We caught up with Juanma to learn more about his creative journey, how his style has evolved since his first illustration and how he went about learning the tools and features in Affinity Designer—with no previous vector illustration experience.
Who is Juan Manuel Tastzian?
I’m glad you asked! That’s me, and you can call me Juanma for short. I’m a 30-year-old Software Engineer from Argentina with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the Universidad de Buenos Aires. I love cars and doing illustrations that generally involve them, but they are not my only artistic interest.
Have you always been interested in design?
Design as a topic, in general, has always been an interest for me and not specifically graphic design, but the ‘design of things’. There’s a great book I have yet to finish but love what I have gotten out of it so far, that’s called The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman. I didn’t think about everyday objects and their design until I read this book and it has ended up being very fascinating to me. I also love cars as you obviously can tell from my art profiles and their design is also another thing that I am very passionate about.
How did you first get into illustration?
I used to draw when I was a kid but found that I was very affected when things didn’t turn out as I envisioned them, which was most of the time. I felt more frustrated than happy in general, so after drawing by myself and even taking some drawing classes, I abandoned it, at least in a traditional way.
I came back to illustration many years later, in the digital world (2018). I purchased Affinity Designer and also an iPad with Procreate. The undo feature and the ability to use layers (and edit/move them after working on them) made me feel more secure and less fearful of mistakes. That let me make more mistakes, that I then turned into wins. I just needed to let myself learn, practice and understand. Digital illustration gave me all of this and now that I have a lot more knowledge, I am very interested in going back to analogue/traditional and giving it a second shot with a more open mind.
Cars are at the heart of the majority of your illustrations. Where did your passion for cars originate?
I’ve loved cars since I can remember. My dad likes them too, as did his dad before him. My family has owned a tyre repair shop for more than 50 years here in Argentina, so they have always been around cars, but I’m the best ‘car recogniser’ in the family, haha! I am very attentive to the smallest details. Many times I can even guess a car make/model by only seeing a headlight, a bumper or a side mirror.
When I was a kid walking on the street with my parents, they say I went along holding one of their hands and pointing to cars with the other, guessing the make and model out loud before they could even see the logos.
I also have a bunch of books about car design which I have purchased over the years (with a new on its way as we speak) and I like to play videogames, with racing games as one of my favourite genres, enjoying in equal parts the racing and the car collecting and appreciating aspects. Also, I love the photo modes that have been added to racing games lately and sometimes even use them to generate reference materials for illustrations.
Your illustrations are mostly done in vector. What is it that appeals to you about vector art?
I find vector art a lot more ‘mathematical’ and ‘logical’ than raster work, so it just fitted better with my way of thinking, at first. I found that I understood perfectly (and quickly) how Bezier curves worked and also the Boolean operations for shapes, that reminded me a lot of my calculus and algebra years in university. They just felt natural. This was not my first try on vector apps, but it was indeed the first that was successful and enjoyable, thanks to Affinity Designer’s learning curve when comparing it to the competition.
I love the cleanliness you can achieve in your pieces with vector art and also love the fact that I don’t need to think about what I want to do with the illustration (print it or not, which size, etc.) beforehand, since I can scale it as I need later, without any quality loss.
How did you discover Affinity apps and what did you find appealing about them?
I discovered Affinity apps thanks to a YouTuber called Brad Colbow. Brad has a great YouTube channel that specialises in reviewing art-related tech. He also happens to be a great teacher and I saw some of his videos about Affinity Designer. The results he obtained, plus the feeling of “I understand this. I could do something like that” made me want to give it a shot. The learning curve seemed approachable and after trying it, it really was. Intuitiveness and fun are some of the main attractions of Affinity Designer, in my opinion.
How long have you been illustrating in Affinity Designer?
I started using Affinity Designer around March 2018 and published my first work in April 2018. That’s when I consider my Creating Lightly persona was born.
You’ve made tremendous progress since completing your first illustration in Affinity Designer. How did you go about learning the tools and features in the app?
