Doubt and becoming a Digital Artist

Doubt and becoming a Digital Artist

Support with a like or a sub is always welcome! Heya Artists! Here is a little advice for those of you thinking about a career in concept art, but have doubts. Maybe you have doubts about your skill set, the time you have available or how to approach your education.

Six questions about matte painting.

Six questions about matte painting.

In this episode:

Advice and info about being a matte painter.  Also, a lot of policy discussion for up and coming concept artists.

So I was asked 6 questions from a digital art student for his thesis.  Rather than send a huge email, I decided it might be a pretty interesting for you guys, and a solid first episode for the new channel.    ..Ah, and if you caught that, this is a new channel called Team Concept Art, thanks!  I started the new channel because, it was time to peel off the concept art blog from my video channel that is a bit more of a warehouse of past 'stuff and projects'.

This one is worth a watch, there is a lot of info about being and acting like a pro in the studio and online.  Sorry about the length but, I am starting to like the idea that a good feature, although it does not get as many hits, is likely a better tool for people who really need it.  Happy to hear your thoughts on the subject.

All the best.


Mad Max! [Post]

Mad Max! [Post]

Growing up Mad Max:

Growing up I loved the Mad Max movies.  Road Warrior left an indelible mark on my mind and was likely the source of my fascination with dystopian images of culture and environments.  The fascination was further fed by the table top game Car Wars.  

It didn't take much to be inspired by the new Mad Max movie 'Fury Road'.  The visuals are over the top and the car designs are on par with anything dreamed up thus far.  As a lark I spent a few moments streaming my idea of a apocalyptic car/aircraft carrier.  Two large mining dump trucks fitted with the top deck of a ship/oil platform serves as a delivery system for cars on the dystopian playa.  I highly suggest experimenting with a few Mad Max inspired sketches of your own.  Vehicle ideas and perspectives are easy to source  as well as textures and materials.    

Drawing Mad Max vehicles as a sketch exercise.

Drawing Mad Max vehicles as a sketch exercise.

Fury Road was a heck of a fun ride as a movie, and the effects were stunning.  I loved the mending of cg and practical scenes sets and props.  Not to mention Charlize's complete transformation into Imperator Furiosa.   The themeing of the vehicles were convincing and credible to the property.  I loved the wide range of textures, scales and re-appropriation of other vehicles.  If you have not seen Mad Max, Mad Max 2 - Road Warrior,  Mad Max - Beyond Thunderdome and Mad Max - Fury Road, do so with haste.  Even though they are fairly independent of each other you should also watch them in chronological order.  Not only is it fun to catch all the story points in order, but the ability to appreciate the evolution of the film style is very interesting.

Filming extreme on the original Mad Max movie.

Filming extreme on the original Mad Max movie.

The original Mad Max movie was filmed in 1979 in Australia by George Miller, and Bryon Kennedy for a budget of,  $375,00 and a box office return of $100m .  They were inspired by the forming gas lines of the seventies, as well as the emergency room work that George was doing as a doctor.  The two believed that a heightened level of violence would be best presented in a dystopian setting.  Needless to say the results that are still returning are incredible.

Futuristic City and SciFi City Concept Art & Design [Post]

Futuristic City and SciFi City Concept Art & Design [Post]

Here are a couple examples of futuristic city concept art pieces. 

These represent three different television projects. The top being most idyllic and stylized. It is always a highlight being able to design skylines and cityscape concepts.  These cities reflect a range from idyllic to oppressive and collapsing.  The goal in these designs is to catch a harmony of vibrant forms and structures while keeping a level of density and credibility that captures the desired emotion of the population residing in the city itself.

While thinking about your city, ask yourself a few key questions during the process.

An overly idyllic futuristic sci-fi city. This city was designed to have mass appeal and no hints of traffic, dystopia, or foul weather.  It was meant to be hyper-positive.

An overly idyllic futuristic sci-fi city. This city was designed to have mass appeal and no hints of traffic, dystopia, or foul weather.  It was meant to be hyper-positive.


