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TOXIC LAND: Creating characters with Frankentoon

Join Enrique Figueroa (Frankentoon) as he blocks out a ‘flat’ comic book cover design, then uses simplistic drawn shadows to get his signature design style.


Imagine yourself entering a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of futuristic steam-punk technological inventions, abandoned buildings and tough weather conditions. There, lives several groups of nomad cells, who struggle every day to get food, medicines and weapons to survive. These small alien/human clans are in constant war against each other, they fight to acquire more territory and expand their cells to control all the races that populate that world.

A group of rebels have managed to escape from different cells and plan to travel beyond the limits of the wasteland at any cost. They’ve been told that across the land borders exists a new world full of unspoilt jungles, mighty rivers and unknown wildlife. They plan to start a new life there. So our story begins…

And you can also be part of it.

Your mission is to give life to the main characters of this adventure. I hope I have put you in the right mood… because nobody said that this mission would be easy… but if you feel inspired enough to go ahead, you’re going to have lots of fun creating these characters inside the Affinity Designer.

This mission has been broken down into three parts:

  1. Flats
  2. Shading
  3. Finishing adjustments

This will be our finished project.

Mission Brief

Level: Advanced Knowledge required:

  • Be familiar with Designer’s interface and especially the Pen Tool.
  • Drawing/sketching skills (if not, don’t worry, you’ll be provided with the original sketch made for this tutorial).
  • Creating and working with layers.

You’ll learn how to:

  • Take a rough sketch and use Designer’s powerful tools to take it to a finished and colourful print-quality illustration.
  • Use Designer’s unique Pressure function to control your line weights.
  • Take advantage of Designer’s versatile Adjustment Layers to drastically change your illustration colours in a non-destructive way.

What you won’t learn:

  • How to sketch by hand. This tutorial assumes you have some drawing skills with pencil or digital media and want to give a cool edge to your sketches with vector graphics.


You can get all the resources that are referenced for this the project right here, including original scanned sketch and Designer project files at line art and final artwork stages.


Original sketch

First of all, we need to work from a hand-drawn sketch. To import your scanned or digital image of the sketch into Designer, go to File > Place and then position it inside your canvas.

To keep things organised from the very beginning, you may want to create a separate layer for each different character and the background of this scene.

Select one of your characters layers (in this case ‘Girl’) and with the Pen Tool start to trace over its lines. You don’t have to be too precise for now.

Close the shape, and repeat this step for the rest of your drawing.

This is the most tedious part, but when you get used to it, you’ll be having lots of fun outlining your sketches. It’s cheaper than real ink!

Pen Tool ‘Smart Mode’

By the way, the Pen Tool has four different modes. If you’re already familiar with Bézier curve drawing, you should know how to use the regular Pen Mode (1); the Polygon Mode (3) and the Line Mode (4) offer straight-edged polygons and simple self-terminating straight lines, respectively. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Since we’re taking about very specific features exclusive to Affinity Designer here, let’s focus for one moment on the Smart Mode (2). This powerful mode needs a bit more explanation.

In the illustration (left), I drew a very blocky outline using the regular Pen Mode click-by-click - as you can see I didn’t care too much about drawing an accurate outline. However, in the other illustration (right), I took the time to trace some nice and smooth curves… right? Wrong! I did the same as before, but worked in Smart Mode instead. This mode automatically lays down the curves for you, predicting the way you want to draw your outline.

For the perfectionist, you can make further minor tweaks with the Node Tool.

“Pen Tool’s Smart Mode will become one of your best time-saving friends. Believe me, get used to it.”

This is how the ‘Girl’ layer looks after tracing the entire body.

Do the same with each character. When you’re done you’ll have some nice vector line work ready to be coloured.


Final flat background

“Backgrounds can’t be skipped. They are, in my opinion, as important as your main characters. They provide a context and a physical location, but can also set the mood for your story.”

What we want to communicate through our background is that we are in a semi-abandoned rough place, inhabited by tough people. If we placed them on some randomly coloured background we would be taking valuable information away from our story.

