This matte painting for Aaron Sims' short Archetype has been made with a variety of techniques (photo manipulation, 3D and a bit of painting to speed up the process).
I started by defining the sky in Photoshop, and therefore the overall lighting of the scene. The camera pans from right to left revealing the giant pumping towers far away, where a battle of robots will take place. I spent time focusing on the transition from the blue sky at the beginning of the shot, to the dusty and more dramatic atmosphere surrounding the towers (Fig.01).
Then I began to add detail in the clouds and on the horizon. I had to spend quite a bit of time color correcting and properly integrating all the different photos necessary to create such a wide sky. I used Curves in Photoshop, which are my favorite tools when it comes to color correcting and integrating photographic elements. Curves offer a huge amount of control and the possibility for the artist to modify very specific segments of the color range in the image (Fig.02).
When the sky was roughed in, I chose the first photos to create the complex canyon landscape. I spent some time finding photos of similar canyons in Arizona (not just using the internet, but a library I personally built during a trip with my wife to that state). I did this in order to give a consistent look to the rocks all over the landscape, giving a more natural feel (Fig.03).
I kept adding details to the landscape, trying to find a sense to the morphology of the ground. I wanted the ground to feel complex, carved and mysterious. I chose photos with a particular kind of lighting, with an overcast sky and beautiful spots of light breaking through the clouds. This gave the landscape a charming and intriguing atmosphere. I always try to give my matte paintings a dramatic and deep atmosphere, which makes everything way more appealing to the audience (Fig.04).
I assembled some photographs to generate a big lake in the canyon, with an island in the center and a giant rock pillar. I knew that this matte painting would have become a battleground by the final shot. Not only that, but the director wanted to place some big futuristic structures in the canyon to make the environment look more unique and exciting. Adding particular features to the canyon like an island, or a giant rock bridge on the left, gave me wonderful places to attract the audience's attention to and therefore to place one of the futuristic structures or some robots fighting (Fig.05).
I quickly painted some patches to cover the gaps. At this point the matte painting was coming along. All the different photos placed on the canvas were slowly starting to make sense and blend nicely together. In this situation I focused on the details, doing small color corrections and blending the different photos accurately. In order to blend in a nondestructive way I strongly recommend using the Masking tool in Photoshop. This way you'll be able to erase or add back in parts of the photo in real time. Masking makes it possible to experiment and find your solution (Fig.06).