Usually I incorporate or decide on a hero structure or theme, a horizon, a camera angle, rough topology and design the sprawl and architecture from there.    You can use very rough thumbnails for this step.  The thumbnails below are a bit more involved than you should use for your very first thoughts.  I suggest a wall of tiny thumbnail sketches using pen on paper, and snap a picture of it and drag it into Photoshop for very rough color and value studies.   Don't overlook the value of these first roughs.  Even though they don't take very long, every decision here will propagate down the line and will have a large impact on the rest of the image.  Spend quality time, thinking about your composition, lighting and structures.

City paintings start with very loose thumbnail concepts. From here 3-d assets and textures are brought in to complete any level of detail desired.

City paintings start with very loose thumbnail concepts. From here 3-d assets and textures are brought in to complete any level of detail desired.

See how major composition elements fall into thirds.

See how major composition elements fall into thirds.

A tip using Thirds:

Like many illustrators and concept artist, I like to work strongly with 'thirds' in my image compositions.  Above are a few of my thumbnails sketches divided into thirds.  The trick is to avoid becoming uncaring or overly stringent.  When artists always cut their subjects squarely down the middle in the third it can become heavy handed and overt.  Try to mix hard edges, flipping gradations, as well as light and dark shifts on the third too.


The first question, and likely the most important is, what kind of inhabitants will it have? Your cities population will drive the vast majority of the descision making. What is the economy spread of the population? Are they organized or chaotic? Are they austere or gaudy? How long have they lived in the spot where the city resides? Are they technologically advanced?  Did they build the city, find the city, or take over the city by force? The motives and history of the inhabitants of the city will drive it's look, and will inform you with precious, convincing and calculated detail.

Also note cities have behaviors that will help you create a convincing one.  Generally people understand the center of the city is built up more than outlying areas.  Value of the center of the city rises, and the only way to build is up.  That said, you can go very deep while thinking about your design, in 1916 was the birth of zoning codes in New York. These codes give you a tool to think about while creating and organizing your own city design.  Codes regarding height, types of industry and control could be subliminally modified to create unique and interesting looks.  Also worth noting, racism, poverty, crime, wealth, industry and the concept of 'not in my backyard' are all moments in a cities lifespan that can have drastic effects on how a city looks and feels.  If you find yourself stumped for a moment in your city, think back on the codes, and how the city got this way.  This will help to inform direction.

Thumbnail sketches and paintings for larger pieces.

Thumbnail sketches and paintings for larger pieces.

A near future stadium concept.

A near future stadium concept.

A Sci-Fi city with a central focused building.  The shot was designed to establish a central masculine building that the camera would fly towards.

A Sci-Fi city with a central focused building.  The shot was designed to establish a central masculine building that the camera would fly towards.


Do yourself a favor and concentrate on getting great thumbnails first when going about rendering your city.  Nothing can replace the value of a great thumbnail to start an image.  There is no amount of rendering, lighting or detail that can turn a bad thumbnail into a great design.  Once you have your killer thumbnail then decide on the best way to go about producing a final image.  Typically, I have created rough 3-D layouts and painted over the top of them, however over time, people respond more to the images that are purely Photoshop.  My suggestion is to use 3-d as a guide, but not as the solution.
The same goes for using textures and photo ref.  I personally feel that you need to spend a good bit of time removing 'photo qualities' of your rendering if you use them.  If you decide to use a lot of photo ref, make sure your surrounding rendering holds up to the granularity of the reference and you don't feel a split between your brush work and your photo layers.

Designing and rendering a futuristic city can be a daunting task at first, but with some practice planning and patience the process comes along quickly and efficiently.

All the best, good luck!

Worth a note, none of these images may be licensed or used for personal projects, these particular pieces get a lot of requests in that regard.

Halloween and Haunt lighting.

Welcome to the Skull and Bone Method for 'Haunted Manor' yard lighting on a budget.

Hi! If you stumbled here, was a hobby and a yard haunt we had starting in 2002 lasting through 2006.  This video captures a few of those moments.  Even though this post does not relate to TCA, I keep this tutorial around because it has helped many haunters over the years to get a better understanding of haunt lighting basics.

Our haunt was never about scaring or fear.  It was always about being as beautifully executed as possible with the time and budget at hand.  A lof of the technology has changed since mid 2000's but the principals remain the same.  These very early haunt videos give an idea of the fun we had.