Let’s look at tracing the background. You should put the same effort into tracing it as you did with your characters. There is a lot of Pen Tool work here, but you’ll see in the end how satisfactory results will be. Now, let’s dive into more fun stuff!

Colouring - back to the past

Remember when you were a child, filling in all those funny colouring books? Well, you’ll be taken back to that age right now! This is one of my favourite parts, because you can set the general mood of your scene.

Start by selecting each shape and fill them with the main colours of your characters. Use a very limited palette for each one as this makes it easier to find good colour harmonies and experiment with different colour combinations.

Below is the breakdown of my basic colour palette for each character. As you can see all of them are saturated and vibrant colours. If you’re following this tutorial along with the original drawing, lucky you! Here are the downloadable basic CMYK palettes used for each character.

Rabbit palette
C:00, M:72, Y:100, K:00
C:00, M:15, Y:84, K:24
C:32, M:35, Y:46, K:25
C:00, M:44, Y:35, K:00
C:67, M:89, Y:37, K:00

Girl palette
C:00, M:31, Y:100, K:00
C:81, M:41, Y:45, K:00
C:60, M:80, Y:27, K:00
C:16, M:89, Y:57, K:00
C:04, M:33, Y:44, K:00
C:27, M:27, Y:37, K:27

Little Creature palette
C:58, M:62, Y:52, K:00
C:09, M:12, Y:22, K:05
C:25, M:71, Y:40, K:00
C:64, M:11, Y:40, K:00

Background palette
C:02, M:04, Y:10, K:00
C:00, M:08, Y:27, K:00
C:33, M:23, Y:43, K:00
C:48, M:35, Y:44, K:00
C:04, M:24, Y:32, K:00
C:00, M:33, Y:30, K:14

For the background palette, try desaturated and pale colours in order to make your characters pop on your scene (that is why our characters have more saturated colours). It is not a rule carved in stone, but it works for me.

Line weights and details

Now, you’re about to discover one of several features that sets Affinity Designer apart from other apps. This particular feature is called pressure.

Pressure lets you control your standard line weight in a non-uniform manner by simulating tapered strokes made with a traditional brush pen - all without the need of a pressure-sensitive pen tablet. It is configurable in the Stroke Panel.

Creating profiles

The two pressure profile windows, shown by clicking Pressure on the Stroke Panel (below), show the default profile and a modified profile (left and right). The former (the default) has no effect on the selected stroke, while the latter shapes the stroke. Drag each of the top square corner nodes downwards to shape the profile. This technique can be applied to make perfect eyelashes. In the example, the eyelashes take on a more interesting and dynamic look with the profile applied.

The great thing about the feature is that you’ll never go wrong, because it is non-destructive. You can reshape at any time or press Reset on the window to reset your stroke to its original state, so you can keep playing around with it.

As further examples, the Girl’s hand and Little Creature’s legs were improved. Even little strands of grass from the background have been made using only the Pressure function. Awesome!

Here’s the progress so far.

Now that we have our flat colours all set up, it’s time to add more depth to our characters and help them to really stand out and be the stars of our story.


We’re not going to go deep into boring direct/indirect light, bouncing light and form shadow concepts here. To keep things simple, one light source was envisaged at the upper left of our scene - this way all of our shadows can be placed to the right.

This principle probably won’t fit in realistic lighting situations, but since we’re going after a more manga-cartoony look, this basic approach to lighting should be perfect for our comic book cover.

Drawn shadows

We’ve drawn all of our characters’ main shapes already, right? Well, we’ll be using those shapes to help us create drawn shadows. Let’s take the girl’s face for example.

  1. Original image.
  2. With the Pen Tool, draw an outline that follows the main features of the girl’s face: nose, lips and chin. Follow this all around her head (this doesn’t have to be perfect) and close it. Fill it with a darker shade of her face colour.
  3. Select the original head shape, duplicate it and move your duplicated face over the shadow shape (by moving to the top of the layer stack).
  4. Select both the shape you made for the shadow and the duplicated head shape, and then select Intersect located on the top Toolbar to combine them. Move the shadow behind her facial features using the cmd+[ key (Mac) or Ctrl+[ key (Win) until her face details are not hidden behind the shadow.

