Fundamentals of Vector versus Raster Art and Basics of the Interface
This chapter combines the basics you need to navigate the digital art space and the details of the Affinity Photo program. It is combined in terms of topics because one cannot be separated from the other in terms of functionality.
In the first part of this chapter, we will get the nomenclature right, and by the end, you will understand how photo editing in a raster (or pixel-based) program is different from a vector-based program (such as Affinity Designer). We will cover the basic terms and how to set the size and resolution of your image up for success. This is critical in the first steps because, without the right parameters, the edits you make will never print sharply, nor look the way you want them to.
Once we get through the introductory materials, we will then dive into the interface and tour the major sections. Knowing how to navigate any software is a prerequisite for success, and so we want you to know where to find things as we get deeper and deeper into the content.
In this chapter, we will cover the following topics:
- Differentiating between raster (pixel) and vector-based images
- Why you would use one over the other, and how to choose the correct type of art
- Understanding DPI and why it matters
- Understanding the role image size plays in image quality
- Understanding color profile and how it factors into your image
The technical requirements for Affinity Photo are not as significant as they are for other programs. As taken from their website, the technical requirements for the machine are shown here. I have included the requirements for the desktop versions, as this is the focus of this particular manual:
- Windows-based PC (64-bit) with a mouse or equivalent input device
- Hardware GPU acceleration
- DirectX 10-compatible graphics cards and above
- 8 GB RAM recommended
- 1 GB of available hard drive space; more during installation
- 1280x768 display size or larger
- Windows® 11
- Windows® 10 May 2020 Update (2004, 20H1, build 19041) or later
These are the requirements for Mac:
- Mac Pro, iMac, iMac Pro, MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, or Mac mini
- Mac with Apple silicon (M1/M2) chip or Intel processor
- 8 GB RAM recommended
- Up to 2.8 GB of available hard drive space; more during installation
- 1280x768 display size or larger
- macOS Ventura 13
- macOS Monterey 12
- macOS Big Sur 11
- macOS Catalina 10.15
Differentiating between raster (pixel) and vector-based images
There are two different types of formats that exist in Affinity Photo – raster and vector elements – and it is important to understand both. Objects such as a digital photo are raster-based (composed of pixels), and objects that are drawn with the Pen tool are vector-based (formed from mathematical functions).
Figure 1.1 – The pixel as the building block of digital art
Pixel images typically have two forms of information: size and color. When pixels are placed into position next to one another, they begin to form pictures, and subtle variation in the colors forms the detail. This is how your monitors, television sets, and other electronic devices work. The images you see on a monitor are simply created by pixels displaying their information in a way that allows us to see shapes, shades, and text. In Figure 1.2, the smooth red sphere is actually just a collection of pixels, and when we magnify it, we can see the different pixels that form the picture:
Figure 1.2 – The effect of magnification on pixelation
On the other side of digital art, there is vector-based art, and as the name implies, vector-based art is based on mathematical vectors. It is still drawn in pixels, but the mathematical equation done by the program is the primary driver of what is displayed on the screen (see Figure 1.3):
Figure 1.3 – Vector art composed of nodes
Why you would use one over the other, and how to choose the correct type of art
The simple answer of what format to choose comes down to one important factor: scalability. Scalability is the ability to go through various sizes without losing detail and is the most important factor in choosing what style of art to go with for a project. Other factors may also exist, such as the following:
- Type of client
- Purpose of the art
Pixel-based art does not scale well. In professional design shops, typically, logos are printed on something as small as a business card and can be as large as a vehicle graphic. For this reason, a majority of corporate logo-type art is created in a vector format.
On the other side of the coin, pixel art is based on a collection of pixels within a defined area, and when expanded to extreme values far from their original size, the pixels are spread (sort of like stretching a molecule), and then the program has to try to interpret what is in the spaces created. This interpretation leads to fuzzy borders and poor-quality images. The same is true when compressing an image: if the image was originally made on an A4 sheet of paper, there are a certain number of pixels in it, and if you compress it downward, the result is the same number of pixels fighting for visibility, leading to a poorly detailed image.
The following figures show an example of an image constructed to be printed at 16x20”, which was then shrunk down to be added to this book (so a 80% reduction in size). Notice the limited quality:
Figure 1.4 – Original image at original size
Figure 1.5 – The effect of compression on detail
This is the primary difference between pixel-based (raster) art and vector art; vector art does not have any scalability issues because, as you grow and shrink, the mathematical formula automatically changes the lines and makes adjustments, leading to no loss of detail.
As we will learn in this book, Affinity Photo has tools that work in both pixel and vector-based art, and we will learn how to wield these tools to create our images as we go along, but right from the outset of this journey, I wanted to give you a rule to guide you from here until forever when it comes to working in digital art:
Work in a size close to your intended output; image quality suffers as scaling occurs, so always be thinking ahead to the final application of your art.
Understanding DPI and why it matters
As previously mentioned, pixels form the images, and how many there are in an area creates the detail or the resolution. So, the typical way this is communicated in both the print and electronic art world is in dots per inch (DPI). This represents how many pixels are present in an area of one square inch, and quite simply, the more dots per inch, the higher the amount of detail.
Typically, if you are making a piece of art for a digital screen, the general DPI is 72, as most monitors cannot go past that. However, if you are doing print work, the minimum DPI is 300, as anything less will show fewer and fewer details.