*updated 9/20/2007*
*updated 1/26/2014*


Good lighting creates volume, layers and depth in a scene. It is not distracting or obnoxious. It also hides the weak points of an environment while enhancing strong points. We have all seen masterful props fall victim to poor lighting and we have all seen fair props turned into brilliance by terrific lighting. The following are some basics that I hope will help turn your haunt into the best haunt it can be.

Here is a diagram of a basic lighting model and terms:

Above is a diagram of common terms used in lighting objects or scenes. Some of these terms are used below. Lighting is a powerful tool for the haunter. When done well, it can 'make' the most simple of props and when done poorly it can 'break' the the best of props.

Some rules of thumb.

  • -Lighting takes time to do well. Several hours are needed to put together the most simple plans.
    -Lighting is best achieved with fewer lights and more patience.
    -It is very common to get bogged down with too many lights in a scene. Too many lights increase the chance of light pollution and the loss of -shadow definition. As a rule of thumb 'if one light does not look right, don't add another to fix it'.

The above photo shows the basic lighting model applied to a prop. Notice how the warm secondary light does not compete with the main blue light for the same side of the column . Planting opposing lights helps to add volume to the prop and depth to the scene. Check out how we even lit the tops of our prop with a purple pin light in order to draw the viewers eye to a 'sweet spot'. . Traditionally transitions from props to the lawn is not the strong suit of a haunt so we also try to keep our strongest lights away from the base of the props.

This scene was lit with

One 100w blue spotlight from Home Depot
One 40w flicker bulb behind orange lantern glass
One Pin Spotlight with a purple lens cover.


Beginning to light a yard haunt:

Below are two approaches to lighting the same yard with the same lights. The results are two different looks. The first look is common, but does not take advantage of the principals of good lighting.


This is a lighting that is often done, but I don't recommend it for an ideal solution.

The above diagram is a common solution I have seen with lots of yard haunting. 'Two lights in a tree' solution is a poplar conclusion for a beginner trying to light a yard haunt. It usually has a couple of cool floods (1 ,2) as a main light source in a tree. As a secondary light source at the porch light (4) and a few warm accent lights usually placed near favorite props (3, 5).


Here are the results from the 'two lights in a tree' solution. Generally the yard becomes flatly washed in floodlight. It is common to have a lack of depth in the scene because the height of the light in the trees does not allow for layers of long shadows and shadow definition. The eye is quickly drawn to a few over lit areas.


  •     The bases of props are lit.
  •     Shadows are unclear.
  •     Lighting from above is not spooky.
  •     The lighting does not serve to draw the viewers eyes to specific areas of props.
  •     One side of the yard is brighter than the other.


  • A quick setup time
  • Easy on the budget


Typical application of lighting is to create clarity and readability. However, yard haunting, lighting is supposed to help with the illusion of the actors and props. We prefer drama vs. readability. We prefer long foreboding shadows, and eerie up lighting. We want to use darkness to hide our flaws, and use brightness to draw the eye.


Gen 1 Haunt lighting - 2004, Very little ambient light (No streetlight).

The above diagram the Skull And Bone method for yard haunt lighting.  We used this layout in 2004.   This model uses the same amount of lights as the Two Lights in a tree solution, but requires more cord, and a little more time.

The goal in the Skull And Bone method is to create layers of light, shadow, detail and rhythm. Two cool floodlights (1, 2) divide the yard in opposing directions. Care is taken to reduce light overlap. Cross lighting creates light pollution. The secondary porch light source (4) has moved to the rear of the house. It lights the trees from below and behind the house. The warm accent lights (3,5) have been placed amidst some of the props to create layers of light.

GEN1 Light List:

  •     Two blue 100w Home Depot floodlights at 1,2
  •     Several 40w bulbs on a flicker circuit behind orange lantern glass at 3,4
  •     One or two red 100w Home Depot floodlights at 5
  •     Two purple pin lights used to light the tops of two props
  •     Total wattage = 900


Gen 1 - 2004

Here are the results from the Skull and Bone lighting Method. Notice how the yard becomes layered in shadows. With the main lights placed behind the picket fence, the once blank face of the house is broken up with rhythmic and legible shadow detail.

In our haunt we go to the extent of placing a shadow of a cross right over the front door. It's this kind of attention to detail that goes into the best lighting scenes. Notice even the main walkway approach to the house has crisscrossing shadows. These fill an otherwise blank walkway with rhythmic visuals. We also have the lighting so that the ToT's Shadow runs up the walkway as they approach the house.