You can follow the same procedure to shade her top, legs, shoes, arms, etc.

Colour gradients

You can add interesting subtle effects too by using gradients here and there instead of flat colours, as used on the girl’s face.

  1. Select the Fill Tool and drag across the selected face shadow (above).
  2. Recolour the end stops using the Colour Panel. You can select end stops to colour them independently.
  3. Repeat for other areas such as the girl’s hair and leg shadows.

Other small details can be added manually with the Pen Tool, i.e. eyes shadows, the shadow under her nose and under her lips. Once you’ve set up the main shading, how in depth you want to get with these details depends on you.

More pressure

The Stroke Panel’s Pressure feature has been used a lot at this stage to make the hair strands and highlights, the face edge highlight and the lower lip highlight.

“The Pressure feature has become one of my favourites in Affinity Designer.”

With a combination of these three simple techniques of drawing shadows, applying colour gradients and pressure simulation you can get wonderful results. To finish these three characters I’ve used the same steps explained above over and over. No secret ancient ninja magic here, just a handful of powerful tools.

Finishing adjustments

I’ve been saving the best for last! One of the main features of Affinity Designer is its powerful non-destructive adjustments. You’ll find these in almost any bitmap editor, but they are rare to find in a vector-based app.

A common scenario.. sometimes you’ve just finished your awesome illustration, just to realise at the very end, that your characters need more contrast or that your shadows need a warmer tint. Argghhh!

Two possible solutions could be taken:

  1. Export your vector layers separately as bitmaps to make the composition again inside a bitmap editor and apply colour adjustments to individual objects. What happens if you need to tweak just a little bit the stroke of an object? You’ll need to go back to the vector app, adjust the stroke and export the object again to your bitmap editor. Urghhh. Not good.
  2. Recolour your artwork all over again inside your vector app.

Yeah, sounds more like choose your doom, right?

Luckily, Affinity Designer has a wide range of built-in Adjustment Layers to treat your vector as if they were bitmaps… way too cool!

Let’s say we want to tweak the tonal levels of our Little Creature. Just select the creature layer, go to the bottom of the Layers Panel, select Adjustments and Levels then adjust the applied Levels settings.

The Creature now has a more solid look, showing more contrast. With the layer being non-destructive, if you’re not happy with the result you can modify the layer later or simply delete it.

Repeat for the other characters - the applied adjustment layers will be shown as white thumbnails on each layer entry. Of course, you can click the disclosure symbol to expand the layer, revealing each Levels adjustment.

Layer targeting

As adjustments are applied to the currently selected layer only, this lets you adjust that layer only, but what if you want to affect all your layers?

Let’s say I want to add a Selective Colour Adjustment to tint all shadows with a reddish colour and make all the whites look more yellow. This should affect all characters and the background layer also.

Apply a Selective Colour adjustment to any layer, then drag it to the top of the layer stack; start tweaking the settings for Whites, Neutrals and Blacks available via the Colour pop-up menu, and you’ll see the results change in real time. You can stack up as many Adjustments as you want and get completely different cumulative results each time.

The difference is subtle but you’ll see the reds on the right-hand Rabbit character show more strongly.

Other adjustments can be applied for a different look. The four-colour comparison below have been made using only adjustment layers without altering the original colours at all. Now you can work with more freedom, because you don’t have to decide your scene colours right away from the beginning, you can try different settings on the fly and still be able to change your mind later. Even edit your artwork further. Magical!

To finish off, I added my cover title text with gradient fill, white border and a strong outline.

Why not introduce yourself to more of Enrique’s cartoon characters at As well as an incredible Toon Lab and Gallery (created entirely with Affinity Designer) to explore, you can purchase vector and raster brush packs for all Affinity apps.