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Illustrator Terry Edward Elkins: ‘Be curious. Be storytellers’

Terry Edward Elkin’s striking vector illustrations caught our eye on Twitter and Instagram, with bold shapes, retro textures and an unmistakably Canadian flavour.
‘Cabin at the lake’ by Terry Edward Elkins
Terry, we were thrilled when you sent us your work for the Affinity Designer 1.6 update campaign. Tell us a little bit about your history as a designer.

Wow, that goes back awhile! As a kid, I was always drawing something—like most kids I think. It wasn’t anything I gave much thought to, just something I could lose myself in and have fun with creating. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I decided to pursue illustration professionally.

I chose McEwan University (then Grant MacEwan Community College), due to its locale (my home city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), but more importantly, because of the very practical, hands-on approach to learning—it was a great couple of years of real life application alongside solid design theory.

Upon graduation, and in a progression over my 20+ year career, identity design, branding and graphic design in general became my primary focus (with illustration playing more of a role in ideation/concept development).

It’s only been the last 4 or so years that I’ve jumped back into illustration as a larger portion of my creative life. Really, as a completely different creative expression to that of my day-to-day as Creative Director at g-squared (a marketing and branding agency based in Edmonton).

Describe your typical work week.

“I’m sure most creatives can relate, ‘what we do’ is more a ‘who we are’—it’s a 24/7 thing.”

My evenings, wee hours of the mornings and weekends are for illustration. Creative Director by day, Illustrator by night! I’m sure most creatives can relate, ‘what we do’ is more a ‘who we are’ —it’s a 24/7 thing. My week is 40 hours as Creative Director, developing ad campaigns, naming companies, developing logos, branding and brand strategies. Couple that with client presentations and managing a super talented creative department.

‘Sunset Lake’ by Terry Edward Elkins
Your depictions of natural environments are personal favourites of ours. They seem to have a distinctly Canadian feel, have your surroundings greatly inspired your work over the years?

Why thank you, I wear my Canadian identity with a massive amount of pride! As for your question, yes! Besides illustration and my design work, the outdoors (especially being in the mountains), is a huge part of me and my family’s lives. Like illustration, being in the mountains is an escape—a wonderful and majestic place to explore and get lost in (figuratively speaking of course). We’ve been avid partakers in the outdoors for most of our collective lives.

“Like illustration, being in the mountains is an escape—a wonderful and majestic place to explore and get lost in (figuratively speaking of course).”

What or who else inspires your illustration work?

Nature, other illustrators (Brian Edward Miller, Olly Moss, Saul Bass, to name a few), and curiosity—finding different ways to interpret a space or concept.

How did you discover Affinity Designer?

It was recommended to me by a fellow designer friend. Said given my style, I should give it a go. I did and fell in love with it!

As for what impressed me about it? The speed, the intuitive sense to it, a refined toolkit—things feel more common sense, if that makes sense.

I think the best way to describe it is it’s like making music. Making music vs. playing music. When you play, you pay attention to the processes and the mechanics. When making, you just do. And you create something where your focus is the melody, the mood or expression. Affinity Designer allows me to make visual music. With other applications, I often pay far more attention to wrestling tools. Frustrating and rather distracting.

Technically speaking, the pen tool, how you create nodes, select a portion of the line, drag and instant curve with control points (handles)! The custom grids, snapping options, rotating canvas, ease of placing objects within other objects, working in draw and pixel personas… My list is long, these are but a few of my favs.

What tools were you using when you first started illustrating and what drove you to try something new?

A combination of Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. As for the draw to try something different; cost, application bloat and speed (lack of), clunky, awkward or generally frustrating-to-use UI. Inefficiency—having to use two applications to complete my illustrations.

Hand-drawn sketches and the final images. Illustrations created as cover art for the Henry Tibbett series by Patricia Moyes, published by Felony & Mayhem Press.
Can you explain a little about your drawing/painting process?

Most times things start in my sketch pad—old school pencil and paper. I like to explore quick and loose, get base concepts out of my brain an on paper. Once I land on what I think works, I move digital, using the sketch as my under drawing and I build my base illustration from there in Affinity Designer.

When I’m constructing, I usually start with basic greys, mapping out form first and a general sense of light source. Depending on the illustration, I may transform each base shape from flat colour to a gradated version or create a gradated overlay, depending on the effect I want. Sometimes I add a bit of noise to the fills to create a bit of a texture, again, depending on the illustration and what I’m going for.

Once I get a strong digital base, I start to consider colour. If full colour, I’ll create a master palette and start individually changing greys to similarly toned colours. If it’s a more monochromatic illustration, I’ll often use a recolour effect, a huge tip I picked up from Kevin House (featured previously by Affinity Designer).

After colour, I usually nail down shadows (again this may happen earlier in the process depending on how the illustration develops, I’m kinda fluid in some aspects of my process).

Finally, I’ll finish off with texturing, using a short list of brush types within Pixel Persona, usually dry-brush-esque.

Do you have a favourite brush or set of brushes that you use for digital illustration?

Frankentoon creates some wicked brushes, I’ve been using some of theirs lately, specifically their “Ink and Dust” from the Texturizer series. I want to jump into some custom sets but haven’t had the time.

You’ve covered this a little already but the colour and lighting in your illustrations is one of the things that I think really makes it stand out, how do you approach this?

By mood and the environment I’m capturing. I’m a storyteller at heart so I use colour to try to help tell a story or express a feeling about a setting or experience.

“I’m a storyteller at heart so I use colour to try to help tell a story or express a feeling about a setting or experience”

I’ve been using more dramatic lighting lately—very noir. I have a series of murder mystery book covers currently on the go, really digging the dramatic lighting in those.

‘Sunset Lake’
Does your process for creating commercial work differ from your personal work?

Great question. Not really, I’m given quite a bit of creative latitude, typically, both at the agency I’m with and with my freelance clients. If there was a difference to highlight, it would likely be the level of experimentation. For personal projects, I can go further on a limb and risk spending massive amounts of time in trial and error, where commercial work doesn’t often allow.

What would be your dream commission?

Something for Parks Canada, an outdoor company (REI, MEC, etc.). Illustrating a series of craft beer labels—definitely on my bucket list (Any breweries out there? Let’s talk!).

What do you have planned for the future of your illustration work?

Honestly, to grow it slowly, be selective in what I take on, and only do what challenges me and makes me smile. If that ends up in a big result, great! If it stays small, I’m perfectly content with that.

Terry, It’s been a pleasure talking with you… any final words for us?

“Be curious. Be storytellers. Be inspired by others but find your own voice. Always challenge yourself to grow. And lastly, know that you are far more talented than you think you are.”

It’s been a blast and I’m honoured for the opportunity to chat.

Final words? As I would say to my design students (I taught sessionally at MacEwan University for 11 years, forgot that part!), and I share with junior creatives (or anyone for that matter): ‘Be curious. Be storytellers. Be inspired by others but find your own voice. Always challenge yourself to grow. And lastly, know that you are far more talented than you think you are.’

You can get further insight into how Terry constructs his illustrations by viewing the fully layered samples of his work in the Affinity Designer 1.6 Welcome screen.

Visit Terry at on Twitter & 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 © Terry Edward Elkins