This tutorial was originally published in September 2013 as a Tuts+ Premium tutorial. It is now available free to view. Although this tutorial does not use the latest version of Adobe Photoshop and some of the source files are no longer available, its techniques and process are still relevant.
Create a Mountain Fortress Using Matte Painting Techniques in Photoshop
In the motion picture industry, filmmakers often depend on artists to create fantasy environments that could not exist in real life. Modern artists often turn to Photoshop, as well as 3D applications, to create these fantastic environments.
In this tutorial, I will show you how to create a mountain fortress from beginning to end. I will start by showing you a bit about the creative process. Then I will show you how to sketch out your ideas using thumbnail sketches. Once you’ve chosen a design, I will then show you how to build up your artwork with the help of a 3D render, as well as a collection of photographs. Let’s get started!
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Watch the Speed Art Video
You will need the following assets to complete this tutorial. Please download them before you begin.
- Ice Mountain 1
- Ice Mountain 2
- Ice Mountain 3
- Ice Mountain 4
- Ice Mountain 5
- Ice Mountain 6
- Ice Mountain 7
- Lava Bed 1
- Lava Bed 2
- Lava Bed 3
- Lava Bed 4
- Castle Window Details 1
- Castle Window Details 2
- Bridge Reference 1
- Bridge Reference 2
- Structure Reference
The following images were used as reference photos in the tutorial. They were not used in the final artwork but were used, in some cases, to quickly block in specific areas of the artwork.
- Alpine Set
- Image 1
- Image 2
- Image 3
- Sky Reference 1
- Sky Reference 2
- Castle Windows Reference 1
- Castle Windows Reference 2
1. How to Figure Out the Sketch
This first step allows us to brainstorm some ideas. In the beginning of this stage, we really have no clear direction. We just let our hands and mind do the talking. But if we have to capture an idea, we must try and do as much doodling as we can. It doesn’t matter what type of tool or medium you use, just as long as you can express your ideas on paper, or in some cases, digital paper.
Tip: When sketching, I encourage you to take your time to flesh out your ideas on paper. One way is to create call-outs to describe some parts of your sketches. Creating variation based on look and perspective can give you a fresh new idea on the same concept. Remember, there is no such thing as a ridiculous idea—all ideas at this stage are useful. In our example sketches, I added notes and call-outs that were useful in describing certain details.
Once you have done that, you can now start compiling all your ideas into four main concepts. Only choose the ones that you like. You have the option to refine each sketch, but keep it aligned to the concept that you are aiming for. In our case, we want to create a castle enveloped by a snow mountain surrounded by lava, two contrasting ideas that can be a challenge to create.
Choose what you think is the best among the four that you have made. Choose the one that can conveys your idea strongly. Refine the concept and add proper framing and composition, altering some parts to make it more pleasing to the eye.
In some cases, taking this final concept and creating different views of it can also help. There might be a better angle or perspective that you can “accidentally” discover while exploring your idea. 3D can be a great tool at this stage.
2. How to Form Buildings
Form building is the next step to flesh out your ideas. Some matte painters are great at creating form using hundreds of references, while others prefer 3D. Whichever tool or step you might take, always consider the time that you will spend on creating your piece, especially with pressure from deadlines. This is a critical part, since we might waste a lot of time if we go in the wrong direction.
We start making our form by refining our composition. We take our initial sketch and overlay some common composition lines over it to refine the flow and look of our final image. Feel free to edit or transform your image at this stage.
Next, we will be using 3D as our tool of choice for creating the subject of our work.We’ve chosen 3D for its versatility and level of control.We can always come back to our 3D model and render different views of the same model and change the texture and lighting when we want too. This is true of most studio workflows where time is critical and versatility is a must.
Form blocking in 3D is also better at providing us with accurate light and shadow direction. However, since this is a pure Photoshop tutorial, we will not dwell on 3D building the castle, but focus more on how we can enhance and integrate our pre-rendered castle into our painting.
To create a 3D castle yourself, download one of the amazing 3D renders from 3DOcean to help get you started on your end, before exploring how to enhance or recreate the scene that fits your concept.
3. How to Create Mountains
Before we begin, let’s create a New Document.
