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The Airbrush

|| What is it? || How is it powered? || How is the airbrush used in art? || Where can I buy one? ||

I read a lot about art for many years, different media, different tools, different surfaces, but not once did I come across the Airbrush. It turns out it's an illustrator's tool and it's been around for neigh-on a hundred years! The early versions use a thin tube placed in the paint or ink, its other end meets with the far end of a second thin tube, both clasped by a hinged bracket that hold them at rightangles. You blow down the second tube and the vortex pulls the paint up the first tube and onto the paper. These days, the airbrush is a much more sophisticated devise ...

Much of the artwork shown in the Sensual Arts Modern Art Galleries, the Illustrative & Fantasy Art Galleries and both the Classic and Modern Pin-Up Galleries were achieved using an airbrush such as that on the left. See the early work of George Petty and Alberto Vargas for some beautiful examples.

The Airbrush is attached to an airline. The the button on the top is pushed down for air and back to suck paint from the pot into the head and onto the work.

The diagram to the left is included to show the relative size of an airbrush. It also shows the intricacy of the instrument and a second type of the device - ie: a fixed pot mounted to the top rather than the side-fixed variable pot type shown above.

The illustration itself will also have been executed using an airbrush, and this kind of work is probably its most common purpose, by commercial volume. Photographers also use the airbrush to remove imperfections in images and to enhance them - adding definition and 'brushing out' facial wrinkles for example. You may also have seen some amazing airbrush work on motorcycles, helmets and trucks etc - and wondered how it was created!

How is it powered?

Quite obviously the device needs air under pressure to work.
There are many ways of supplying compressed are to an airbrush,
here are the basic pros and cons for the most popular sources ...

!! A Spare Wheel !!
Hardly a sophisticated tool! It's cheap and quiet. It can block your airbrush with dirt particles and, unless you spend money better directed on a better device, there is no means of filtering the air or regulating pressure.

Compressed Air Canisters & Cylinders
These vary from aerosols to huge cylinders. Quiet in use, portable - no power supply required. Costly if used regularly.

Diaphragm Compressor
I suppose this would be called an 'entry level' compressor. The one shown is mine and it is the very one I used to create the 'Gypsy' image shown below, and the three images shown on the Student's Corner 'Don't Be Denied' page. They do the job but they pump air in very quick pulses, which means that colour is not transferred in an even flow, creating pulse points (if you look very closely!). They generate water that spits out of the airbrush nozzle occasionally which then thins your colour, and/or spoils your work. They are noisy and have no air pressure control. They also get very hot and need a break from time to time. (Bless 'em)

Piston Compressor
This unit delivers air evenly, it has a moisture trap and a pressure regulator. It is more expensive that a diaphragm compressor and less expensive than the 'Chamber' types below. They are quieter than diaphragm compressors and can run for longer without a rest.

Air Chamber Compressors
It is one of this family that now graces my studio - and WOW! What a difference. They don't come cheap but they delivery higher (and lower!) air pressures. They run only to fill their chamber, are quiet whilst doing so and silent for much of the time in use. They don't need tea breaks - even if you do!

If you are serious about working with an airbrush - or two, or three (off one unit) - then these beauties are for you!

How is the airbrush used in art?

This is a very big question. You can push a lot of different liquids through an airbrush - Water-colour, Gouache, Poster Paints, Acrylics, even oil paints. The critical thing is to flush them through REGULARLY! You can also work freehand or with varying types of 'masks'. So, rather that get hung up here on what to use, I'll just talk you through what I used for 'Gypsy' and how I achieve a result. You can develop the story in whatever way suits you best. NB: Full Airbrush Tutorials are available from bookstores.

Firstly I stole a beautiful image from a mail order catalogue ...

I transferred the outline to a piece of 'Canson' airbrush card - It's very tough and smooth. I overlaid the pencil work with a piece of 'Frisk' low-tack film (specially made for this purpose). I then took a scalpel blade and carefully cut out the areas that would have skin tones, being sure not to score the card. I then lay the cut bits of Frisk carefully aside for later use. The cut out elements show darker on this photo.

(Click the image to view it larger)

I then mixed my water colour paint to a suitable skin tone and began to spray on the skin tones. The 'hard' edges of the Frisk would give definition to the outer elements and the spray would create all the tonal effects - It's amazing to watch it happen - Very exciting!

(Click the image to view it larger)

I then washed out the airbrush and its pot and changed the paint to a darker shade for greater depth. You can see the 'over-spray' building up in deposits on the Frisk. This doesn't matter at all as Frisk is waterproof and all such elements will eventually be peeled away. A little loose masking was used to 'hold back' the sunlight on the arms.

THEN I MADE A MISTAKE! So impatient am I to see those eyes starring back at me from the page, that I worked a little on the facial features - including creating a silly little mask for the mouth.

(Click the image to view it larger)

That done I let the work dry. (Very quick as very little is used and the airbrush blowing helps it along too).I then reapplied the bits of Frisk over the work I had done, including that bit of masking tape to keep the silly mouth-mask in place (!) I then decided which elements I would do next and cut the Frisk accordingly. With water colour you work from the lightest elements to the darkest and so I chose the highlights of Gypsy's dress and headband.

(Click the image to view it larger)

The Frisk protects the finished skin tones and the background - you just concentrate on those subtle tones! Another cover-up and the next deepest colours are applied and so on.

(Click the image to view it larger)

The detail here shows how wonderful the airbrush is at glazing and translucency - The sleeve line under the arm is a perfect example. The neck detail was achieved with loose masking as are so many small details.

Just look at those eyes - They bring the whole image to life! Making all of the work that follows, so much more enjoyable.

(Click the image to view it larger)

The whole of the central figure was then covered in a new sheet of Frisk. I then cut out around the outer edges of the whole figure leaving me free to concentrate on the foreground and the background. The final image is full of any number of faults, but then I'm a learner too, and there are a good number of elements that please me a lot - The highlights on the arms legs and toes work well. That translucent sleeve and bust line and particularly the foreground: Here, the surface was stippled with a rough brush to add depth and then, while still wet, I used a round-edged scalpel blade to scrape the textures that form the dead straw.

(Click the image to view it larger)

The final 'Gypsy' image is only about a quarter the size of the Cartagina figure below (right).
Larger sizes do help freedom of movement, as with any medium.

Something that may (not!) worry you - The ARTIST ...

Many art critics snub airbrush imagery, saying they are not a true form of art as the tool never touches the 'ground'. I have about as much time for this theory as I do for those that call a blank white canvas 'art'! Get real guys - use your eyes - not your well elevated noses!

Carlos Cartegina applies the finishing touches to these airbrush works.

To see the final work that Carlos is finishing on the right, click here ...

... then tell me he's not an artist!

To see more Carlos Cartagena airbrush art on this website - click here

Where can you buy an airbrush?

Comprehensive stationers with an art department may carry a selection as would many dedicated art stores and you will doubtless find suppliers around the Internet.

I can personally recommend Simair for supplies into the UK and USA, they offer an excellent product and highly personal service. Visit their website at:


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