**I will note, that this layout made it slightly hard to see as you turned back towards the street after the ToT. This problem was addressed in the GEN2 layout.

Placement of the secondary light sources within the tombstones has created depth between the rows. This also helps to add volume to the prop by keeping the secondary light source a true secondary light source. The point of this light is to accent the main light source. It is not supposed to compete with the main light source. Had these lights been in front of the tombstone there would have be too much light crossover resulting in lost definition, flat lighting and light pollution. Notice that the front tombstones become strong silhouettes against well lit rear tombstones. Typically we put tombstones that we like behind the light, and tombstones we like the shape of in front of the light.

Finally, notice the depth achieved by lighting the trees behind the house instead of lighting the porch. This trick really allows the silhouette of the house to play a part in the haunt. It is also a way to set your house as a whole apart from other houses on the street. We like to call this destination lighting. If you have a second story, you might consider placing lights in the rear windows of the second story in order to achieve this effect.

Our final haunt ends up with 7 warm accent lanterns, two main blue floodlights, two red destination floods behind the house, and two blue pin lights for prop tops. This was approximately 900 watts worth of light.


  • It is hard for the main two lights to reach the house without being very bright.
  • More cords
  • Setup time increases because you are trying to line up props to make interesting and dynamic shadows in the background


  • Not very many lights
  • Easy on the budget
  • Extra depth to your haunt
  • Extra creep and drama through the use of shadows.


*UPDATE* Gen 2 Haunt Lighting - 2005, curse of the brighter streetlight.

Please note, even though it can pose a problem, it is good to have a well lit street when tot's and traffic are present.There was a terrible accident in San Luis Obispo Halloween 05' due to low visibility.  Please do not shoot out street lights for a haunt.

In 2005 I took special care to light our haunt. I knew all eyes would be on us because of this tutorial. Something was amiss from the beginning. My lights were muddy, they would not reach across the yard, and I could not seem to get the scene lit as I had the year before. I was quite disappointed, I had new par 38 cans, and gels to really pump up the intensity of the light... but it looked like crud.. After a couple hours, I started up the computer and went back into my haunt images to see exactly how I lit the yard in 2003.. I noticed something startling. The ambient light was different. I figured out we have a new brighter bulb in our streetlight...

Above are images of the same wall, shot with the same camera two years apart. The image on the left is lit with 100w blue Home Depot spots and the image on the right is the same blue spots with the addition of our new bright streetlight.

It turns out the city has replaced our streetlight with a new, bigger and much brighter model... The warm orange light flooded our yard and pretty much cancelled out the subtle blues we were able to project from the curb to the house.

After several hours, I had a plan to counteract the orange light.


I decided to modify my lighting model to work with the new bright orange street light rather than fight it.

Here is the new setup, I decided to wash the house with orange/red light while keeping blue light for the foreground. Switching colors mid graveyard basically doubled the light load. Light 7. is the newly infringing street light, it casts an amber wash across the entire yard as well as the face of the house. 1. and 2. are multiple blue par 38can spots with extra blue gel's in them. We added wattage and gels to make these lights as rich and bright as possible in order to overpower the street light. Lights 3.,4. are the warm lantern prop lights from years before. Lights 5. and 6. are several new 'warm red' par 38can spot lights to wash the background with a matching color to the street light.

GEN2 Light List:

-Two blue 100w Home Depot floodlights
-4- 150w blue gelled par 38cans
-4- 150w red gelled par 38cans
-7- 40w bulbs on a flicker circuit behind orange lantern glass
-Two purple pin lights used to light the tops of two props
-Two 100w lightning bulbs, choose the 'natural light' bulbs for these, they look better
-Total Wattage = 2100 watts (1200 watts more than the year without a brighter streetlight)


Here is a rendering of the final Gen 2 light setup. This setup was a lot more sophisticated to get working. It was very hard to keep light pollution to a minimum when we added additional par 38cans to the key locations. We ended up almost tripling our light load trying to blend with, or overpower the new street light. In the end, we achieved many layers of light that still added volume and mood to the haunt. I am happy with the results.