Our final image will then be delivered at this resolution. However, if your computer cannot handle large files, you are allowed to work on any manageable resolution. But to fully appreciate your painting, I would recommend that you make your final delivery around the HD size, 1920 x 1080 pixels.
Now on to the fun stuff! Let’s start off with the mountains. We are starting with the mountains because they are the biggest part of our painting. It is also the part that frames our castle.
First we will use our castle render as our base for the shape and look of the mountains (see 3D render image below). Then we will proceed with blocking the mountains really quickly to get an overall look and feel of the painting.
Block the mountains with the reference image that we have provided. At this stage we are just free-forming our painting. Grab any image that you think can work. This will be changed later on with a better image—we just need to see something really quickly. Use the Magic Wand Tool and quickly select the blue skies.
Once that’s done, invert your selection by going toSelect > Inverse or clickingShift-Control I.Once your selection is inverted, refine the edge (Control-Alt-Ror Select > Refine Edge). When you have set your settings, always tick Remember Settingsto save your current settings. This is useful as you have a preset that can be edited more quickly, especially if you have a slower computer.
The final “cut” image should be similar to this:
Add a “blocking” sky—it can be two or three variances of sky that can later be mixed or changed.
Add the sky and the blocking mountain behind the castle.
Integrate it as you go.
Taking another blocking mountain image, mask it out and add it as a left side blocking piece for the mountain background.
Take another mountain from the references and use it to block out the furthest part of your painting. A simple soft brush can quickly integrate it with your current painting. Just be sure that you are choosing the right image that goes with your sky.
Here is where everything starts to get interesting. At this point we are done with the preliminary blocking. We start off by creating our first perspective lines using the Pen Tool (P).
Choose a side from the building, and using it as a guide, click and drag your first point to the left side of the painting. Do this again and again until you can find where the vanishing point is. This will be our first vanishing point. Be sure to mark your vanishing point with a Guide Line.
When you are satisfied with the perspective lines you have created, paint over the lines. Select a Hard Round Brush, and set the size to 1 or a bit bigger depending on the size of your canvas. Then go back to the Pen Tool, Control-left clickon the canvas to unselect any lines, right-click,and then from the drop-down menu select Stroke Path.Choose the Brush Toolfrom the selection and hit OK. Depending on the current foreground color, the resulting line should look like the one below.
Once you have set up your perspective lines, you can now start building up your main mountains. We start off with a mountain that has more snow on it. It also comes from a set of images with the same character, enabling us to edit it more quickly and making it easier to integrate.
Start transforming your mountain to follow our blocking render. Lower the opacity of your pasted mountain and Right Click > Free Transform. It doesn’t have to be accurate, but try to keep the established look as much as possible.
Another way to get the form of your concept to your images is to create an outline of your existing blocking render. Just quickly paint over the outline of the 3D mountain on another layer.
Once that is done, you can go back and keep on transforming your reference images to reflect the outlines that you just created.
Were now moving towards the right of our painting. Now it’s time to create the second set of vanishing points. Let’s try to create these lines following the edges of the front face of our castle.
Tip: Try to keep your perspective lines and painted outlines in one folder. That way, you can easily turn them on and off as a group. At the same time it’s good practice to create groups for your elements. A classic group naming would be BG – Background, MG – Midground and FG – Foreground. You can also group each element according to its type, e.g. mountain, castle, sky, etc.
Once that is done, we continue to build upon our painting by importing images from our reference folder and transforming them to fit over the form that we have established.
At this stage, the process is very organic. Any image you will use will work just as long as you follow the curvature of your blocking render. Keep in mind that slanted edges should have slanted faces. So if you are using a reference that has a much more vertical face, be sure to transform it to follow the contour of the blocking render.
We keep on working on the mountain using our second perspective lines as vanishing points. At this point, we are adding the foreground element, creating an entrance to our castle.
Since our process is very organic, you can keep on adding elements that you think would work well with the image you’re building.
Add another mountain element on your current painting. Based on your reference 3D image, try to look for a mountain that has a much more rocky surface, or less snow on top. We want to wrap our castle on a hard surface, showing how massive and fortified it is in contrast to the snow, which is quite soft and clean.
Add some tip details to the edges of the mountain. When selecting images for the tip on the mountains in your painting, try to look for the ones that are tips themselves. It’s easier to have them match rather than carving a piece of image to make it look like a tip.
