Art or art?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Raphael Lacoste: Digital Matte Painting

In the last few months The Gnomon Workshop has released their latest art DVD centering on matte painting titled, Digital Environment Painting: Matte Painting Techniques with Raphael Lacoste. The material covered presents practical methods with roots in traditional non-digital methods. Whether you work directly from photographic references or use them while developing a composition, the ability to fully manipulate photographic content is invaluable as it opens up a world of possibilities.

Digital matte painters typically utilize photography along with image editing and 3d software to construct interior or exterior environments that do not exist. This represents a level of unprecedented freedom to create. We are now able to create and refine references several steps closer to a convincing alter-reality that can be printed, put up on a monitor and even navigated in film. Through the knowledge gained by developing these processes we can expand our understanding of conditions in a natural environment and incorporate this into the final product, whether the end is in a digital or a traditional form.

Some DVDs produced by The Gnomon Workshop come with working project files. These are the native files that are identical to those used for the demonstration so you have the opportunity to work directly with them yourself. Typically a matte painter utilizes something like 3ds Max or Maya for 3D components and Photoshop to composite and paint. With some GW DVDs you also get the image files used for the composite. Maya has only recently become available for Mac with the Maya 2011 release. It is safe to say that as of this writing the existing DVDs were created using the Windows platform. It has not been verified whether the Maya project files will work on Maya 2011. 3ds Max is a program created for the Windows platform. With programs like Bootcamp and Parallels you can run the program on Intel-based Mac hardware using Windows but not within the OS X environment. This DVD does not come with working files anyway.

One of the first things to notice is the structure in which Gnomon DVDs are presented. They are one of the leaders in terms of utilization of the DVD format. There are chapters broken down into sub-chapters. The activity is documented in motion, audio and on some DVDs also accompanied with printable text. They follow an outline of numerous steps described and documented in motion. Viewing a Gnomon Workshop DVD I have wondered why traditional artists cannot produce DVDs using dedicated cameras to simultaneously capture significant areas of activity, each view having its own commentary describing the thought process including intent and logic in detail every step of the way and having the ability to choose which context-sensitive camera to view on the fly. Maybe this is asking too much. It seems as though some artists wing it and they might not be able to produce anything worthwhile and on queue if they knew every movement had to count. That might pose quite a task. These are artists, not necessarily teachers and certainly less likely performers.  More art DVDs are being produced. Hopefully an ambitious artist, teacher or group will establish this level of organization is a presentation as their objective.

The incentive to teach may be a factor to consider when comparing digital and traditional art teaching methods. Digital art often leads to an end involving teamwork. You are part of a group constructing a film or game. Traditional artist are typically single entities competing to be recognized and appreciated in the world. Between the two there is an advantage to bringing up fresh talent to do digital work yet fresh talent to the traditional artist is likely to be future competition. As a traditional artist the added income gained from teaching can be an incentive to keep students students. As a teacher of digital art the incentive is to turn out skilled workers for an industry. With regards to the art DVD, these often appear to be targeting casual students and hobbyists and may be marketed as serious tools yet they are rarely what might be described as hardcore lessons carefully designed to train people. One benefits from getting people hooked and feeding them partial information while the other delivers essential information to enable people to get to work. Some traditional art DVDs offer little more than the chance to watch someone paint. Beyond that their value gets increasingly questionable while they claim to be designed to teach. In specific cases it is false advertising.

In the digital world the tools have been software-based and consequently the instructions have been approached like one would approach any other software whether it is word processing, programming or visual design. As far back as kindergarten there seems to have been a prevailing belief that art cannot be taught with a structure like math or science. It is thought that one either has a knack for art or does not and those that don't just play. This has also opened up the field of digital visual design to non-artists. Almost anyone capable of following directions can use the software, some producing better results than others of course, yet it has frequently been the more technically minded rather than the visual artist types that have excelled. The stereotype of the moody undisciplined artist chasing inspiration does not fit the digital artist mold.

