Sunset with bird: A vibrant scenery illustration in Affinity Designer.

Sceneries full of colour and nature elements are always pleasantly welcome when presented to most of us. They are candy for the eye!

I personally like to include both, colour and natural elements in my personal work as a means to detach a bit from the more rigorous scientific illustrations I do, where everything has to respond to science demands and little room is left to let loose.

Jay bird vector illustration in Affinity Designer

Final artwork (Click to enlarge)

For this illustration tutorial, we are going to tackle several notions, starting out with trying to keep our palette restricted to a gradient for the background. We will also work with some lighting notions and finally we are going to use the Pixel persona to paint with a bit of texture.

Feel free to follow along with this example or, should you feel more confident, pick a different bird. My recommendation is always to start with the proposed example, as you will have to focus only in the notions presented, that have already been resolved, and then, once you have done it once, try your own take. Remember this is a tutorial and we are here to learn new things more than to create the perfect illustration.

This said, feel free also to share this article and leave your comments and likes on the walk through video. This way you will be helping me back if you feel this is helpful to you and others.

Let us start now!

1. Prepping document & background

Create a new document. I have created mine for print, quite big 4000 x 2500px at a 300Dpi. As I usually say, I like things BIG and abundant haha. If you prefer to work with a smaller document or resolution, that's also fine, but due to the fact that we will be also adding bitmap elements, I recommend to work big always, if your computer can afford it.

Document settings (Click to enlarge)

For the background I put a Linear gradient with colours (left to right):

# 28083F (midpoint 64%)

# E4A556 (midpoint 35%)

# F9834F and (midpoint 50%)

# 17054C (midpoint 50%)

How did I pick this colours to be the ones?

To get inspiration on the colours I want to include for the illustration, I typed "dramatic skies sunset" in Google. Out of all the images I got, I selected the ones that I liked the most and mixed colours in a way I felt worked well. You can do the same or simply follow the colour codes I put above.

I also gave it a slight angle. I do this because the sun will be setting right from there, almost behind the hills, so this will help making the whole sunset lighting better.

Background gradient settings (Click to enlarge)

2. Let's pick a bird.

I love birds and birding. One bird that is around us here in Europe, but also in Asia, is the Eurasian (surprising name!) Jaybird. I see it often when I go out with my binoculars. It is a noisy medium sized bird. Intelligent and territorial. The most similar and somehow related bird I can think of in the Americas would be the blue jaybird, which is slightly smaller but as noisy and territorial as his cousin.

Being a bird I am quite familiar with, I chose it. I want to make this bird in such a way that keeps a vectorial look, but still giving it enough detail so that it is clear which bird it is, plus it has some interesting textures to it.

First, I picked several images from the bird, so I could select one for the pose, and others to see how the colours and feathers are distributed. But as my main image I picked this one to help me out initially, especially with the pose and bird parts.

At this stage I also know already I want it to be perching on a branch, so I have to take this into account when I am to draw the body.

You can either use the Pen tool for this or you can draw it with the pencil tool if you feel more comfortable. The only thing I ask you to do is to keep your nodes down to a few. All unnecessary nodes will make your drawing less consistent, smooth and convincing.

Have this always in mind when working with vectors : the less nodes, the better!

Draw the body and fill it with a gradient (Click to enlarge)

Add a gradient fill and if you want, put a bit of noise to it (optional). The gradient for this bird is Linear and colours are # CA9E85 and 5F3E34, where the latter and darker one was placed on the bottom tail area of the bird.

Why this at such initial stage? Well, I am just blocking things out initially and I can already see that if there is a darker area on the bird, it is clearly on this part.

Should I need to change it, I will do so as I work.

2. Wing & tail

To draw the wing, I don't think of it as a block. Wings are articulated, just as arms are. Moreover, feathers are distributed in sectors:

Monika Zagrobelna: How to draw wings

Taking this important aspect into consideration, I think the best way to draw the wing is making different "modules" for it. Don't get me wrong, it is not that I am following the real bird anatomy to the letter, but more considering that it is an organic being, and not a brick.

Also, making thins modular, will allow for easily working differences in shapes and colours.

So for this, I take the upper area of the wing and draw a shape for it as you can see in the image. I do the same for all the modules identified and also for the tail.

I also fill each shape with a base colour or a base gradient fill colour. What I am doing now to pick the right ones is mixing the actual colours for this bird, plus considering the lighting that the sun will cast over it.

On the tail and upper shape I went for a gradient that has an orange on the left side, and on the central shapes I decided to go for different colours that I can see in the original bird. I initially used this gradient too on the rest of shapes, but somehow it made the whole look too red and the original bird colours were getting lost, making it look more like a parrot than a jay, so I thought of trying this other approach.

Note also how I put a flat deep blue for the darker feathers that look almost black on the reference. I always try to avoid pure blacks, especially if the drawing is realistic, but also often for this kind of style.

Wing and tail structure (Click to enlarge)

The colour codes are:

(1) Gradient # F67748 # 7F969C

(2) Gradient # 7797D6 # 001640

(3) Flat colour # 001640

(4) Gradient # 894A58 # A7A37C

(5) Gradient # EF7348 # 051143

3. The beak

Using the Pen tool, I create two shapes for the beak. I want to make them separated so in the case I want to open it, I will be able to do so. For the upper beak shape I also used a couple of clip masked shapes to give it some highlights and variation in colour. Otherwise it'd look too blocky. All fill colours are gradients except for the light reflection area on the upper side of the beak, which has a # FF6D00 colour with a Linear transparency to blend the shapes together.