As we move forward, integration is the key. We need to match our added elements to the overall color of our image and our chosen sky.
Since our biggest element in our painting right now is the mountain, we will try to match all other added elements to the mountain and sky. The mountains will dictate your highlights and shadows, while the sky will dictate your depth, or the color of the furthest element in your scene. When we are done and everything is well integrated, we can then edit the colors further to our liking. At this stage, we just want all the images to match each other.
Tip: One of the key elements in integration is color matching. You can use any color correction technique you know. However, using the Curves Tool can add more control if you use it to edit your colors. If you are not yet familiar with the Curves Tool, I will go through the basics quickly. Otherwise you can move to the next step.
- Top Right: Controls Highlights. Down = Darker Up, = Brighter.
- Center: Controls the Mid-range colors of your image, the grays. Down = Darker, Up = Brighter.
- Bottom Left: Controls the Shadows. Down = Darker Up = Brighter.
You can add more points in between that could mix and match the darks and the highlights.
I will illustrate the effects of changing these values in the next few images.
Pulling the top right and lower left results in a graying of the colors and brightens the grays and the black. This will also flatten your colors as your curve flattens.
Here are the color results for editing the Red Channel. Lowering the mid-range of the curve will result in adding more “Green” to your image. It is also the same for the Highlights and Shadows. Going up will add more Red.
Here are the color results for editing the Green Channel. Lowering the mid-range of the curve will result in adding more “Red” to your image. It is also the same for the Highlights and Shadows. Going up will add more Green.
Here are the color results for editing the Blue Channel. Lowering the mid-range of the curve will result in adding more “Yellow” to your image. It is also the same for the Highlights and Shadows. Going up will add more Blue.
With this illustration, we have a good idea of how our general color will be affected with just a single point movement on the curve. Most of the time we only need two points to get a very accurate result, and at most three points.
In order to accurately pick and edit our colors, we open the Properties of our Curves Tool and click on the Hand Icon (CS6 and up) or Eyedropper Icon of CS5 or below. You can add points to your curve this way and adjust it more accurately.
Continue to build the mountain, this time concentrating on the formation behind the castle. Try to keep the shape of our based render.
Continue adding details to the left side mountain. This time around, add the details on the front part that surrounds the castle. Also to add some nice contrast to the square-like structure of the castle, add some spikes to the mountain shape.
Also continue to integrate the elements. Cloning and painting some seams out will shape your structures to your desired look.
Start working on the mountain at the right. We will use the same techniques as we have done on the left side. As always keep it organic and let the lines flow.
Carve your way through the reference images, carefully picking each image to create the pointed shape of our reference.
Tip: Try compiling your reference images into one PSD file. Chances are you will be using the same image over and over again. Compiling them into a PSD file will retain the reference’s original resolution and the crop that you made previously made in one smaller file.
Once we have the shape matched to our reference, we can now start building the depth of the mountain. With theAirbrush Tool, and using a Color Picker (hold down Alt andleft click), pick a color from the sky, preferably a brighter hue, and with an Opacity of 50% or lower, lightly paint over the inner part of the mountain to push it further down the painting.
When you’re done creating depth for the back mountains, start working on the lava in the front of the painting. We will use the same techniques previously mentioned with the help of our perspective lines.
Keep in mind that we are only blocking this part for now, just to get the feel and establish the look of the image, as we did earlierwith integration and color matching, while matching the contours to the perspective lines.
You will now block the lava flow. Pick any lava image from the references and Cut and Paste several instances of the image or another image. Try to keep the perspective and flow. Once you have placed the images, change the Blending Mode of the lava layers to Screen.
At this stage, you can now start adding your color correction. Keep it loose and not too precise. We are much more interested in the overall look of the image. Posted in the next few images are some of the settings and layering of the color correction used.
Add a folder on very top of your composition. Name the folder “Color Correction” or “CC” and place your CC inside this folder so you can turn them on and off.
Tip: When integrating your images, always turn your CC layer on and off so you can see the full range of your colors.
Once you’re done with the preliminary color corrections, you can finalize the right hand mountains by adding additional details to complement the design you made on the left part of the painting.
Add the same details at the base of the mountain that wraps around the right hand part of the castle.
