Tracey, tell us a bit about yourself and your creative background.
I am a full-time illustrator and photographer based just outside of Chicago, where I live and share studio space with my painter husband Joe. I left the corporate world back in 2011 to pursue my photography career full time, and illustration came along a few years later, though I’ve been creative my entire life. My Mom, who is also very creative in her own right, always made sure we had art supplies on hand and encouraged our creativity, even if it was messy.
What led you into the world of illustration?
I sort of fell into it. My focus as a photographer is urban and nature photography and, here in the Chicago area, the middle of January isn’t exactly prime to roam the city in search of subjects. So, wanting to keep the creativity going in the “off-season,” I started playing around with some of the illustration apps I had on my computer and found I really enjoyed it, especially vector art.
A few years ago, I purchased an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and the rest was history. I dove headfirst into learning everything I could about the various apps, especially Affinity Designer.
When did you first start using Affinity apps, and what are your thoughts on them?
I started using the Affinity apps a few years ago, and I now use the entire suite for the majority of my work.
Beyond the obvious of not having to pay for a subscription, they’re just extremely well thought out apps that pack a lot of punch into a small space. I’ve only recently started using the desktop apps, but I love that I can work seamlessly between the iPad and desktop and especially enjoy the fact that I can jump between all three apps in the desktop versions.
Designer was the first one I used in the suite and, like others, admittedly, I found it a bit daunting at first. It has a ton of amazing tools, but sometimes, that can be overwhelming, especially if you’re coming from a more simplistic app. Once you understand the layout, though, and how the tools and studios work with one another, it’s very intuitive and powerful. That’s actually the reason I focus most of my classes and tutorials on Designer. I think it is, hands down, the best vector app out there, and I want to help others who may be struggling to see it for the powerhouse that it is.
Do you have any favourite tools/features?
If I have to narrow it down, I would say the Assets, Symbols, and Stock Studios are three of my favourite things.
With Assets, I love that I can create something once and have it at my fingertips for future illustrations. I’ve also enjoyed the fact that I could easily create and share assets with my students as downloads for my classes; it’s been fun to see how they use them.
The Symbols studio has helped me create some of my favourite illustrations: my Folk Art Florals and Insects. When I figured out how to mirror the symbols and create symmetrical illustrations on the vector side, it was like a whole world opened up.
“The Symbols studio has helped me create some of my favourite illustrations: my Folk Art Florals and Insects. When I figured out how to mirror the symbols and create symmetrical illustrations on the vector side, it was like a whole world opened up.”
And, finally, the Stock Studio… I mean, where do I begin? I don’t have to leave the app to find free-use images? Yes, please. Seriously, when that was added, I admit I did a little chair dance at my desk, so thank you Serif!
Your passion for teaching really shows. What made you decide to create tutorials and share your knowledge and skills with others?
Thank you! One of my favourite quotes is, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it,” by Margaret Fuller; it’s been a guidepost through the last year of teaching online. I love when students share their projects, and you can feel the pride and excitement when they create something that may have previously been a challenge; it’s been a great motivator through this journey.
I formerly got into teaching because, like many others, COVID upended my typical artistic year, which relied heavily on art festivals, all of which were cancelled. I had already been a student on Skillshare, so teaching on it seemed a logical step, especially as I would get asked for tutorials when I shared my own work online. For the last year, I have continued to build both my Skillshare and YouTube Channels, which, while it has been a big learning experience, it’s also been so rewarding.
How do you balance your myriad of creative projects and teaching?
I’m a planner and a list maker, a habit I developed in my years as a project manager in my former corporate life. I used Affinity Publisher to create my own digital planner, which I use in Goodnotes. I created the basic daily modules you would see in every common planner, but I also created some specific to my various creative ventures, for example, my Skillshare and YouTube channels. I have an insert for each class and tutorial where I can plan the topic, the steps I need to take to complete it, the supplies, and I can also track milestones. Seeing things written out helps keep everything from becoming an overwhelming, swirling mass of tasks.
