Creating ‘Desert River’ in Affinity Designer

Alberta-based illustrator Terry Edward Elkins creates work which strongly evokes the wide open spaces of his native Canada. Here he describes the process of creating his beautiful rocky landscape ‘Desert River’ in the macOS version of Affinity Designer.

If you would like to follow along you can download a 10-day trial of the macOS or Windows app for free!

Step 1

Typically I start out with a rough drawing of the entire illustration, scan it in and build on top of it.

For this project though, I skipped the sketch.

As a way of streamlining my process (and as a practice exercise), I developed a series of nature-themed assets, such as rock formations, trees and bushes, which are common elements I use in many of my outdoor illustrations.

With all of the elements finalised, I created an asset library using Affinity Designer’s simple to use Assets Panel (View > Studio > Assets). It’s a gem of a tool that allows for efficient management of (and quick access to), created assets.

Step 2

Now that I have the parts completed, I begin the composition by creating a new file and working within the Draw Persona (Affinity Designer has three different ‘personas’ you can seamlessly switch between; one for vector, one for raster and another for export functions).

I establish the sky, ground and horizon line and place a few of the key assets within the composition, establishing the fore, mid and background elements.

You’ll notice a grain texture applied to the various items.

This is easily applied when the elements are initially coloured (via a noise slider at the base of the Colour Panel, located on the Fill menu within the Context Toolbar).

Once I’m happy with the overall layout, I adjust the tonal values, making all foreground elements the deepest, mid-ground a little less so and the background the most faded (creating a sense of depth and atmosphere).

Step 3

All of the basics in place, I draw in additional elements to flesh out the illustration. When initially developing the asset library, I quite enjoyed creating the ‘eye’ rock and knew I wanted it to be a feature element for this project. Here I’ve used it to frame the central focus of the illustration—a solo canoeist, enjoying a day of solitude and relaxation on the river.

Two key tools came into play at this stage; the first being the Snapping function. With Affinity Designer, you can not only snap to items (and their various components), but you can customize how the snapping tool works (View > Snapping Manager).

The second tool, which has been a massive timesaver, is Insert inside the selection.

This is a quick and efficient way of defining the shape.

Step 4

Wanting additional depth and dimension, here I apply shadows and gradations to the landscape.

Using Affinity Designer’s Fill Tool I can effortlessly create and manipulate colours and gradations.

Step 5

Time to jump into colour! I had been chatting online with Kevin House featured in the Affinity Designer Workbook, and he suggested that I check out the Recolour feature (Layer > New Adjustment > Recolour).

Wow was I ever grateful for the tip!

The tool worked great! Not only is it easy to define and apply colours but there are multiple recolour options and adjustments available to get the look just right.

Note: In order to get the most out of the Recolour feature, it’s best to plan the layer and grouping structure of your file in advance.

For this illustration, each element (or series of elements), are grouped and then the recolour feature is applied to the group (as opposed to individual elements).

Step 6

To complete the illustration, I adjust some of the gradations within the sky, add a graduated vignette layer and apply a tint of yellow over the entire illustration (an easy way to unify colour across the entire piece).

For this illustration, each element (or series of elements), are grouped and then the recolour feature is applied to the group (as opposed to individual elements).

Here is the final image:

If you’ve been inspired by Terry’s amazing tutorial you can find out more about his work at 

Want to learn more about Affinity Designer?

Having been hailed as a viable, feature-rich and cost-effective alternative to Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer has become a go-to app for graphic designers, illustrators and web developers all over the world, who love its silky-smooth combination of professional vector and raster design tools.

Available without subscription on macOS, Windows and iOS, it contains everything you need to create stunning illustrations, branding, icons and UI/UX designs, print projects, typography and concept art either from your desktop or on your iPad whilst on the move.

Feeling intrigued? Why not try it out for yourself? Its creators Serif offer a 10-day free trial of the macOS and Windows app which allows you to play with all its awesome features before you buy.

And the icing on the cake − Affinity Designer is not linked to a subscription model. It’s available for a one-off payment of £48.99/ $49.99 USD/ € 54.99, for Mac or Windows, and £19.99/ $19.99 USD/ € 21.99 for iPad with free updates until version 2!

You can find more at




Affinity is a next-generation suite of award-winning software for creative professionals, comprising Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo, with Affinity Publisher coming soon.

Built from the ground up with a meticulous focus on workflow and blazing performance, Affinity apps are engineered to be the smoothest, fastest, most precise, and most integrated creative apps available. Created in partnership with some of the world’s leading designers, they have won over 200 awards internationally and have reached over 6.5 million customers worldwide.