Setting the DPI affects the file size because, obviously, the more information (in this case, DPI), the larger the file is going to be. In the following figure, simply changing the DPI of the file from 72 to 300 increased the size of the file substantially:
Figure 1.6 – The effect of DPI on file size
Understanding the role image size plays in image quality
In addition to being the building blocks of images, pixels are also a unit of measure for size. In digital screens, screen resolution is typically given in the unit of pixels in an area. As an example, a typical monitor has a size (in this example, given in inches) of 24 wide by 14 high and boasts 1080p.
Now, what is 1080p? This is the resolution. The “p” in 1080p refers to pixels, and it is saying that this monitor is 1080 pixels tall. Simply put, the more p, the higher the resolution because there are more pixels, and more detail is possible on the monitor. And as a result, the more pixels, the higher the resolution, and the sharper your image is going to look.
Now, don’t get crazy on your DPI; the human eye can only see and comprehend a certain amount of detail, so booting the DPI up to an insane value will not make your images look any better, so remember: moderation in all things.
Understanding color profile and how it factors into your image
The last topic we need to cover to get you up and running is the topic of the color profile. Believe it or not, there is no absolute version of “red.” If you doubt this, stop by your local paint counter and look at the vast number of swatches available to cover a wall. For this introduction, I will share with you the two most common color profiles, and then tell you how they are different. Aside from that, we will not talk much more about them until later chapters, because I want to keep it simple.
The two most common color profiles are as follows:
Notice the differences in the exact same image in the following comparison; it is the same image, only with different color profiles:
Figure 1.7 – The most commonly used color profiles in digital art
Let’s define them a bit more specifically.
RGB stands for red, green, and blue. This color profile is used for artwork for digital use, as this is how your monitor displays colors. However, today, most printers have programs that will convert any color to an RGB color, so it is quickly becoming the standard across the board. All the colors that you see are composed of these three colors in various combinations (we will deal with these combinations in Chapter 10) but for the purpose of this introduction, all you need to know is that it is the one we will be working with most frequently.
CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, and these are the colors of the printer cartridges in your home printer. All the various colors you see are made by varying combinations of these four colors.
For the beginner, we will be dealing with only one color space, which is the traditional RGB8 color space. (We will discuss variants in the more advanced sections, but for now, just stick to the normal RGB8 color space for this conversation.)
The interface is your control panel for all the wonderful things you can accomplish in Affinity, so your understanding of the interface will be crucial to your success. To make you as familiar as possible as quickly as possible, I have broken it down into multiple sections and given a short explanation of how to get back to the default in the event you make a mistake with the interface…because as a beginner, you will.
Let’s start by opening the program and clicking on File | New. It does not matter what size document you create, just click on Create so you can explore the interface along with us. In the next section, we will look at main areas of the Affinity Photo interface.
The six areas of the Affinity Photo Interface
When you open the program for the first time, you will be greeted with this default interface (or some version of it – slight modifications may exist based on developer changes, but it has never significantly changed in all the years I have been using it). For simplicity’s sake, we are going to divide the interface into six areas so you can navigate to the areas I discuss during the explanations later.
Figure 1.8 – Major sections of the Affinity interface
Let’s go over these areas one by one:
- The menu bar (1)
- The studio area (2)
On the right side, there is a set of panels called Studio panels. These are groups of commands dedicated to certain things, such as Color, Layers, and Channels. The panels form the studio and can be hidden or retrieved (it is not uncommon to click a panel out of the interface…but do not worry, I will show you how to get it back). There can be a left and right studio in the default layout (in this figure, we only have the right studio shown).
- The toolbar (3)
- The tools (4)
Separate from the toolbar is the tools area, which is along the left-hand side of the studio by default, and it contains the actual tools we will use to edit. Tools such as brushes, gradients, and selection tools are all in this area.
- The context toolbar (5)
The context toolbar will change with the tool.
- The personas (6)
Affinity Photo has a tremendous amount of versatility and multiple personas to perform different tasks. For the majority of the book (all chapters except 17, 18, and 20), we will be in the Photo persona, but there are chapters on each of the other personas.
Customizing your Studio panels
Panels are movable and can be rearranged by clicking and dragging them up and down, as well as brought out closer to the workspace where you are editing. We will be working with this in various projects as we begin actually editing.
You can customize what panels are shown by clicking on Window | Studio, and then checking the panels you want to have showing based on your workflow:
Figure 1.9 – Customizing Studio panels
Customizing your toolbar
Figure 1.10 – Customizing the toolbar
Figure 1.11 – Dragging images into the toolbar
Customizing your tool menu
Figure 1.12 – Customizing the tools
Figure 1.13 – Adding tools to the tools section
Saving your workspace
As you develop as an editor, it is not uncommon that you will develop different workspaces, or layouts, where you keep your tools in certain areas, and you will favor certain tools. Affinity allows you to save workspaces for just this purpose.
To save a workspace, go to Window | Studio | Add Preset…:
Figure 1.14 – Adding studio presets
In this chapter, we have covered the fundamentals of all digital art programs, so if you are new to the digital art space, you have an idea of how one little dot, one little pixel, can change the entire digital landscape. Also, you learned some of the terms we will be dealing with in the later sections of the book, such as vector and raster-based images. You can at least now navigate the major sections of the interface (don’t worry, there is a lot more to come, we do not expect you to be an expert in the program’s deep functionality at this point).
In the next chapter, we will open up our first document and cover some more fundamental terms to make sure your art comes out the way you want it to. We will be talking about the difference between canvas and document size, as well as some professional workflow shortcuts such as the creation of presets and templates.