Beak shapes (Click to enlarge)

4. Colouring the jay

To the main blocked areas we already have, I add some other areas using clipping masks. I first roughly block the different areas where I will then be creating different shapes to give the head a bit of interest and volume.

Head areas blocked in the reference image (Click to enlarge)

Head with clip-masked shapes (Click to enlarge)

Work with gradients and transparencies as we just did before using also the same colour palette. I won't go into the particular details for each shape here, but as you see, it uses the same hues and methods we have already seen. I usually add a bit of noise to these shapes, so it doesn't look so crisp and clean.

To add more volume and colour to the jay, I duplicate the main body shape, I fill it with a gradient # 7CA79D and # 5F3E34, add a bit of noise, make it 60% transparent and add a Vivid light blend mode plus 25 px gaussian blur to it.

Then I duplicate this shape for a stronger effect and clip mask it inside the bird with a bit of an angle, just as in the image. I also add a bit of shadow under the wing, using a shape with a bit of gaussian blur.

Adding colour to the jay bird using clipping masks (Click to enlarge)

With a textured brush, in the pixel persona, I paint some lines as feathers for the tail, and also, you can now see in the image below that I have added a couple of feathers or wing modules more to the whole, following the jay wing structure.

Let's stay now in the Pixel persona, as we are going to keep adding textures to the wings. I used different brushes, from basic ones to engraving and dry media brushes.

This is something you will have to experiment with a bit to see what works best for you to give your bird a bit of a gracious color and style. Don't be afraid to experiment as it is the way forward, trying out different brushes, and playing with blend modes, colour gradients, stacking layers and shapes. This is the secret to most of it.

Brush textures for the wings created in the Pixel persona (Click to enlarge)

4. The eye and legs

I used 3 ellipses to create the eye. As much as I often recommend not abusing strokes, in this type of illustration I don't have much of a problem as I do when creating very realistic pieces. The outer strokes for the eye have a bit of texture applied, so it doesn't look so boring and plasticky.

The eye formed by ellipses

For the little legs, simply use the Pen tool and trace them, adding a gradient fill with similar colours as the tail, so it reflects a bit the light coming from the left.

I initially traced sharp nodes with the Pen tool and the I used the corner tool to make them softer, as you can see in the image below (Sharp nodes with a circle around let us know the Corner tool was applied to them).

The legs with Corner tool applied to some of its nodes and a gradient fill applied

5. The pole and tree branches

With the Pen tool trace a shape that will be the pole. Duplicate it, give it an angle and create a branch that will be on the side.

When I say Pen tool, I mean it, unless you are good enough at using the Pencil tool and get your shapes done with as few nodes as possible as mentioned before. This is one mistake often seen in beginners. It is important to keep nodes to a low number as this will make your shapes look better. If you have a problem making your shapes look as you need, I recommend one of the first things you should do is getting good command of this very important tool.

Give the pole and branch a gradient similar to the one used for the bird tail. As an option you can add a bit of noise to them. With the primitive shape "Tear" that you can find in the list of basic shapes on the left Tool bar, draw a few leafs and distribute them along the pole and branch. Notice how I also used a gradient here with a very light orange edge to it so the leafs look affected by the sunlight.

Do the same for the top right branch. Use the Pen tool for the branch and a couple of simple ellipses with a bit of a transparency to create the tree canopy. I added a transparency so they are not so conspicuous and also cause this way we can see through which makes the whole corner lighter in weight.

At this point the illustration is at this stage:

6. Hills and other background elements

Now let's take care of the hills. For this, create several ellipses with the Ellipse tool.

Right click over them and select Convert to curves so you will now be able to manipulate the shapes pulling its nodes.

Give them a gradient fill colour, that will be again showing how the sun light is hitting over these hills. Try to keep the gradient angles consistent for the different hills. I also add a bit of noise to these shapes.

To increase the sunlight effect, I have duplicated the shapes in some of the hill edges.

Hills (Click to enlarge)

Next, I create a tree on the horizon to give it a bit more of interest. I place it over the hills, making sure it doesn't collide with the rest of elements. Again, it is important to think a bit where each element goes. Allow them to "breath", don't put them too close together, and avoid tangents and unnecessary overlaps.

I have placed a Golden Ratio section over the illustration so you can see the rhythm and composition wireframe. By following the Golden Ratio you can get an idea of where to place the horizon or the most important points of your illustration.

Be aware that it is not a law that must be strictly observed and that it does not guarantee the quality of the final image. But you don't need to be able to follow the spiral perfectly, since once the composition follows this rule to a greater or lesser extent, the image will be harmonious. By placing the main elements of the illustration in one of the lines that divide the golden section you will get a good balance between these elements and the rest of the illustration. As you can see, the spiral can be placed in any position and you are not constrained t use it the same way I did in my illustration.

If you want to download a Golden Ratio spiral template to use in your illustrations, you can do so here.

Golden section (Click to enlarge)

Illustration using the golden ratio, by Vladanland

7. Final touches

Now we need to add the last details like the sun and a bit of a highlight I am missing on the back of the bird, since as I said before, I didn't use a gradient to all of its wing modules because I felt it was having a bit of a parrot look.

I add a subtracted shape with an orange fill colour and although I am not 100% convinced by it, I prefer this to the parrot look (giggle).

Then, I put a sun in the horizon, obviously on the left side where the light is coming from and low enough in the horizon as to convey the idea of sunset. Finally, I draw a simple shape with angled corners as a cloud.

And we are done!

Feel free to show me what you create joining us here.

Also, feel free to share this tutorial so others can follow it.

Thanks for reading!