGMA and this seemed like the best option for what I wanted to achieve. I also really appreciated the fact that the classes were taught by industry professionals who have a full working knowledge of the industry skill set needed, and what direction the industry is evolving in. For example, my tutor was Eric Bouffard who has been a matte painter and environmental artist at Dreamworks animation, and now Disney animation. You just can’t get any better than that right? The only other way to get this kind of one-on-one mentorship is by interning at various studios.

Eric Bouffard's art:

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I think for many concept art or matte painting pieces these days, Sci-Fi is a natural topic. It pushes us to create new, unknown worlds, or picture the influence or remnants of something unknown or foreign that has to be realistic and believable.

To me, one of the greatest examples of successful sci-fi cinematography is Blade Runner, so I guess I took some inspiration from it.

During the class, we had a brief that we needed to adhere to. The point of the exercise was to explore the sunset or sunrise lighting mood. It also had to be some kind of a city or civilization. Finally, the scene had to be somehow disrupted or influenced by something futuristic or alien.

I found an image on Google that had the dramatic lighting effect I wanted: sunset with a lot of atmosphere. The image was a really great photo (unfortunately, I don't know the author) which had been edited to some extent. With such a strong base, it wasn't too hard to create something cool. All I needed to do was to bring in some 3D elements into the original photo and work on the composition.

Original photo:


If you need to sketch out an idea, photobashing is a great way to quickly iron out a concept or eliminate bad ones, especially when you aren’t super amazing at drawing. I also find that using a 3D package like 3ds Max is a great way to ‘sketch’ out a composition by just blocking in basic pieces of geometry. Even adding a basic lighting system within the software can quickly help you discover what mood or light direction you want.

My references and 3D composition examples:

Adding 3D Geometry

After finding a great base image, I needed to work out the elements I'd add in order to sell the idea that the original city had been taken over by sci-fi architecture. My brain immediately rushed to strong architectural forms, since I am an archviz artist. To save some time, I purchased a pack of sci-fi models from the great Vitaly Bulgorov. His models are incredibly detailed!

I added a basic texture to the models, knowing that I would be doing a paintover or overlaying elements in Photoshop afterward.

I imported the backplate into the 3ds Max viewport and started placing the geometry to find the best composition. I went through 10-15 attempts before I was happy.

Note: A lot of the geometry in Vitaly's pack isn’t necessarily buildings but rather just... sci-fi forms. I scaled and rotated all sorts of objects to find something that fitted. The buildings in the background are part of the original photography. If you take a look at the images above, you will see the 3D assets separated from the original plate.

Painting In Details

Hopefully, the reference images attached will clear up what has been added in 3D. I matched the direction, color, and intensity of the light in 3ds Max - this would give the geometry a good working base. Once I dropped the rendered geometry onto the image in Photoshop, I painted additional light to match the original plate better. I also painted a lot of depth onto the buildings to push some of them into the back. Finally, I painted in smoke and atmosphere using various cloud brushes. The most time-consuming part was probably overlaying the graphics, grunge, and dirt onto the buildings.


In 3ds Max, you can either set up a camera and use Perspective Match to get the correct perspective, or just move the geometry around as you wish, especially with something so conceptual like this where there is no exact scale. Then add a lighting system, some basic textures, and render.

Final result:


The biggest challenge for me was choosing an idea/concept and sticking to it from the beginning to the end. In this case, it really helps to have some restrictions or brief guidelines, even if they don’t really exist. I sometimes give myself some imaginary restrictions so that I do not deviate too far from my initial idea.

Eric helped so much with all of the hurdles. During the live Q&As, you can discuss the challenges with your mentor and get really helpful feedback. One of the most important things to me was having someone of that experience and talent critiquing your work. Completing this course opened my eyes to a whole new industry and skill set. The course has also helped me drastically in my workflow in the ArchViz industry and I make use of what I have learned on a daily basis.

I think anybody who has a genuine interest in matte painting or VFX could apply for this course. You do need to be able to use Photoshop at a proficient level, plus some very basic knowledge of a 3D package will always be an advantage. I would highly recommend this course to anyone who is seriously looking at becoming a matte painter or just getting into the world of VFX.

Mark Trafankowski, CG Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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