Don’t forget to keep on integrating and color correcting your reference images as you paint them into your work.
Here is a good example of using just one image to create the foreground piece of the mountain that wraps the castle within. In this step we also added some depth to the mountain.
We will start correcting our castle’s color really quickly. This way, all elements in your painting will work together, which in turn will be easier to edit as a whole later on.
Open the CAMZ:depthRemapped file. This will be your depth map for your castle which is perfect for color corrections.
Once open, use a Curves Tool to adjust the depth values of the image. Adjust it so that you will have enough separation for each part of the castle. (See figure below for settings.)
Once you have adjusted the values, your image should look like this. Now we can use this as an Alpha Map to mask certain parts of our image.
Copy this layer and Paste it into the Channels panel.
Once pasted, Command/Control-Click on Alpha 1 and you will be able to create a mask for your image.
Duplicate your Castle layer. Add a Layer Mask to the duplicated castle images. Your Alpha will be applied automatically to the first selected layer after.
For every image you need to click on the Alpha 1 layer under the Channels Tab to create the mask. Alternatively, you can create an empty Layer Mask (pure white) and just Copy and Paste your mask onto the empty Layer Mask.
Add a Curves Tool and/or Levels, trying to match the castle’s color to the color of the mountains that surround it, while keeping the original castle image free from any corrections.
Once you’re done with your color corrections, stack them over your original image. For easier editing, keep this layer as one group. Control-Select Layers, and then press Control-G to group them or place them inside a group.
Now start to refine all your mountains—we will start with the left side by taking a slightly more detailed mountain face and patching it over the bottom side face.
Once you’re done with the left side integration, we move on to the front part of the castle. This one is a bit tricky. We want to create a smooth transition from the rough mountain side, which is very organic, to the smooth surface that clearly looks as if it was created by a human.
To achieve this we will look for a smoother mountain top and integrate it. Look for an image that has a smoother surface. Transform (Control-T) it to match the downward slope.
To create a better transition from the wall to the snow patch, paint or clone the snow on top of the wall while carefully following the wall’s contour.
Continue to refine the details by building up the back mountains. When matching a color, try to match it to the clouds nearest to it. Also remember that the further the object is from camera, the more desaturated it is.
And the last part for our mountain is the edge of the mountain that intersects with the lava flow. Like the transition with the building and the mountain, this part should also be defined.
We need an image that drops down suddenly and looks as if it has melted away. Look for these edges in your reference image. Integrate these patches into your painting. Cloning and Paint work will also be of good use here.
Tip: Always take cues from your painting before you add any new patch. It’s always better to get new patches from the same source material to easily fit them in without too much editing.
4. How to Release the Lava
Okay, that was a handful. Now that we are done with the mountains, and we have set up the look and the colors that we need to aim for, we can create the lava that flows through the valley.
Remember that we placed a blocking lava layer below? Well if you did you basically know what image you need. You need a wider image that has a good perspective embedded into it.
Use the Magic Wand to quickly mask out the sky. Cut the sky out or Shift-Control-I to Invert your mask and copy the Lava.
Create a New folder on top of the Mountain folder/layers. Paste the lava inside this folder. Transform (Control-T) your lava layer and, taking cues from the lines on the lava, try to match the perspective to your perspective lines.
Quickly color correct your lava using Curves (Control-M) or Levels (Control-L).
We need to add some depth to the Lava layer, to create the illusion of scale, as we did on the castle a few steps back. We will Duplicate the lava a couple of times and color correct the images. The color corrected images will then be stacked over the original and Masked using a Gradient.
Take a glowing Lava image, chosen from the ones that have a higher contrast. Cut and Paste a portion of that image on top of the previous layer. Change the Blending Mode to Screen.
What we need here is the brightness and color information of the Lava only, since we already have the base texture pegged down.
In some areas, you need to add detail, showing that the glowing lava is flowing out.
First, (Control-Click) to select all glowing patches, duplicate them (Control-J), and Flatten (Control-E) the duplicates. After that, Desaturate (Control-U) the flattened image and change the Blending Mode to Multiply.
Move this shadow layer behind the Glowing Lava layer to act as an edge. Paint/Clone when necessary to heighten the effect.