If it is not immediately apparent I will describe some of what can be gained from studying digital matte painting techniques. This is not meant to be all-inclusive and does not even represent a strong outline of the most important benefits. Developing the composition of a scene, whether interior or exterior, you can easily knock out rough sketches. Composite scenes can be manipulated. Object scale, color, clarity (to some extent), and position are adjustable. One can shift a river, tree, compress or stretch a building to suit the composition. You can composite pieces pulled from multiple sources including those created in 3D programs. It is common for buildings to be built using 3D software that allow the ability to adjust their light source to match the environment they will reside within so you do not have to figure out how the light falls on the structure in your mind. Once these components are assembled you can see new possibilities and make adjustments or go in a direction that was not previously conceived. You can replace a sky or background with something that works to your advantage and make all of the color adjustment that the new element presents. You can freely swap multiple components until you find the one that works best. The “Undo” feature is a staple in software and saves a tremendous amount of time and energy. You can create a series of similar images with subtle or dramatic variations then swap out key elements to see which works best for your needs.

There are some basic principles that need to be understood in order to work between the digital and real-world environments. It is very important to understand color that pertains to light and color that pertains to material or mass, having a handle on subtractive and additive color is imperative. The rules are different and you will have major problems if you try to apply them in the wrong context. One also needs to understand the type of light and the consequences that result including characteristics of shadows and how it influences overall color harmony in the scene.

On the DVD a great amount of detail of what is taking place is described as it unfolds, however, fundamental steps with regards to the specific software being used are not described. The mouse cursor often indicates a small step while a larger step is being described. Some of this is attributed to the viewer’s presumed familiarity with the software and the techniques themselves. If the topic involves Cutting and Pasting, it will be assumed that the viewer knows the term and is familiar with the procedure. You have the ability to watch stages almost frame by frame. This allows you to carefully track the mouse cursor and figure out every action taking place. You may need to pause the DVD while you look up a basic procedure. You will need this knowledge and this is an experience of practical application that can help burn the process into your memory. In the beginning you are likely to encounter steps that require you to pause and research. Matte painting techniques require familiarity with image editing software, particularly Photoshop, layers. Following the mouse cursor and listening to the instructor’s description may not quite indicate everything that is actually taking place. A step might actually imply several actions required. Knowledge of Photoshop, which is a highly recommended attribute to develop eventually, is essential. You can do without the 3D software and accomplish a great deal of useful work using image editing software alone. Some of Lacoste's work is 100% digital painting while some involves composite elements from 2D and sometimes 3D image files. This project includes all three.

There are challenges to viewing digital demonstrations. The camera only shows the activity that a computer monitor reveals. The camera does not show the artist sitting at the computer controlling the mouse or tablet pen. We only see the screen. Even if we did have that option there is a remote control aspect to computers and the hands do not work directly on the product. Unlike following the tip of the brush in a traditional painting demonstration the mouse cursor can be very evasive. The activity can jump all over the screen. Depending on the “brush” used and its size the appearance ranges from a cross, a circle, square all the way to a series of diagonal slashes. The actual changes can be tiny to very large. Sometimes the cursor does not show up and you must scan the screen to see what is being done. Windows pop up and disappear, menus pop up and items are selected. Reference image files pop up and disappear. All of this takes place very quickly, in split seconds. Until you understand the general process this could be frustrating as you try to follow everything. The truth is that much of this does not need to be followed down to the smallest advancement. You get the idea and just know something along that line is being done. You can always stop and advance the DVD in a way similar to frame by frame. Eventually you just know color correcting a file, for instance, takes certain steps and the demo blasts through them. However they are always there to watch slowed down.

Digital Environment Painting: Matte Painting with Raphael Lacoste
Rating: Art
Level: Advanced
Summary: Within the context of a single matte painting project the following topics are covered:

* Painting thumbnails in grey values
* Painting a mood sketch in Photoshop
* Perspective matching in 3DS max
* Setting up a simple 3D scene for textures and lighting
* Choose the right Textures for basic geometry
* Painting a sky with photos and using channels selections.
* Paint over photos
* Modify, stylize silhouettes
* Relighting elements in 2D
* Photos integration / color matching
* Layers management in Photoshop
* Atmospheric Depth
* Detailing / polishing
* Scaling and Proportions
* Color correction

For more information visit:

. Images © Raphael Lacoste and The Gnomon Workshop