Oh, thanks! That’s very nice of you to say. When I did my first illustration, I adopted a ‘style’ of obscuring or ignoring what I didn’t know how to do. I wanted to do an ‘abstract’ illustration of the Ford GT, making it recognisable with as little detail as possible. A year later I did the same illustration but applying all my new knowledge, and the difference is evident. Looking back like that makes me super proud.
Regarding how I learnt, I am mostly self-taught by watching online video tutorials, reading and practising a lot. Brad Colbow has some great videos on YouTube and I’ve also purchased some of his Udemy courses that are super clear and concise. The official Serif tutorials are also a great source of information to get to know the app better and understand it fully.
What is your usual process for creating an illustration?
This depends on the illustration, but most of the time it involves placing a reference image taken by me or from the internet (asking for permission whenever the owner is credited) or a screenshot taken by me in a videogame. Then I trace the reference to get the objects and proportions right (I usually do the background after the main object is finished). I was never very good at drawing by hand or without a reference, so this is something I need for the final illustration not to look off.
After having done that, I refer to the source just for lighting and original look. I then start blocking out colours and highlights and shadows. At this point, I use (and abuse) the concept of layer clipping. I find it very easy to get the look I want just by paying attention to the lines that are inside the object and overshooting everything else. That overshooting gets fixed by stacking my layers in the correct order, saving me a lot of time, instead of investing it in precision.
Regarding detail; I used to be much more detailed than I am now but it took me double the time for each piece—and without anyone noticing if I didn’t share close up shots. I like the approach I have now better because it lets me move from project-to-project faster, focusing on the stuff that really matters when seeing the illustration as a whole. And if I want to really do a detailed shot of something, I can always create a detailed composition like the Alfa Romeo Giulia wheel below.
Where do you get inspiration for new illustrations?
Mostly from Twitter or my own ideas that I try to transform into compositions. I follow lots of car photographers and enthusiasts, and whenever I come across a shot I like, I save the Tweet.
That only covers the cars part. When we are talking about looks or more ‘artistic/medium-specific’ inspiration, I refer to lots of people who I am following on Twitter.
Other inspiration sources for me, specifically for their art direction and style, are movies, animated series and videogames—I haven’t yet applied these inspirations to my pieces (not consciously at least), but I am super excited about enjoying, analysing and doing studies of them. Two very important ones come to mind since I have purchased books about them: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Two different mediums and styles, but with one clear factor in common: the people involved in the art are passionate, super knowledgeable and skilled.
Lastly, I follow lots of vis-dev/background artists, illustrators, art directors, animators and many more art specialists. I always love to tell people how much I like the work that they do because I think it’s super rewarding when you are told so. A good comment can take two minutes to write and make the other person’s whole day—and even turn a bad, doubtful week into a not-so-bad one.
I enjoy other people’s work so much, I created a thread on my Twitter account where I just share artists I like with links to their accounts, websites, portfolios and/or shops, and some sample images of their creations, thanking them for their inspiration and how they’ve helped me, without even knowing. I’m updating it all the time and you can check it out here.
“I always love to tell people how much I like the work that they do because I think it’s super rewarding when you are told so. A good comment can take two minutes to write and make the other person’s whole day—and even turn a bad, doubtful week into a not-so-bad one.”
We love the detail in your motorcycle illustrations. How long did they take you to complete?
The Moto GP illustrations were a commission I did for a friend last year and are two of my most detailed pieces (apart from the McLaren GT). I don’t remember exactly the time they took, but I believe it was around the 45-50 hour mark. There was a time when I didn’t want anything to do with them anymore because of how long they took, haha! But I slipped in another car illustration in between that took me only a day (the ‘McLaren F1 GTR—Gulf Livery’ piece below) to clean my mind a bit, and it worked!
How do you think your style has evolved since you first began illustrating?
