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Romain Trystram: Marrakesh Express (a Moroccan journey)

Find out how a study of sunlight and shadow stirs the Moroccan memories of top designer Romain Trystram.

Those of a certain age will remember Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 60s iconic song “Marrakesh Express” which found fame at the legendary Woodstock music festival.

This tutorial takes us back to Marrakesh in the company of top designer Romain Trystram who enjoyed living in the North African town for several years.

“It’s a wonderful place, with very beautiful landscape and lighting. I always liked the rooftops because people seemed to always be living their lives on them.

The sun shone almost every day.”

Romain’s thoughts on Marrakesh

His extraordinary use of Designer to marry colour and lighting really makes his designs stand out generally, but this piece in particular really brings an African sunrise to life as we imagine Romain embarking the Tangier—Marrakesh train. All aboard!

The process


I start with an idea and build everything around the light. The sky is the key to lighting as that’s the main source, so the first thing I do when starting an illustration is to fill in the sky using a linear gradient.

I’ll also choose a light source direction based on the story I want to tell. The light is the main character in my designs—that’s what interests me most.

So in this instance, after adding mountains, I’ll add an additional subtle light source as an ellipse emanating from the bottom right of my page which also adopts a similar gradient to the sky and mountains.

I’m fascinated by the way light is working in reality. In an illustration, light can be an illusion, in that colours can look different when influenced by an adjacent ‘stronger’ colour.

Choosing the colours of Morocco

Compared to my other designs the colours are relatively understated which is intentional due to strong lighting but they still remain harmonious—a mix of solid blue fills, moving to illuminated peach, sandy and pink gradients nearer to my bottom-right elliptical light source.

Solid fills or gradients?

Introducing the gradients gives a nice sense of depth and naturalness. However, the illustration needs some solid fills instead of gradients on light-facing flat surfaces (e.g., building sides) to reinforce the suggestion of strong directional lighting. This is characteristic of my style.

Everything is starting to take its place, with some additional editing to ‘fill out’ the scene, especially the foreground.

Repeating architectural patterns

To achieve regular patterns, I love to use the Power duplicate feature, which repeats the same transform operation via the same key stroke—this allows me to work quickly.

As an example, I can add repeating arches to the front face of one of the buildings. Simply draw an initial arch, then use CMD+J (CTRL+J) to duplicate the arch. Move the duplicate left by a chosen amount, then reapply the keyboard shortcut repeatedly to create more duplicates that reposition by the same amount.

I’ve taken the same approach with wall patterns, ornamental finials and tower windows. We then start to build complexity in a very easy and effortless way.

For the tower windows, the goal was to introduce some variations to repeating elements and erase the ‘copy/paste’ monotony. I just deleted windows randomly.

“When you create an urban illustration, everything is pattern and rhythm.”

Finishing touches: light effects

I usually draw my light effects as specific shapes—always trying to interpret what would happen in reality. I usually use blend modes like Colour Dodge and Overlay.

In this illustration, I added several sun flares and sun panels over my elliptical light source that strengthens the idea of directional backlighting—the centre of attention is focused here. The light effects may suggest a dawn arrival at Marrakesh?

“For me, drawing light is also drawing shadows. It’s a relationship between those two which creates the feeling of light. So the key is to never forget that when you draw light, you draw the opposite in the same time.”


This Marrakesh Express study shows my general design style, but also shows how solid fills and gradients can work together with light sources (backlight, sun flares or sun panels). Power duplicating also give you multiple ‘transformed’ duplicates that are precisely positioned—a great labour-saving technique for many uses.

To find out more about Romain and his thoughts on using Affinity Designer check out our behind the scenes article Bright lights, big city: Romain Trystram’s neon nights.

See more of Romain’s stunning work at and on Behance, Dribbble and Instagram.

Documentation manager

Andy manages our software documentation here at Serif and is our chief technical writer. In-between falling off his bike cycling into work, he keeps himself busy ensuring all our apps have up to date and accurate help content, and is editor-in-chief of our stunning Affinity Workbooks.

Credits & Footnotes

All images are copyright © of Romain Trystram and used with permission.