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How to Airbrush

Learn the basics on how to airbrush.

An airbrush is a canister or atomizer that sprays ink or paint from a hose onto an image. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
An airbrush is a canister or atomizer that sprays ink or paint from a hose onto an image.

Learning how to airbrush can be a handy skill for painting and crafting. It's commonly used to add painted designs to T-shirts, vehicles, motorcycles, signs, and for creating temporary tattoos. Graphic designers and artists airbrush images to hide flaws, improve appearance or add a sense of depth and realism. The airbrush itself is a canister or atomizer that sprays ink or paint from a hose onto an image. The airbrushing technique has been adapted for digital imaging using software to simulate the diffused spread of ink or paint onto the pixels in an image.

Types of Airbrushes

Airbrushes use compressed air to force paint or ink through a nozzle tip onto a variety of media and surfaces, from photographic film to fiberglass. The nozzle and pressure can be adjusted to control the density and flow onto the surface. Air and paint can be combined either inside the airbrush tip or after they leave the airbrush. The airbrush itself typically contains a hose connector for the pressure feed and an attachment for the paint well or color cup. Pressure is provided by propellants, compressors or regulators. How to Airbrush.com lists the following airbrush styles:

  • Gravity feed: stores the paint above the brush and seems to be the most responsive to artist control
  • Syphon feed: allows the artist to quickly change paint colors
  • Single action: feeds both air and paint when the trigger is pressed and controls the mix of paint-to-air with a knob
  • Side feed: allows the artist to approach the media from any angle
  • Double action: switches between paint and air depending on whether the trigger is pushed or pulled

Mechanics of Airbrushing

Airbrushing breaks the paint into a fine spray of tiny dots and gradually builds up the paint, rather than spreading it in a solid brushstroke or wash. The artist directs the spray to create lines and fills, allowing the paint to build to create shade and tone. Dots should radiate evenly from the center. The spray paint can be used to hide flaws or imperfections in photos by gradually applying correcting color or can be applied to reflect the image's light source, with more paint built up to create shadows and less paint applied to simulate reflected light. The use of gradual shading creates the illusion of depth and dimension, which is the key to the appeal of airbrushed art. Airbrush artists insist that airbrushing isn't a magical technique for making good images, and that the equipment is not as important as skill. Artists still need to learn to draw and to develop good technique.

Airbrush Basics

Airbrush Technique Magazine recommends that beginning artists should use airbrush ready paints or even food coloring to develop basic skills. Lines should be painted with the wrist locked, allowing the hand or upper body to move the pen.

The most basic principle in airbrushing is to keep the air on before and after adding the paint flow. The air should be started before beginning the motion and then the paint flow increased to begin a stroke. The process should be reversed to end a stroke, following through past the edge of the canvas with the air still blowing. Increasing the distance between the airbrush tip and canvas will increase the spread of paint, and decreasing the distance will make the stroke thinner. Single dots are painted by turning the air on, positioning the brush tip then increasing the paint flow.

Airbrush Shading

Airbrushing creates depth and dimension by building up paint to reflect shadows and highlights. Airbrush artists work with one or more light sources. They imagine the direction of the light on the surface of the painted object. Areas directly under light appear brighter, while areas hidden from light appear darker. Masks, or friskets, are used to prevent paint from flowing onto areas of the media the artist wants to protect (much like lettering stencils).

Paint can be added in layers, adjusting the air pressure to control the exact amount of paint being laid down with each pass. The angle of the pen tip controls the spray direction. In addition, the technique of overspray allows paint of one color to spread into areas of paint already laid down. This allows the artist to create new colors or enhance the shading effect.

Airbrush Maintenance

Keeping airbrushes clean and functional is essential to creating precise dots of paint and quality airbrush images. Not only should airbrushes be cleaned with each color change, but after daily use. The choice of solvents or water for cleaning should be made solely on the type of paint used, not on the equipment itself. The color cup is first filled with the solvent or water and washed using a clean brush. Then, refill the color cup and spray the water or solvent through the nozzle to clean the paint from the airbrush itself.

After daily use, the airbrush should be taken apart and the parts left to soak. Some artists use glass cleaner or even ultrasonic machines similar to those used by dentists. Most art supply stores sell inexpensive cleaning kits with brushes and other cleaning utensils.

Digital Airbrushing

More and more designers are switching to digital airbrushing using software programs like Adobe Photoshop. Rather than painting directly onto a physical photograph or image, digital airbrushing alters a digital image or a scanned original. The artist changes the settings of the paint tools to control how pixels, rather than paint, mix, allowing for far less mess and easier control. Digital artists can purchase pressure sensitive digital airbrushes, which work similar to pressure sensitive pens and offer more control than the traditional computer mouse. Digital airbrushing can be used to simulate the effects of a real airbrush: adding highlights and shadows, removing flaws in scanned photographs and creating gradual buildups of color or tone. Altering images using software programs like Photoshop has become so widespread among professionals and amateurs that digital airbrushing is now commonly referred to as "photoshopping."

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