Illustrator Agata Karelus: ‘everything but sadness’

Agata Karelus—aka Gagatka—is a self-taught illustrator and designer from Warsaw, Poland. She lives with her husband, Tomek Karelus, and her cat, Mr Cat.

We’re big fans of Agata’s—many a time her colourful, zany characters have brightened up our day. In this profile we find out what makes her tick and how Affinity Designer stole her heart for good…

Tell us how you first got into design and illustration.

I used to work at my dad’s graphic studio, but then decided to pursue my dream and start a living with the money I made from illustrating. And that’s about it, all the rest is just sweat, tears, hard work and a little bit of luck.

I’ve now been a graphic designer for almost 20 years, and an illustrator for around 10 years. I love the magic of creating something out of nothing and sharing it with the rest of the world.

We love your character designs. Do you plan your characters before you start drawing them?

I just let it flow—that’s my motto. I almost never sketch my ideas, I just sit in front of the computer and draw and then basically wait for a happy accident to happen. However, it still takes some cool brushes, patience, light and colour skills, and some online learning for that magic to happen. When I practice drawing out of my comfort zone I always use reference images, and once I know I’ve got the image right, that’s when I start to add one of my characters.

I draw until I’m happy with the result—I never abandon my artworks even if they look rubbish. That’s the best skill I have learned over the years because there is always a happy ending (seriously!).

“When I practice drawing out of my comfort zone I always use reference images, and once I know I’ve got the image right, that’s when I start to add one of my characters.”

What’s the inspiration behind your work?

The thing that inspires me the most is other artists’ hard work. It gives me hope that one day I will be as good as some of them. Also, I love the Adventure Time series as it has everything I’m looking for—colours, crazy ideas, a funny story, great characters—you name it, they have it!

Your artwork, ‘Monsters’, is amazing! How long does something like this take to complete?

This particular one took three days to finish in total, but it was really easy to make. First, there was Affinity Designer involved, and second, there was the freedom to create whatever I wanted. However, it’s different when there’s a work brief involved as that means I have to follow client’s expectations and crazy deadlines. I find that the more freedom I have, the easier I work.

Monsters by Agata Karelus

Among your works, which one is your favourite and why?

There is no favourite one—I’m Mother of Dragons. I love all my kids even if they’re creepy and ugly. However, there is always a possibility that my favourite one hasn’t been born yet!

Are you working on anything at the moment? Please can we have a sneak peek?

I’m working on so much right now! Here’s a sneak peek of a character design I created for a commercials pitch with Passion Pictures from London.

Characters created for a commercial pitch with Passion Pictures by Agata Karelus

Also, I’ve not long finished illustrating a short commercial for EMPIK. It took me a whole month of constant drawing and I’m extremely proud of how it turned out. I was hired by Human Ark Studio and had the great pleasure of working with some really fantastic people.

Right now I’m working with my husband, Tomek, on a short series about living eco. This one’s extra special because all the characters are made in Affinity Designer. Unfortunately, I’m unable to give you a sneak peek right now, but I promise to show you after it’s finished! We’ve both also decided that we need to make our own kids book of funny tales. I’ve already done some illustrations, but there’s just not enough hours in the day to get things finished.

What brushes do you use?

I mostly use my own brushes. However, I also use Frankentoon and DAUB brushes which I think are great.

You can download some free brushes I have made for Affinity Designer here. ‘To Bee or Not to Bee’ (shown below) is made entirely with my Affinity Designer brushes.

To Bee or Not to Bee created by Agata Karelus using her Affinity Designer brushes

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment so far?

That I made my dream come true and I’m now a professional illustrator.

We love your use of colour. How do you approach the colour palette in your illustrations?

I call this approach ‘everything but sadness’. The colours are never planned: it’s just my inner world colour palette. I have tried many times to tone it down, but it didn’t work so I gave up and this is now my way of seeing things.

Tell us about a project you’ve completed that you are most proud of.

The project that I’m most proud of is my own iPad interactive book/game for kids—Snot & Fluff—which I did with OhNoo Studio. I wrote the story and made all the illustrations and OhNoo Studio did the rest of the magic—it took us a year in total to complete.

Snot & Fluff interactive book/game by Agata Karelus

I’m also proud of every project I have ever completed for the animation studios I’ve worked for in the past—I came out of my comfort zone and faced many challenges which I believe have made me a better illustrator.

What was your first impression of Affinity Designer?

My first thought was “Why did I have to wait so long for this miracle to happen?” I loved it from the start, it was absolute love at first sight—I couldn’t believe how fast it was and how beautifully it rendered everything. I also love the Masking option and Noise Slider in the Colour palette. It has never been easier!

“I loved it from the start, it was absolute love at first sight.”

Tell us a bit more about your impressive 100 Characters project and how they were created.

I spent a month on these guys. Sometimes I used paper and pencil to start out but most of the time the characters were conceived entirely in Affinity Designer.

I honestly don’t know where some of the characters come from or how they are born. It just happens! Making art this way allows me to be spontaneous.

100 different characters created by Agata Karelus

Don’t be afraid to step back and kill off a character if it’s not working—it won’t hurt them. But when it looks like something you would have printed on your t-shirt, then it’s perfect!

And another great tip: don’t be afraid to make characters stand out. Does he have big ears? Then make them even bigger—it will work!

This was all easy for Affinity Designer. It remained fast as the design grew and didn’t crash even once.

Self-portrait: Agata sent us this picture of her studio!

What are your thoughts about Affinity Designer as a tool for your illustration work?

It works perfectly with my Wacom: better than other programs I use. I love the whole brush engine and the easiness of switching between vectors and bitmaps—it makes my work a lot faster and easier.

In my vector illustration I use a lot of Gaussian blur, and in the finishing stages I often add noise for texture.

I was more than surprised how Affinity Designer handles these, with real-time effects that apply instantly, and a Noise Slider right in the Colour Panel.

Gradients and transparency are really easy too, they give you endless possibilities.

Lastly, would you recommend Affinity Designer?

The answer is YES! I think Affinity Designer is the new standard of graphic programs. I can only speak for myself as an illustrator, but Affinity Designer is one of the best tools out there and it has stolen my heart for good. I really like that you guys listen to all the users out there—every update makes this software better and better. I also like that there is no subscription approach and you give free updates to all your users—that’s what I call fair. And for the program itself: I love how flexible it is! I can make vector illustrations, bitmap ones or even mix the two together without even leaving the program. It all renders so beautifully as well!

Many clients ask for EPS, PDF or PSD files, and Affinity Designer supports them all! Also, I currently develop my own Affinity Designer brushes and discovered that I can make one brush from many different shapes at once, which I find AMAZING!

“I can only speak for myself as an illustrator, but Affinity Designer is one of the best tools out there and it’s stolen my heart for good.”

You can find more of Agata’s amazing work here.