Continue to build the lava layer by adding random lava images on top and screening them. As we did with the mountains, try to follow the flow of your bottom layer by following the prevalent flow of lines. By doing so, you will create believable flowing lava.
Scale is also important. As you move towards the mountains and the castle, transform and scale down your patches to create the illusion of distance and depth. The farther they are from the camera, the smaller the patches should be.
Start building the bridge that connects towards the mountain. Look for an image that has a good scale and has a natural arch-like form. If you can’t find one, then combine them using Paint and Clone.
When you have found the image you need, Transform it(Control-T) and adjust it to fit the form you need.
In case you have forgotten, try to turn on your Perspective Lines and Painted Edges. This will give you the correct perspective and form for the bridge that you have previously set up.
Now, add the additional connecting bridge while Transforming (Control-T) it to fit.
Also add some additional integration at the areas near the castle. Cloning and some paintwork would be best here, since you already have all the necessary details on your paint available to you.
Keep on checking your work for smaller areas that need a bit of work and integration. If possible get some rest, move away for a few minutes and look at your work. Fresh eyes will help you see the small things you missed.
5. How to Digitally Paint the Castle
Now that we are done with the mountains and the lava, we can start working on the castle. As you can see, our castle looks a bit dark and desolate. Not only that, it also looks monotone, with the same details all over.
We need to break up the details, add some lights to make it more alive, and breathe some depth into it.
Add some additional villages at the base of the castle. This will make it look as if the castle is a haven from the harsh world outside. It will also give it some nice details.
Cut and Paste the right hand side villages. Transform (Control-T) it to fit.
Do the same to the left hand side while using the Castle Alpha mask to help you out.
Now you will add some nice details on the castle to break its monotonous look. There are a lot of ways to do it. One easy way is to add some real world elements to our render, namely windows and window details.
In your image, you can add more varied details. You can add a detailed cornice, a crack on the wall, a cannon hole, or any other detail you can think of. The important thing to remember is that all the details you add should be complementary to your image. Meaning they should not be too extreme that they would look like noise. Keep them grounded to your image too. Don’t place an over spec image filled with gold on top of your painting. That might just steal the whole focus from whatever story you want to tell.
Let’s start off by turning on our perspective lines. These lines are essential to keep our details in their proper spaces.
Mask the window element for a better image integration.
Keep on adding details to our painting until you think you are satisfied with all the necessary elements you need to make it look “alive”. Add windows to the side:
Add windows in front, with perspective lines turned on as Guides.
Add windows to the top.
Once you are working on the windows, try to place your edited references on the topmost layer. These can be used and reused as you populate your painting.
When you’re done with adding details, zoom out and take a look at your painting. What you are after is the “harmony” of the image. Nothing should stand out that would catch too much attention, yet the details should give it more character.
6. How to Finish the Last 5%
This last 5% of the painting sometimes will make or break your work, and it is often the hardest part. Take your time, and spend as much as you can in adding the subtleties to your image. Sometimes the smallest thing, like a speck of highlight, can make a huge difference.
Let’s start the ball rolling by adding some tiny pointed rocks on top of the lava flow somewhere at the bottom left.
While not necessary, you need to add this to point the flow of your viewer’s eye back to the center of the image.
To be sure, let’s sketch the look we want for the spikes—it can just be a very rough sketch to get the form we wanted.
Then, Mask and Copy your rock element.
Once you’ve set up your initial look, you can start cloning areas of your protruding rock element. Don’t forget to add depth to the parts that are further down in the camera. A simple painted haze from the colors surrounding it would do.
As final touches for the lava element, add some flowing red lava that seeps through the cracks of the spikes, grounding it better.
Now, add lights to the castle. We can do this by Duplicating (Control-J) our Window Detail element and flattening it.
Then, we adjust the color and brighten it with Curves using the settings as shown. You can also brighten it more afterwards using another Curves or Brightness/Contrast Adjustment.
Then Duplicate it twice and put one on top of the other using a Clipping Mask.
Select the top layer and Control-Alt-G to use the lower layer as the Clipping Mask. We’ll preserve the bottom layer and adjust the colors of the top layer and every succeeding layer on top of it. Create a Layer Mask for the bottom layer in the stack and Fill it with Black to hide all the color-edited windows.
