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Behind the scenes with Matt Griffin

We love working with Matt Griffin as much as we love his artwork! He kindly walked us through the process of making his latest piece, an epic science fiction illustration created entirely in Affinity Designer for iPad.
A timelapse of the illustration being created.

There is one particular brief I love more than any other. And that is: draw anything. Nothing gets me more excited than a blank canvas and free reign to let my imagination off the hook. I especially love making images that hint at wider stories—just snap shots. The viewer can imagine the rest.

So the good folks at Affinity gave me free reign, and no brief. They did mention they liked this unused sketch from the first time we worked together:

…and they also mentioned they liked this image I had done a million years ago (in 2010), featuring a type of polygonal robot I liked to draw at the time (I still do):

So while I am a great fan of no brief, a little seedling helps an idea grow and I hit the sketchbook. My sketchbooks are terrible. Their only use is for me to scribble down an idea, so I don’t forget it.

Matt’s sketchbook.

So I’m going to do a girl interacting with one of these polygonal robots. In option 1, I want to show scale and make the robot massive (I like doing giants) and in option 2, the robot (or alien) is going to be giving her some kind of weird magic mask…option 1 it is!

The first thing I do is work out the rough composition. I use the Pixel Persona and scribble it up with a pencil brush.

I think about having the hero sitting at first, like she’s been on a long hike and at last has found what she’s looking for:

But I liked the idea better in the thumbnail, where she is holding something up—an artefact that calls the giant robot to her. I put in a little foreground too, both for more depth and to suggest that she has come from somewhere, like she’s at the end of a journey—she has a backpack for the same reason.

I’m happy with this, so it’s time to work the composition out properly and refine those sketches.

I use the ‘Rule of Thirds’ a lot in composition. I’m sure you’re aware of it, but in case you’re not—you divide the canvas into thirds, vertically and horizontally. I use a calculator to get the placement right, and then add guides. The horizon will go roughly on the bottom horizontal line, and the points of interest (in this case the artefact and the robot) will go roughly where the lines meet.

When it comes to colour, I often choose on the fly, playing with colours and layer blends until I think it looks good. But other times, I choose a palette and stick to it. For this image, I’m doing the latter. I might veer from it here and there, but it’s the base. I use the CMYK sliders to get the colours once I know the values.

The colour palette that Matt used for this image.

I draw the robot shape in the Vector Persona using the Pen Tool. I then use the Pen Tool again for the polygonal lines, experimenting with the different modes (Pen, Smart, Polygon, Lines) and find that Lines mode works best, as I don’t have to keep deselecting the last anchor point. It should be noted here—I probably do things wrong. There is always an easier way to do these things, especially when you’re me. But I stubbornly do things my own way, always have. So after I have the rough sketch, the rest of the process is a bit of a battle (but a fun one). I wrestle with the image and play around with things as I go.

In this case one thing is going wrong for me. I want a uniform line, but it keeps defaulting to the taper I have set (I am doing it wrong, see?)…so for a long time I painstakingly change the lines, and then realise after a while that I like the tapers better! What makes this even funnier (in a depraved, self-flagellating way) is that I know in the final art none of this will be noticed—it’ll be washed out with effects to imply scale and distance, not to mention the fact that it will be glowing. I always do this—draw the full thing, even if I know most of it will disappear. It means I have the whole thing to play with, just in case I need it.

Eventually, our robot is done.

Next up is tightening up the sketch of the girl. I do another round of loose pencil, just to decide where things go and how the shadows might work.

So you can see below I’ve marked out where shadows will go. Use of light is one of the most important things—it’s something I obsess over and yet, I’m still terrible at it. I am in awe of comic artists who master the use of shadow and know exactly how it will fall on a form. I have practised and studied for years and still get it wrong. But I’ll keep trying.

The sketch of the hero in it’s refined state, showing the placement of the shadows.

Then I draw her outline in vector, choosing the base colour. I’ll add the shadows and highlights to this using a clipping mask. I’ll do it in black first, and then change the colour to match my palette…

I add my background gradient.

I make the artefact that our hero is holding here too, mixing (as always) pixel and vector depending on what I want to achieve (and what I’m most comfortable in). This is the real beauty of Designer—switching seamlessly between the two. I have this idea of the artefact being a little like a steering wheel. Maybe that’s what it is…up to you.

I’ve made the robot glow here too—it was just a case of duplicating the layer, giving the duplicate a Gaussian Blur and setting the layer blend to ‘Lighter Colour’ or ‘Lighten’, or sometimes ‘Screen’, but that can take things a little too far.

My favourite thing to do in Affinity Designer is draw with a tapered Vector Brush. For hair or leaves it’s unbelievably satisfying (the simple pleasures).

Next up comes the middle and foreground. I like to use the more painterly brushes for this and play with the colour values to imply distance.

Light affects the ground too, and so the colour of the sun setting will affect the middle ground. That’s why I love painterly brushes. The textures in them can look just like land, far off.

I add the highlights to the girl—notice I don’t concentrate on one area for too long. I can’t. My mind wanders, and I see other things I need to do. There is no order, only playtime.

At this point I have added my foreground forest, the sun, and played with the light and colour. I do this with gradients and also shapes—circles I drawn in vector with the Gaussian Blur applied and the layer blend set. I play with opacity too. And I’ve added a bit of magic-y shine to the artefact, because it has to do something—like a beacon. Otherwise she’d just be holding a fancy steering wheel in the air!

Now, to give it that slightly ‘animated’ look, I take the whole thing, duplicate (so I don’t lose my layers in the next step), rasterise (so it’s all merged on one layer), duplicate that and add gaussian blur and change the layer blend to ‘Lighter Colour’.

So here’s how it looks before and after the layer blend.

Before and after the layer blend showing the effect of the Gaussian Blur.

I think it might be done. But it isn’t. Something about it is bothering me. Well, two things.

First, the robot is a little too washed out. It looks too ghost-like. Second, that foliage around the girls feet is…boring. It’s just a straight line of ‘meh’. So I go back and give the robot a little darkening gradient behind the polygonal lines, so they stand out more. I change that grass and give the foreground a little light effect—simply duplicating (again, I do that a lot), giving the duplicate a colour overlay, putting it behind the original layer and moving it slightly. And I add some mountains for more interest in the background.

Note the change in the mid-ground and the added highlights on the foreground trees.

The final touch is to add a layer of Noise with an Overlay Layer Effect applied to give it a film grain look. And we’re done! I hope it makes you wonder how she got there, and what she’s doing next. With her new friend, the giant polygonal robot.

The final illustration.

About Matt Griffin

Matt Griffin is an award-winning illustrator, author and animator from Kells, Co. Meath, Ireland.

With clients including Disney, Warner Bros, Universal, Penguin and Harper Collins, he has garnered an international reputation for distinctive and innovative graphic art.

He is also the author of The Ayla Trilogy (O’Brien Press) with his debut novel ‘A Cage of Roots’ named the LAI Children’s Book of the Year 2017 in the 9-11 age category.

You can read more about Matt in our interview with him, or by visiting his website, shop, Twitter or Instagram.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

All images copyright © of Matt Griffin and used with permission.