I have not been illustrating for that long but you can clearly see evolution and consolidation through time. I started off trying to emulate the reference as closely as I could with gradients and more realistic ways of painting, but it didn’t feel that right to me (mostly because of my lack of skill at the time), that led me to try a non-photorealistic, cel-shaded type of composition, with the first one being the ‘Dowsett Classic Cars Comet’ piece below.
That illustration is very important to me because it marked the beginning of this style which I evolved and use today in Affinity Designer, and also because it was the first piece I had done entirely in Affinity Designer for iPad, while as a passenger on a road trip. I was kind of sceptical when I purchased Designer on iPad. There was no way I could do everything I did on desktop while on iPad, but it turns out it could (well, not quite everything as at that moment there is no way of using global colours, but I don’t use them a lot anyway, haha!).
Do you have any tips for someone just starting out with the software?
My best tip might be a cliché by now, but get started. No one got anywhere without starting first. Let yourself play around, fail, succeed, learn and enjoy. Have fun!
After you decide to start I have some other tips too. Try the software. If you have a Windows PC or Mac there are trials that let you have a go with the app before spending money on it. On iPad, there are no trials but the app is 60% cheaper than the desktop version, so you can give it a try too (this or wait for a sale if money is an issue for you).
“Every awesome, incredible thing we see tagged with #madeinaffinity on the internet is possible with the app, but there are many hours of experience and dedication behind it. It’s overwhelming to think how that person got there, but the truth is, that person got there from the same place you are in today. Some have more previous experience, some less, but it’s possible.”
When you have the app, give yourself the time to learn. Every awesome, incredible thing we see tagged with #madeinaffinity on the internet is possible with the app, but there are many hours of experience and dedication behind it. It’s overwhelming to think how that person got there, but the truth is, that person got there from the same place you are in today. Some have more previous experience, some less, but it’s possible.
I didn’t have any previous vector illustration experience (or illustration experience at all, for that matter), and with patience and dedication I got where I am now, and don’t intend on stopping anytime soon. If you like doing this you’ll find the time, even just a few hours a week if it’s your hobby or side gig, and all of that adds up and helps you improve. Be patient with yourself.
Finally, some real tangible tips, in no particular order:
Watch tutorials. You can watch some YouTube channels or get some Udemy courses. Brad Colbow, Isabel Aracama and Pope Phoenix (The Digital Mercenary) come to mind. Also, look for the #madeinaffinity hashtag on Twitter. That can help you find accounts that may have some tutorials or tips, and also get some inspiration and see what can be made with the app (some may have YouTube channels too). The official Serif website is good too, to get a grasp on the apps basics.
If you can, get the Affinity Designer Workbook. It’s a beautiful book, super well done, with a variety of works and styles, guided by their creator’s step by step on how to get that look. It’s just amazing!
If you get stuck, go to the Affinity forums. There’s lots of help over there. People are super willing to help you out, or maybe already had a similar problem (use the search).
Use the Pixel persona to sketch in raster, then trace over your sketch in vector once you are happy with it. If you sketch loosely in vector, you will soon find the app trying to keep up with the number of vectors you have and you won’t get any advantage of it being vector (unless you intend the sketch to be part of your final illustration, of course).
Even though practising and observing are crucial for your artistic development, you should not forget the fundamentals. I can recommend a couple of videos and artists to watch and follow, that really helped me with the basics of art. These include Colour Basics by Nicholas Kole which helped me understand how colour and lighting work and interact, and anything from Marco Bucci’s channel: he’s one of the best teachers on YouTube, with a series of videos for art fundamentals and better understanding painting.
Will you carry on using Affinity Designer for your illustrations?
Without a doubt. Few times I have felt so at home with the usage of an application as I have felt with Affinity Designer. Many times one thinks of the learning curve of an application or completing a specific task, thinking about learning as a limitation or a thing against you. It’s daunting, but with Designer, I feel that its learning curve and intuitiveness are right there, and after the first few hours of getting to know the program (optimally, with external help from tutorials or colleagues), you will start to forget about the program itself and focus on just what you want to do. It’s a great feeling!