First off, let me explain what matte painting is. It is primarily used in film production when a scene calls for background or a set that is either impossible or too expensive to film. It's been around for over 100 years, and in the digital age entails using photographs as a part of the painting process to create scenery and backgrounds.
Ever seen Lord of the Rings? Even seen any of the Star Wars films? What about Avatar? Watched a television show in the last 5 years? Hell, have you seen a romantic comedy anytime recently? Then chances are you've seen a matte painting in action. In fact, 90% of the movies you see today, whether you realize it or not, employ some form of matte painting, or what's called "set extension," to provide the illusion of something that isn't there, replace elements in a scene with something else, or add more depth or interest to a shot.
In fact, before we continue, let me provide you with some examples of matte painting, so you can see it's legitimate uses before I decide to get in the argument that some people seem to have against it being ethical, or a real form of art.
Number one, check out Dylan Cole's work, one of the most renowned matte painters in the industry. You can view his website and work here and his demo reel on Youtube here to see the shots in action. Also, here are some thumbnails of matte paintings right here on deviantART.
Now, let me get into the arguments I've seen over the past day. People are trying to claim that this technique is cheating, and cheapens the art. They try to claim that an artist isn't respectable or talented if they have to or choose to incorporate photo elements into their work. As a professional artist that has worked on both film and still matte paintings, I take exception to this.
There are plenty of reasons for matte painting. One of them comes down to how quickly these things need to be done for film production. Turn around can be everything from a couple weeks to a couple of hours, and the scene has to be 100% convincing. Can you paint a photo realistic landscape, or something with complex architecture with realistic lighting, given even 100 hours? Probably not. And that's the second part of the reason, realism. Who wants to watch a movie that looks real, except for the backgrounds?
Matte Painting as a Profession
Matte painting is it's own art form. It's not photo manipulation, and it's not straight up painting. It's a crossover of the two that takes a lot of knowledge and effort. Many times it also involves a lot of 3D work. So instead of comparing it to other things, accept it as it's own form of art. It's apples to oranges my friends, they both fall into the same category, but they're very, very different.
There's a multimillion dollar profession built around this concept. If you think this isn't art, and you think it's cheating, by all means, stop enjoying movies, because those are apparently cheating to provide you with entertainment.
Ethics of Matte Painting
No one is saying it's okay to use matte techniques and claim you painted it all. That's dishonest and wrong, sure. And no one is saying it's okay to use it as a crutch if you can't paint something, and decide to just use a photo instead.
The fact is, it's a legitimate form of art, employed by the entertainment industry. And even people that do matte paintings, even if they're not necessarily for film, ARE legitimate artists, because those of us who do matte paintings know it takes a hell of a lot of hard work to make it look convincing. It's not as easy as slapping 3 photos together and calling it a day. There is still a lot of painting and art technique involved. There are entire classes at the college level dedicated to this technique.
Those of you who take it upon yourselves to insult artists who do this kind of work, shame on you. People in this industry bust their asses to please you and give you a good time, the least you can do is respect their work. We're all a part of the artistic community, so act like it and show support for your fellow artist, don't insult them for doing something just because you don't understand the practicality of it, the application of it, or the business that utilizes it.
And those of you who say in an "ideal world" people would paint everything, and not use photos, I hope you realize how insulting and condescending that is, especially to those of us who make our living doing this kind of work. We don't live in an ideal world, and people have to get the job done in whatever way is deemed necessary. Any good artist uses references, matte painting just takes it a step further in order to create the necessary illusion and suspension of disbelief.
It's certainly not okay to take photos without permission or without the proper license, but using photos and being honest about it isn't wrong. You should take exception to those who lie about their technique, NOT those who employ it and are completely open about it. Or take exception to those who clearly don't know how to paint, and therefore use it as a crutch. Those people will never learn properly, but that's their own problem. Hurling insults or saying they cheat isn't exactly conducive to the learning process is it?
Remember, It's About the Art
It's not about cheating your way through art, or showing novices how to bypass their lessons. It's about being efficient and creating beautiful imagery. If you have a problem with that, so be it, but please don't insult those of us who do it or complain to our faces.
90% of the people I see complaining about it simply have no idea what they're talking about, so hopefully this article has enlightened you to some degree so you can understand what matte painting is and where matte painters are coming from. The other 10% are just what you would call purists. They simply don't agree with you, and never will. That's fine, but those people also need to stop complaining. You're not helping anyone, and if you're making anyone look bad, it's yourself.
Anyway, I hope this has been helpful to those who needed a better understanding. I'm sure I missed a few points, but I feel the article hits the gist if what I wanted to say. If you still disagree, that's fine, but at least be respectful of your fellow artist next time you decide you don't like the way they do something. It'll make everyone a lot happier. Thank you.