This actor is standing very near the front bank of lights. Here is how 400+ watts of blue light looks on this actor. Now compare that to the props in the distance. The drop off of the light is very fast. Also, check out the background now has a red hue to it that was not present in years past. We used red, because it blended well with the very orange hue the streelight has.

This happens to be one of my favorite lighting images. The distance between the camera and the Rose Tomb is less than 20 feet, yet it contains 4 separate and distinct lighting layers. I am happy how our actors were lit so eerily bright against our dark cemetery without casting shadows. It is no accident that some of our actors are dressed much lighter than the props. It's another way to make sure we would draw the eye to miss rose when she was out and about.


  •     Very long setup time.
  •     Many extra cords.
  •     Heavy use of wattage, and gels.


  • A very good 'highlight' area for actors to stand in.
  • Looked better than all previous years.
  • Many layers of colors and shadows gave a lot for the eye to absorb.

In Conclusion

At first I was frustrated at changing our lighting model. When it's two nights before the big day, and money and time is short, the last thing you feel like doing is taking on unforeseen challenges. Just take a few steps back, and find the opportunity in the situation. I can see that our new streetlight has pushed our haunt lighting in ways we would have never attempted otherwise. By realizing this was an opportunity and enjoying the process, we were able to break new ground for ourselves technically and creatively.




Here are a few lighting pictures from various years.  As you will see, we often change things up.

Notice above, you do not see any prop lit where it touches the ground.  Also notice how we used shadows to make the props look more detailed.

Some years, you just don't feel like throwing too much color around...

Some years, you just don't feel like throwing too much color around...

...but some years we do.

...but some years we do.

My advice, have fun.. change a light here and there throughout the night and see what happens.



Q- Just a question about the 'warm' light you use in your lanterns. what bulb\wattage etc? is it white light or orange? do you frost your glass somehow to get that even glow, or is that just the photograph?

A- We use 40 watt bulbs that are frosted white. We use the ones that are the shape of candle flame so they fit inside the lantern. We attach the bulbs to 25watt flicker circuits made from fluorescent starters. There are many How-To's on the web for this flicker circuit. The bulbs are then placed into lanterns via dremel tool. The glass of the lantern is frosted with glass etching solution and painted orange from the inside with 'glass paint'. My feeling is that these lanterns are a bit too bright. A quick search for Haunt Lantern How-To's will lead you to some great projects.

Q- Is that some type of theatrical CAD lighting program you use in your tutorial or are those graphics you made yourselves?

A- I spend most of the day on photoshop and a program called Maya. Maya is a very powerful tool used to make computer graphics for the film and game industry. A quick google will get you a link to a free evaluation copy if you are interested.

All the best, Rob from Skull and Bone.


**Update, 1/26/2014

Last night, Bill sent me a mail.  Basically, '..where is the yard haunt lighting tutorial?!'.  Over the years, between webhosts and server changes, bits and pieces of the Haunt Lighting tutorial fell off 'my' radar.  When Bill wrote, I imagined there had to be more than one or two folks who would appreciate it coming back on line.

It's been many years since SnB was taken over by the great House BloodThorn, but I often think about haunt lighting to this day.  While the fundamentals remain strong on this tutorial, I believe there are many more great, and efficient options available for the average haunter that were not availablein 2007.  Mainly, with some of the incredible LED lighting out there, you do not have to run thousands of watts of electricity through miles of cords on a rainy night...

If you are breaking into haunt lighting now (in 2014), I would say take a strong look at several products.

- Home Depot sold the Gemmy 3.54in Light Blue LED outdoor Spotlight Stake at Christmas.. They were $16.48 and worked awesome.  No temp, weather resistant, low voltage draw, I have seen them in Red, Green, and Blue, a perfect combo for haunters.

- LED flashlights that have a long run time and use the CR123A Lithium Batteries.  Some of the run times are in the 4 hour range, you could completely light a haunt with some gels' and a dozen or so cheap high Lumen flashlights.   These things will fit anywhere, and will give you pinpoint accuracy!  It will also save on Gels, now you can use a 2 inch square piece of gel to get the same effect.  Of course the downside is that they will likely only last a night, but I personally only lit my haunt on the 31st.  I would have saved a fortune on cords compared to the relatively cheap cost of batts.

