Matte Painting Part 2: The Tools

Matte painting is a very broad term covering from using Photoshop, creating a Stitcher panorama, to developing full digital environments. In our continuing series on matte paintings we talk to Gerhard Mozsi, a concept artist and matte painter working in the gaming industry. We speak with him about what tools he uses and approaches he takes, as well as cover some of the tips and tricks of Photoshop and Painter.

Last time in this series we looked at matte painting or creating digital environments that relied heavily on 3D (see our Painting it BIG article). So this week we have taken a very different approach and we look exclusively at 2D solutions and the work of the highly talented Gerhard Mozsi, a matte painter and concept artist. We explore at the “brushes and layers level” exactly how he handles both photorealistic digi-matte work and more painterly pieces all from within Photoshop.

Matte painting done in Photoshop by Gerhard Mozsi for a film clip - original was 4K

Some tools:

A little while ago when fxguide asked senior matte painter Craig Mullins if he had any advice on matte paintings he replied “Not sure how to help you, but I would suggest looking at life and master paintings. Stay away from illustrators (myself included) and photos!” So rather than discussing the art of matte painting this week we decided to have a look at two of the more commonly used tools for digital matte painting (or digi-matte).

Glass and Steel

By far the most commonly used tool for matte paintings is Photoshop. It towers over all other programs, especially with recent additions to its painterly functions. The second most common – especially for those artists who also do concept art – is Corel Painter, a program that was built on natural brush simulation. We evaluate these natural properties see how it works alongside Photoshop CS2.

Afternoon Forest


Artistically, matte painting is closely related to concept art, (a point we will discuss more in part 3 of our series next week with LOTR Senior Paint Painter: Wayne Haag), but in this week’s podcast above we speak to an artist who does both concept art and matte painting in the games environment, Gerhard Mozsi.


For many Photoshop artists it is hard to imagine using anything else. However, many concept artists and digi-matte painters use Painter. How is Corel Painter different from Adobe Photoshop and how do they work along side each other?

The primary motivation of most Painter artists is to produce a less rigid and more open style of image with much of the natural look that comes from natural media. If Photoshop comes from photo-retouch, Painter comes from drawing original images.

Painter address this by three primary techniques

1. Brush characteristics – the brush stoke

2. The interactions of the stokes with each other.

3. The canvas. Not only can the canvas be instantly spun around to draw from any angle – just like a piece of paper on a desk but also the canvas itself has a texture which in turn affects the flow, shape and density of the drawn line. This also extends to being able to see through the page.

You can open Adobe Photoshop files in Corel Painter IX. On the Mac, you can even drag files from Photoshop directly into Painter. When you open files saved in Photoshop (PSD) file format, the layer masks, alpha channels, and layer sets (layer groups) are maintained. The layers in Photoshop behave in a familar way in Painter. New layers are added above the selected layer, layers with different merge modes are collapsible, and multiple layers can be hidden or displayed by simply clicking and dragging.

Painter version 4

There is no doubt Painter has a long history, Corel Painter is version 9, but one senior matte painter we spoke to has a copy of Painter 4 (developed by Fractal Design cira.1995) and adamently claims that he would buy a dedicated machine – with an out of date OS and nothing else – sijmply so he could run Painter 4. It seems from anecdotal evidence that after Painter 4 features were added which reduced performance and hindrered the truely interactive nature of Painter. Sometime after this Corel bought Painter and few doubt that the newest version isn’t full back to the speed and ease of Painter 4 – but some doubters remain. It is estimated Painter has over 500,000 users worldwide, 85% using the software in a professional environment. For a full fxguide test drive of Painter see our story from late 2004.

One great feature of Painter than can only be simulated in Photoshop is the ability to trace work from a layer below your canvas. This allows you to interpret images you have photographed but in any style of watercolour, oil or pencil style you choose.

Loading custom brushes

While Painter’s main claim to fame seems to be the huge number of brushes offerred, most artists use a very small sub set. It is wise if you’re learning Painter or playing with it again after a long absence to limit yourself to a fairly small set of brushes and paper stocks. To help get you up and running quickly, you can download a simple custom Palette here with our favorite brushes for fast mock up work. (tip: You can remove a brush by holding shift then drag it out of the palette, to move the contents of a palette about, again hold shift then drag.)

According to Ryan Church’s web site, the world leading matte painter’s favorite brushes are:

square chalk
digital airbrush
frosty water
water rake (5.5)
camel hair (5.5)
water color (5.5)

The newest version of Painter (9.1) has improved dual monitor support in Windows. You no longer have to stretch the application window across both monitors. Palettes, toolbars and the toolbox can now be moved outside the application window. Dialog boxes will appear on the same monitor as the active canvas.

The Airbrush has been significantly improved over Painter IX, resulting in much smoother appearance

Most importantly for matte painters, when repeatedly saving and opening PSD files, color degradation no longer occurs. Support for nested groups in the PSD file format has also been improved. Nested layer groups will now appear as you would expect. There has also been improvements to watercolours and art pens.

Gaming concept art by Gerhard Mozsi

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