Things Every Artist Should Know to Paint Appealing Environments
Environment painting can be a very fun and challenging thing to tackle, whether you are creating a completely new fantasy landscape or you are working from a photograph. Compelling and realistic landscapes are used heavily among the video game industry where concept sketches need to be created in order to establish the look and feel of the environments for the game.
The movie industry also utilizes environment artists to design new set pieces or landscapes that fit the universe the film resides in. For example, The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy had very talented artists like Alan Lee to design beautiful cities and environments based around the New Zealand landscape.
Another use for environment painting is matte painting, which can be considered an entirely different art form in itself. These matte paintings are blended into live action footage to create background environments that are so well executed that you can't tell the difference from real or painted. A great example of this is again in The Lord of the Rings where often times the environments far off in the distance were carefully painted to match with the footage.
There are a few things to consider when tackling an environment painting that can help improve the look and appeal of your work. To begin with, you should have a good idea of what it is that you want to paint before you ever start creating your first stroke. Is it a fantasy environment? A futuristic cityscape? Or realistic mountain range? While it's still good to play around with some ideas by doing very quick, rough paintings, you should still have an idea of what it is you want to create once you get started.
Lighting is also a key element when creating an environment painting. You should establish where the light is coming from, and where it is most prominent on your painting. Lighting can also help set the mood and feel for the environment and help you make proper color decisions. You should also be thinking about the focal point and the right perspective for your environment painting. That way the viewer's attention is focused on the area of the painting you want them to be and ensures your painting has believability to it.
If you are familiar with character painting, or concept sketching, you know that silhouette is of the utmost importance, and should be one of the first things established. The same goes for environment painting. A great silhouette is critical for painting an appealing environment that can be understood even without all the smaller details.
Tips for Painting Environments
Staring at a blank canvas can seem quite overwhelming at times, but also exciting. The amount of possibilities for different environments is endless. You can inspire yourself with some ideas for environments by researching different real-world landscapes that you can incorporate into your paintings. For example, researching mountain ranges in Iceland can help you come up with some environment ideas to add into your fantasy-style landscape painting. Having this type of preparation and research done beforehand can help you to have a strong foundation in the type of style or look that you are trying to achieve with your painting.
Before you start painting your environment, it's a good idea to do some quick thumbnail sketches to play around with different landscape ideas. This also helps you come up with a solid silhouette for your painting. These types of thumbnails don't need to be detailed, just very quick placements of things like buildings or mountains to give you some different ideas. Once you have found the one you think works best for what you are going for, then you can start adding more detail onto it.
An important thing to keep in mind when painting environments is that you are painting a huge landscape, and not an individual object. If you were to paint just a single rock, then you would want to get as much detail onto that single rock as possible, but if you are creating a large rock formation on the side of a distant mountain each rock will not need as much detail on it.
The same goes for starting to rough in things like mountains. You don't need to start off detailing the dirt, grass or rocks but instead worry about the actual form of the mountain and silhouette, and how it fits within your composition. The smaller details will start to fall into place.
Even after your research and thumbnail phase, you may find that you aren't very happy with certain aspects of your painting. Maybe a building is in the wrong spot, or a mountain is distracting from the purpose of the painting. Don't be afraid to redo areas that aren't working. While the undo command is extremely helpful with digital painting, there may be times when you've gone too far. Instead of trying to force something to work, it might be best to redo a section in order to achieve the look you originally intended.
As mentioned earlier, it's more important to get the silhouette and form down before you start adding in more finite details like grass, snow, water, etc.
Once the overall environment is working together, and the light source has been established, you can go in and start to add those fine details that will really push your painting to the next level.
Painting environments can be a difficult thing to tackle. Remember to start with reference images, and move on to thumbnail sketching. Then establish a strong silhouette. If you use these techniques, you'll be sure to produce some amazing results! If you want to learn more, check out some great tutorials on Painting a Fantasy Environment in Photoshop tutorial, Creative Environment Thumbnail Techniques in Photoshop, and Speed Painting Environment Concepts in Photoshop.