The Art of Matte Painting

The Art of Matte Painting

Conrad W Allan discussed matte painting and talked a bit about the new service Matte Paint, which supplies a bunch of high-quality photos for game artists.

Conrad W Allan discussed matte painting and talked a bit about the new service Matte Paint, which supplies a bunch of high-quality photos for game artists.


I work as a Matte Painter in the VFX industry and I’ve worked on Game of Thrones, Logan, Assassins Creed, Independence day, among others. I started about a decade ago in structure modelling for architects and eventually I got myself a degree in games animation, during which I found myself gravitating towards level design and environments because of my interest in matte painting and was lucky enough to have met the infamous Dax Pandhi who became my mentor in 3D environments. So, when I started freelancing, I ended up focusing on environments until the door opened in a film matte painting position. 
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As soon as I saw the professional matte painting workflow in film I realised how frustrating it was finding usable image reference. It’s not just one issue too, it’s a plethora: copyright, compression quality and resolution, lighting direction, the list goes on… and whether it’s a skybox for a game or background for a film, finding images is a chore and a constant battle. So that’s where the idea came from for the company; a solution to the problem.

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Matte painting is extremely unforgiving, primarily because a single artist is responsible for making the entire shot look photo-real, but often the the physical place doesn’t exist and the client wants something really fantastical. Working on PAN was a good example as we had to recreate 1940’s London. Matte painters often have to match to a shot plate too; that means matching focal length, perspective, lighting, scale… so the difference between an image being usable or not can come down to something really minor.

Traditionally matte paintings were done by hand but nowadays it’s all in Photoshop where we can mix photo’s together and paint over where necessary. We also use a lot of projection techniques in Maya and Nuke. This is referred to as ‘2.5D’ as it’s a 2D image projected onto a 3D object and is a quick way of achieving parallax without rendering full 3D geo and lighting.

Matte Paint

As often as possible we shoot our content to create HDR’s – so we take shots from -2EV to +2EV – without that range the whites or blacks in most images would be clamped. We also shoot panorama’s as often as possible, even if the location doesn’t immediately call for it we’ll put a longer lens on and take a square pattern of 4 images just to have a higher resolution image available. It does mean we need a tonne of data space, a single image on the site can be built up of 50+ photo’s, but it’s definitely worth it.

Being a new image source, one of our concerns was having enough variety of images at launch. It’s no use having photography of just one part of the world at launch. Luckily I found two friends who are photographers and they are now dedicated photographers for us; one covers Europe and the other, Africa. With me living in Canada and my Co-founder is in Australia we have most areas covered… although there are still plenty of places we want to travel to! 
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We’ll be adding new locations to the site every few months and we have a request system where our users can ask for, and vote on, locations they’d like more content from.


The first thing that springs to mind are skies. They’re definitely one of the most useful for artists. There’s a saying that you “can never have enough sky ref”, and it really is true, they’re notoriously difficult to paint and they’re easy to pick out when used at the wrong angle, so having skies at different angles and elevations is very valuable. Any elevated view of a landscape, city or wide vista is going to be useful too.

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Since we haven’t launched we don’t have any numbers on what is being downloaded the most but I suspect it’ll be a pretty broad spectrum considering the array of people interested; we have people from professional games/film and marketing to hobbyists who are all excited about the launch.

When we travel our selectivity is pretty low, when you’re in a part of the world you don’t live it’s far better to take too many images than too few, and often I’ve found myself using obscure images in my work that I didn’t originally think would be useful – like a flower for a spaceship shot in Independence Day.


There are a few different styles of matte painters but they boil down to 2 major distinctions: painting and photo-bashing. Before digital VFX became the mainstay for film post, matte paintings were painted by hand on glass and then filmed by the camera. The original Star Wars series is an iconic example. When digital camera became so good, using photo’s as a base became the go-to as it’s so much faster to work with and most work was moving to a digital pipeline anyway. There’s still a lot of paint work on top of the photography needed to make it look photo real but having the photographic base gets you a long way.

For the last 12 months I’ve been testing our library and have been exclusively using our images in freelance work and have been finding them a real joy to work with because of the RAW availability and the multiple exposures.

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The 100: in the case of this shot, the client wanted a day and night scene of the matte painting. Because I had everything in RAW it was very easy to grade the image to a night shot. It took me 4 hours to grade the convert it painting instead of a couple of days!


We’ve developed a modular system which will fit anyone’s needs, from hobbyist to large studios. There are credit packs and subscriptions with add-on options. 

Credit Packs are once off purchases which don’t expire for 3 years, these are intended for artists who don’t have a regular need for images. For those who do want regular usage, the subscriptions start at $108 per year and those accounts receive monthly credits with a 1 month rollover so unused credits aren’t wasted. With a subscription you also gain access to the free downloads; everything is available at 1200px for free. That’s also where the add-ons come in. We have two add-on packs, HD and UHD, and these will be available shortly after launch and will bump this free download up to 2200px and 4400px respectively. These are intended for film studios or full-time freelancers who minimum resolution requirements and will save a lot of money.

I think one of the benefits of this project taking so long is we’ve had the opportunity to revisit our pricing model over and over. What we’ve ended up with is a flexible system and scalable system which should work really nicely for our users.

We wanted to be accessible to all artists, not just professionals and studio so we kept our prices low and have been focusing on gathering high quality content and being valuable to a large audience. Our first subscription tier gets you a lot no matter your usage needs. A hobbyist might take full advantage of the unlimited 1200px downloads could carry them through most of their work. Small studios need higher resolution images so our high resolution HDR panorama images would be their focus… the sky shot below would be a typical purchase for a studio and cost anywhere from $100 to $1000 for a 16k image, but with our entry level subscription they’re be able to get 2 of them at 20k each month!


Legal Questions

I have a bone to pick with copyright… I hate it. I understand if you’re a professional photographer and spend a long time on a single image, but for stock imagery it’s a bit rich and it’s even worse if you’re an industry artist. We are often looking for 50+ images for a single final image. When some stock images go for $1000 at the necessary copyright, that’s a potential $50,000 just for a single shot which is totally ridiculous. 

We do have a copyright agreement, but it boils down to “you may not directly resell our images” and that’s just to protect our direct company assets from being used in competition. So if someone wants to create a piece of art and sell that, that’s totally ok. The same goes for film, games, printed art, etc.

Final Words 

We’re running our closed beta through this month and will be starting the open beta on September 1st. This will be the first opportunity for everyone to jump onboard and check out the gallery. Those who sign up will become part of our founding members group so they’ll receive discounts, benefits and bonus stuff going forward! Anyone interested should sign up on our home page,

Conrad W Allan, a Matte Painter

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    The Art of Matte Painting