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Creating a sci-fi landscape with Affinity Photo for iPad

Artist Giuliano Brocani talks us through the process of creating a sci-fi landscape using ‘custom shapes’ and colourisation in Affinity Photo for iPad.

For professional concept artists, productivity and speed is vital to produce credible key shots in a relatively short time frame. This is why many spend a lot of time experimenting with techniques and solutions that facilitate work without inhibiting their creativity. The use of custom brushes is the most common but also the adoption of 3D models or ‘photobashing’ (integrating photographs into illustrations) all serve that purpose too.

Timelapse showing the creation of Giuliano​ Brocani’s sci-fi landscape

In this article I’m going to talk you through the use of custom shapes in creating my sci-fi landscape piece and share some tips and tricks along the way.

Custom shapes tips and tricks

The term ‘custom shapes’ refers to the practice of using parts of photos, patterns or photographic materials, ‘sampling’ them and using them on a canvas to build images with a rich appearance that have the illusion of intricate details and complexity. In reality, they are maintaining an instinctive workflow. All the following material was produced entirely with Affinity Photo for iPad. To make the process clear, I used a single photo to create a unique ‘custom shape’ but the basic idea is to use many of them and experiment by creating different ones to eventually create a library of models that will be useful at the right time.

Creating a custom shape from any photo

Choose a photo that has interesting textures (for example—engines, mountains or fabrics) and import it into Affinity Photo. For the experiment I imported a random photo, a screenshot from a previous work.

  1. With your image selected, go to the Adjustments Studio and apply a Threshold adjustment. Use the Threshold slider to get a balance between textures (black parts) and transparencies (white parts) on your image.
  2. Go to the Layers Studio and swipe your image layer so that this layer and the Threshold Adjustment layer are both selected. Select the Group icon on the Layer Studio menu to group these layers. Now, you need to ‘rasterise’ this group, to do this go to the Merge and Rasterise drop-down on the Layers Studio and choose Rasterise.
  3. Next, go to the Selections Persona, and using the Flood Selection Tool select all the dark parts in your image.
  4. Go to the Edit menu and choose Select Tonal Range > Select shadows.
  5. Go back to the Photo Persona, and do a long one-finger tap on your page to gain access to the Context menu. Select Cut then do a long one-finger tap on your page again and choose Paste to paste your selection as a new layer. Repeat the long one-finger press action to Deselect.
  6. At this point, delete your old layer which has both the black and white parts, so you are left with your layer containing only the dark parts of your image. This is the base of your ‘custom shape’.

Erase even the most regular parts like corners or simplify it by filling the uninteresting parts with a hard brush. From doing this, you will then have an object with both full and transparent parts. You have now created a custom shape. You now can play on the canvas by duplicating, rotating and distorting the shape created until you’re satisfied. Personally, I create a dark grey background fill layer to have as a ‘central’ range of light since I can light parts from grey and darken others at will.

Duplicate the newly created shape several times and instinctively place it on the canvas. By blocking the alpha level in the bottom bar I can coarsely paint it without altering its texture and shape.

After a few minutes and some very vague brushstrokes, the scenery begins to take shape, with mountains and terrain and some unusual rocks.

Separation of floors and ‘atmospheric haze’

A very practical trick to paint such scenarios is to separate the planes of the scene on at least 3 levels (foreground, middle ground, background). Assign decreasing colour intensity values starting from the foreground subject, desaturating and lowering the values to the most distant planes. Furthermore, to replicate what happens in nature with the atmospheric haze, you can apply gradients or use the airbrush to give the whole image a sense of depth.


With a Gradient Map Adjustment applied I experiment with colour combinations. Trying to imagine an alien scene, I opted for a red dominance but by playing a bit with the Channel Mixer you can get a more realistic and terrestrial result in the blink of an eye.

Grass, water and… an astroman!

I added grass in the background and in the foreground using custom brushes and I create the body of water with a simple freehand selection and an airbrush. I include the outline of the astronaut, in the foreground which serves to give the sense of scale and provide a connection with the viewer.

Spherical pods

Going back to the Selection Persona and using the Elliptical Marquee Tool, I create the first structure and define it as much as possible as I will duplicate it several times to form the spherical buildings. I then add some sections to simulate the metal surface and some rebound light on the spheres, duplicate the newly created structures and place them in the background.

Hue, Saturation and Luminosity (Blues)

During painting I only use the HSL (Hue, Saturation and Luminosity) sliders because it helps with reasoning in the choice of colours, forcing you to think about context and light. For example, if an object is completely illuminated it will be very saturated and luminous, whilst elements in the shade will surely be lighter and perhaps less saturated. You also have to bear in mind the properties of the material that is to be reproduced. Further to this, to credibly reproduce the behaviour of light in the open air I always use a little blue on any surface. That is because in the atmosphere there is always blue due to refraction and suspended water particles.

Once that is complete, I better define the shape of the astronaut by adding some reflections on the helmet and giving volume to the body, by illuminating it using precision with blue.

To finish, I add some typical effects like lens flare by painting with the airbrush a rectangular selection on a colour dodge layer. Then finalise with a pair of celestial bodies in the sky with simple circular selections. An Unsharp Mask at the end is added to make the details more ‘crispy’ until finally the alien scene is complete.

One point to note is that I kept the Channel Mixer adjustment accessible throughout the development so I can always change my mind and ‘come back to earth’ with a tap.

To view more of Giuliano’s astonishing portfolio you can check out his website or social media channels through Facebook, Instagram and Behance.

You can also find out more about Giuliano in our previous interview with him here.