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Keeping it real: the photorealistic automotive art of Richard Kelly

Retired graphic designer Richard Kelly loves to combine his two greatest passions in life—motor vehicles and digital art. We learn more about his background as a technical illustrator and designer and his process for creating photorealistic automotive art in Affinity.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how your passion for vehicles first began.

I have had a lifelong interest in cars and motorcycles. Specifically the look of them, their history, and the designers that created them. My brother Jim is responsible for my obsession with cars. He is ten years older than me and was often tasked with “babysitting” his kid brother. When I was about six years old, he taught me how to recognise the year, make and model of the cars that were popular in our sleepy little town of Kelowna, British Columbia. He used to bet his friends his little brother could name nine out of the next ten cars that would drive by. He made quite a bit of pocket change doing this. Sadly, I never figured out I should get a cut of the winnings. Around the time Jim was teaching me about cars (circa 1956), he bought his first, a 1937 Ford. Just recently, I surprised my brother, whose nickname is “Da Geez” (short for “That Old Geezer”), with an illustration of that car.

1937 Ford Humpback Fordor Sedan © Richard Lorne Kelly
How did you get into illustration?

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t draw. At school, I used to scribble in the margins of my notebooks and often got in trouble for paying more attention to my doodles than what was going on in class. At about age fifteen, I was trying to figure out “what I wanted to be,” which was an automotive designer, but I didn’t know how to go about making that happen. In high school, I liked drafting so I went to technical school and took a course in architectural technology. Then I got into technical illustration doing parts manuals for Western Star Trucks, which morphed into graphic design. I spent the last thirty years of my working career pushing a mouse around doing graphic arts on a Mac—ALWAYS on a Mac. I was fortunate to have started working with the Mac when there was just two programs, MacWrite and MacPaint. As new programs were added and their capabilities grew, I was able to progress incrementally along with them.

I didn’t get into creating automotive art until I was nearing retirement. What was useful was the library of automotive photographs I’d taken over the last several decades. Every vacation my wife and I have taken always had some sort of automotive part to it. Everything from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, the Mille Miglia start in Brescia, Italy, and the F1 Grand Prix in Montreal, to name just a few.

1952 Jaguar XK120 Fixed Head Coupe © Richard Lorne Kelly
Your artwork has recently taken on a realistic look. Do you think your background in technical illustration has influenced your personal creative style over the years?

I’m sure that the accuracy needed for successful technical illustration had a strong influence on this turn towards realism I’m exploring. In addition, I had for years admired the realistic automotive art of Harold James Cleworth.

What is your usual process for creating an illustration in Affinity Photo?

I start off with a photograph. Almost exclusively one that I’ve taken myself. I place it into a new afphoto file to the size and position that I want. In a new layer above the photo, using the Pen Tool, I create a closed curve outlining a single part. I fill that curve with a colour that is the base colour of the object. The real breakthrough for me was discovering that if I then took a brush and started painting on the object, that Affinity Photo would create a pixel layer that was masked to the closed curve. Using this technique, I could add shading and highlights (each on their own layer), and I didn’t have to paint within the shape—Affinity Photo did that for me.

1932 Ford Roadster © Richard Lorne Kelly

By playing with the opacity of these pixel layers, I can fine-tune their look. Being able to change how they interact with the base layer using blend modes such as Normal, Multiply, etc., gives me more ways to finesse their look. Finally, the effects that can be added—Shadow, 3D, Blur etc., aid in getting the look that I want. Piece by piece, I built up my illustration. Once I’ve drawn a major part, which can be made up of several components, I’ll group it for convenience.

Gradient fills and opacity controls are absolutely wonderful for drawing transparent parts like windscreens and headlight lenses.

The Geometry options in the Layer menu are extremely useful for creating elements with holes in them (by creating compound shapes).

Almost all of the elements in my illustrations are done in Affinity Photo, but every once in a while, there’s something that must be done in Affinity Designer. I really like that I can open the afphoto file in Designer, do the part I need, and then go back to Affinity Photo.

In a nutshell, that’s how I create my illustrations.

2019 Ford GT © Richard Lorne Kelly
Which are your favourite features in Affinity Photo and Designer?

Layers—It took me a while to see how using separate Layers can be a way to create a portion of an image. Then go on to another part on a new layer, thus allowing experimentation without damaging a part of the image that you’re happy with.

Adjustment Layers—This allows you to try things that might fine-tune an image without destroying it.

Masking—The way it allows you to paint or draw without having to worry about staying inside the lines.

In Designer, Distribute commands and the Duplicate feature are extremely useful for elements that repeat in my illustrations, e.g. the louvres that repeat on the side of the hood (or bonnet) of a ’32 Ford.

1932 Ford Roadster Pickup—The Hemi Deuce © Richard Lorne Kelly
Do you have any tips for someone just starting out with the software?

Watch several of the Affinity tutorials. Then give yourself a project and just start on it. When you get stumped on how to do a task, go to the in-app Help and snoop around the categories in the menu.

Out of all the illustrations you’ve created, which one is your favourite, and why?

If I HAD to pick a favourite, I would say it’s the “Rocket-Powered 1932 Ford Pickup.” I really liked the patina it wore on its body. It was really challenging to get that looking right.

Rocket-Powered 1932 Ford Pickup © Richard Lorne Kelly

It was on display at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California—one of the premier hotrod shows in North America, which adds to this trucks interest for me.

What advice would you give to artists looking to work in a photorealistic style?

Take your time, and use multiple layers when you’re drawing. If you mess up, just hide that layer and try again. If you’re using a placed photograph for reference in your file, it’s useful to set a modifier to nudge/move layers accurately out of position to be able to view portions of them side by side with your reference photo.

You can see more of Richard’s illustrations and his earlier photo manipulations here.