All that said, I think it’s important to show ourselves grace when it comes to managing our busy lives, otherwise, we run the risk of burning out and accomplishing very little. It’s something I try to do on both the front and back end, especially with everything that’s happened in the last year. There are days you just won’t be able to successfully manage everything, and that’s okay; the only thing you can ask of yourself is to do the best you can and start fresh the next day.
What can Affinity users expect/learn from your Skillshare courses and YouTube channel?
When students take my classes or tutorials, they’re trusting me with their time and creativity, and I don’t take that lightly; I want to make the time spent worth every minute. When a student takes one of my classes, I want them to feel like they have the wings they need to create whatever they want.
“My goal as a teacher is to help my students understand not just how I do something but why; I think it’s the best way to help students fly on their own when the class is finished.”
As humans, we tend to learn by mimicking what we see, but I don’t think that helps us retain the knowledge or to be able to apply it effectively. My goal as a teacher is to help my students understand not just how I do something but why; I think it’s the best way to help students fly on their own when the class is finished.
How do you decide which topics to cover?
Sometimes it’s as simple as something I found really cool and want to share but, usually, topics come from listening to my students. Between my Facebook group, Instagram and sending out calls for suggestions to my followers on Skillshare, I’m given the opportunity to create classes tailor-made to suit their needs. Beyond that, I try to create classes that will build on each other without repeating lessons, so students can learn in easily retainable bits rather than trying to learn everything in one big master class.
We can see that you love to add texture to your work. Do you have any top tips for adding texture in Affinity Designer?
Yes, I do! I think texture has a superpower; it has the ability to take something ordinary and make it extraordinary in the blink of an eye, and it can add amazing depth and dimension to work; both illustrations and photographs.
“I think texture has a superpower; it has the ability to take something ordinary and make it extraordinary in the blink of an eye, and it can add amazing depth and dimension to work; both illustrations and photographs.”
My first tip is to think ahead to your final output. If you plan to print your work, set your original document to the largest size you plan to print, and at least 300 DPI, to avoid muddy textures and pixelation.
Also, be sure to use high quality, high-resolution textures, whether they’re in image or brush form. If you don’t, regardless of how you size your document, you’re likely going to end up with pixelation.
My final tip? Have fun with it! Make your own textures. You don’t need fancy art supplies, you can create them with things you find around your house (I had one student who added texture using a photograph she took of a cauliflower pizza crust!). The more fun you have and the more creative you get with it, the more “uniquely you” your work will be, and so the superpower becomes yours!
Do you have a favourite illustration that you’ve created in Affinity Designer? What makes you so fond of it?
Of all the questions, this was the hardest! If I have to pick, I would say it’s an illustration I created of a Junco bird standing on a little red mushroom; we have it hanging over our fireplace, so I get to see it every day. Birds and flowers (or anything nature related) are two of my favourite subjects to illustrate, and this little guy makes me smile every time I see him. There’s something about the look on his face—like he’s ready to do stand up or something on top of his little mushroom stage.
Do you have any goals for the future or a dream project you would love to work on?
My immediate goal is to continue building my teaching platforms. I recently made the decision to retire from art festivals and focus on creating course content full time, as I have found the experience so rewarding. I would like to continue down that path and see where it leads.
I have recently started putting my own brushes and handmade textures out into the “wild” and received great reviews on them, so I plan to expand that as well. In addition to the free downloads I provide with my classes, I would like to start selling other brush and texture creations.
As far as a dream project, my husband and I have talked about, one day, down the road, opening up a space in our area that brings the analog and digital worlds together. We want to create a space where we could host workshops on everything from learning digital illustration apps to throwing clay and create some sort of maker space where students can sell their work and get it out to the public. We were both given that opportunity as artists and want to be able to do that for future budding artists as well.