3 top tips for creating a concept environment

environment main image pirate ship

Art directors often ask me to mock up something quick to establish an overall direction for a scene. For this I'll use photos and matte painting techniques to comp a scene together. It's much faster than simply painting everything from scratch.

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The most important task is to find the best source material, so I usually spend half my allotted time gathering the exact reference photos I want to work with. I then create some rough scribbles of the overall composition; these help me to visualise my idea. I then try to find a base image that roughly matches my composition and has a similar mood or lighting setup.

After this I collect extra 'key' and 'enhancer' images. The enhancers can help to push the base image further, while the key photos can either make the final art look unique or add extra story elements.

It's crucial to match the lighting, colours and values of the different source materials, which then creates a unified look. I do this using layer adjustment options such as Color Balance, Curves and Selective Color. 
I also use the Match Color option (Image>Adjustment>Match Color...), which can match the colour and value structure of two layers containing different objects.

01. Pick a base image

pirate environment 1

I pick a base image that's close to my imagined composition and lighting scheme. This gives me a foundation to build on, and a reference palette that I can match the colours of the other source materials to. Here I'm using an image from Noah Bradley's free New Zealand reference pack.

02. Add a splash of paint

pirate environment 2

After some colour adjustments I comp more photos into the scene and paint in some parts, using colours that are present in the photos. I want to add more depth and detail to the image, and achieve this by layering the mountain ranges and adding more low clouds, fog and haze between them.

03. Give it a story

pirate environment 3

I want to create a cinematic fantasy image, so introduce more clouds – some painted, some from images using various layer blending modes. I add the classic pirate ship as my main focal point and repaint the lighting to guide the viewer towards that area, for better storytelling purposes.

Words: Mark Molnar

Mark works as a concept and visual development artist in the entertainment industry, creating artwork for international film, game and animation companies. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 121.

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