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 right angles. 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 ...
A great deal of the artwork published as classic pin-up, illustrative and
fantasy art is achieved using an airbrush such as that on the left. See
the early work of George Petty and Alberto Vargas for some beautiful
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 right 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 - that is: 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
How is an Airbrush 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
Compressed Air Canisters & Cylinders
These vary from aerosols to huge cylinders. Quiet in use, portable - no
power supply required. Costly if used regularly.
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.
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)
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 Compressor
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 - inks,
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 than get hung up here on what to use, I'll just walk you through what I used for
'Gypsy' and how I achieve a result. You can develop the story in whatever way suits you
NB: Full Airbrush Tutorials are available from bookstores.
First, I stole a beautiful image from an old mail order
I then drew 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 to carefully cut out
the flesh-tone areas, 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Something that may (or may not!)
worry as 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!
I then mixed my water colour paint to a suitable light flesh
color and began to spray on the skin tones. The 'hard'
edges of the Frisk would give definition to the outer
elements and hold the over spray off the painting. The
airbrush spray also creates all the tonal effects - It's
amazing to watch it happen - Very exciting!
What is an Airbrush?
image to see the