Now paint over the Mask of the windows to simulate light. You don’t have to paint all the windows and the whole window itself. Keep a few windows dark.
Once you’re done, your painted windows should look almost like this.
Duplicate and Flatten these layers again. With theDodge Tool, paint randomly on the window glass and some immediate areas near it.
Randomly pick some windows where you will be painting on using the Dodge Tool. Great areas would be the ones near the brighter side of the castle.
Add another lava element on the foreground towers of the castle. Mask and Copy your lava element, and integrate the patches.
Also add another piece of lava on the left hand side.
We also add an additional detail, a small lava flow from the canal on the foreground towers. This can create a unique accent in our castle.
Now add a soft red glow on the pillars/towers with the lava. First let’s Duplicate our castle layer and add a soft red hue to it using Curves and the settings as shown.
After you’ve color corrected this layer, add a Layer Mask to it and Fill the mask with Black.
Using a Soft Brush with about 50% or less Opacity, paint over the mask and softly reveal a small glow on the walls of the tower.
Now we will create the glow from the lights of the town and the castle itself. Duplicate the castle again and, using the Curves Tool, adjust the colors to match approximately the colors of the lighted windows. Settings shown below.
Following the previous steps, create a Layer Mask, next to the color corrected layer, and Fill it with Black.
Repeat what you did in the previous steps and duplicate the small village at the base of the castle. Apply a Layer Mask on this layer and paint over the areas that will be affected with the immediate light from its surroundings.
To sweeten the deal, add some welcoming fires and torches at the gate of the castle. The torches can be painted or cloned in. You can even go the extra mile and add some flags on the gate.
The point of this step is to place a little focus on the entrance of the castle. Any little detail will work.
Add highlights on the lighter side of the castle. Duplicate the castle layer, flatten it if they are on separate layers, use a Dodge Tool and with a Soft Brush shape and Opacity of 50% or lower, lightly paint on the bright side.
Almost there… we are almost done. Our castle won’t be realistic if we can’t see snow on top of structures. Now with a Soft Brush and an Opacity of 100%, paint on the top parts of the castle.
For the snow color, pick your colors on the bright parts of the mountain. You can also pick colors at the mid-range for shading.
Keep on painting on the snow. You don’t have to paint on all parts—keep it organic and random. Paint some areas fully and some a bit less.
Now all we need to add for the details is the smoke on the lava. This part is somewhat optional, since we might want a much sharper image. But a dash of smoke coming off the lava will boost its realism and create some depth.
After you have finished adding the smoke, proceed to the final adjustments of our image. Add another Adjustment Layer on top of all your layers and create a small curve as shown below. It does not have to be accurate, but the image should have slightly better contrast.
Once that’s done, paint some depth on the mountains closest to the sides. Pick the colors on the clouds that are near it. Use a Soft Round Brush to paint the depth, just dabbing it in with a low Opacity of 15%.
Create another Levels or Curves adjustment layer and brighten the image a little bit. Now with the Gradient Tool, select Radial and paint that over the Mask of yourLevels/Curves. Use the image below as your guide on how the gradient should look.
Add a subtle Vignette, to put the focus on the center of our painting.
Add another Levels or Curves layer with a Layer Mask and brighten a few parts of the castle and mountain to show that the sun is peeking through the clouds, creating this God Ray effect of lighting.
When you are done with the color correction, create another Layer and fill it with 50% gray. Then go to Filter > Filter Gallery
Inside the Filter Gallery,under Texture,select Grain and apply the settings below:
After that, place this gray layer on top of everything and change the blending mode to Overlay. Adjust Opacity when needed.
This layer will add some nice grain to our image, simulating the grain we see on real photos.
Now, to further push our image to simulate real world photos, add some Chromatic Aberration to it. Go to Filter > Lens Correction or Shift-Control-R and adjust the settings of the RGB fringes to your liking.
The final step is to double check our composition. Are we on the right track? Are our lines flowing as we planned them to be? If you are satisfied with your work, then we are done! Congratulations!
Thank you very much for viewing and reading this tutorial. I hope that you have learned some useful and helpful techniques to create these types of images on your own. Remember that it takes practice and patience to master, but with each painting, you will learn and understand the steps better. Give yourself time and you will certainly be able to produce amazing images on your own soon!
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