- ...but where I really would have gone crazy, is with the programmable LED par Cans.  The programmable LED par cans that are out now have some incredible uses for haunters.  I would have ordered on of the 6 can packages, and would have that sound controller hooked to my soundtrack in no time.   Your entire haunt could be changing mood to your story as it progresses.

-LED projection.  Seriously awesome opportunity, I always thought about creating an 'overlay' of projected light and textures on to my haunt would bring it to a level not quite reached by any other previous haunts.  A match to a matte painting of my own house, but portrayed with animating windows, elements and decayed textures would be stunning.  Nowadays, the projectors are becoming cheaper, and more approachable.  I still think I would not want to put one in the weather, but for one night I would make an exception ;).

-EL Wire is nuts too, work it into tombstones, and props as a way to sell something has been 'enchanted' or magical along those lines, I would also check out some of the Optic Fiber 12v options.  I see they have some battery powered ones for party centerpieces that would look amazing if put to use as 'pixie dust'.

Wrapping up this update, I am very excited for you the modern haunter, there are so many undiscovered uses and technologies out there!    Cheers, -R

Windows Folder Settings and File Practices for Concept Artists.

Minor folder setting and file naming tips for digital artists.

I assume most of you will be doing these tips already, but for those who don't these couple tips can save you a ton of time and heartbreak.

First problem.. Can't find your .PSD and .JPG in windows 8?  That feeling of dread that you 'know' you put it there, but now it's gone.  Well check that you didn't optimize your folder for Pictures.  Digital artists use all sorts of files but we imagine they all are for one goal, a cool picture.  In the windows world that does not include 3-D files, or even variants of the same type of image but in different formats.

Set your Folder settings by right clicking to Properties>Customize>General Items .  This will allow you to sort by date modified so you can see if you actually saved out that .jpg to send of your matte painting that happens to also be a huge .psd.

In windows 7 you should arrange by 'Date Modified'.  in windows 8 your should Group by 'Date modified' (Descending).  This will allow you to see your latest work, and with the right folder settings it will allow you to see all the files of your latest work by order in which you worked on it last, regardless of the name.

View..  I view by 'large icons' so I can see the files, this is especially good for ref folders, or photo folders where I am looking to pull items into Photoshop.  For my client folders I often work in 'details' view.  This helps me have a big picture look at all my files, sizes and when I saved them and keeping them organized.  If I am searching for an older image in my client folder I will go to large icon again, but if I am sending updates or uploading to box it will be in detail view.

Folder naming.. Name your folder by client or by code name of client.  Then for each project you do for the client start a specific folder.  I say 'code name' because you may consider using codes on sensitive client work. If you are prone to sharing screen on skype or streaming, it would suck to inadvertently put your client list or project list out there by accident when you go to save your file!  ..loose lips sink freelancers.

File naming..   First, spell it correctly.. there is no spell check on file names, and if your a poor speller like myself, you can easily show your hand.  Bad spelling can make the best artist seem like a dope.  Second, plan for a name on your file that will be able to carry all the revisions down the road without looking ill prepared.  Example, do not name your file 'first try.jpg' or 'green version of ship.jpg'  also avoid prematurely using the word 'final'...  you can't imagine how many versions of final are out there, and when you do say final, you are sending a message that either a) you are out of time, or b) you can't do any better.  Instead, use version numbers _01, _02, _03 etc.. And when you hit on a version that needs minor tweaks, add versions to that, _03a, _03b, _03c.  Keep in mind you always want to have your files sort correctly numerically.  There is a big difference in _v01 and _v1 or _v001.  You will also know I use an underscore.  This is a legacy habit because some file systems could not use 'spaces' but we wanted to make sure the version was seperate from the name, this is why, zoo01.jpg vs. zoo_01.jpg.  Same meanings, but zoo01.jpg is a pain to read quickly.  Also, do use the word 'test' or 'junk' on anything that will not hold value after the project is done.  At the end of your project, search for everything marked junk, and delete it to save hard drive space.  Tests can prove to be more valuable, but down the road they may lose that, so the option to delete them could be nice.

You would be surprised how much can be deciphered from someones file structure.  Especially if they are looking for a job.  It is a snapshot of how an artist treats the workflow on their own time.  A well organized concept artist with solid naming conventions will stand out against one that has treated their own work recklessly.