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Previous Airbrush Lessons Page

This Summer's Airbrush Lesson

The Universal Tool

The airbrush, like the paint brush, has limitless applications and can be used wherever a fluid needs to be applied in a mist or spray (without brush strokes and without touching the surface). It is thought of as the artist's tool for illustration, acrylic painting on canvas, renderings on a flat, two-dimensional surface, or T-shirts. However, once an artist gets his or her hands on an airbrush, it can be used for many different applications; so many, in fact, that it makes the airbrush an essential tool in the studios of all artists, no matter what the discipline. Some examples follow:

Framer--The airbrush can be used to paint frames, apply varnish to frames, repair scratches and dings in metal frames, customize mats to specific colors or designs, add stenciled images to mats, or paint on the glass.

Sign Painter--Vinyl lettering has become extremely popular in the sign industry, and the sign painter has discovered how he can customize vinyl lettering with the use of an airbrush, making standard colored letters appear to be wood or chrome or neon. The airbrush is used to work on wooden, plastic, and metal signs, glass signs, and signs on the sides of trucks and buildings. The size of the sign determines which spray tool is used. Sign painters utilize an array of airbrushes plus various sizes of spray guns.

Hobbyist--Life for artists doesn't always begin and end at the easel. Most have hobbies. The airbrush is used in modelmaking to paint plastic models from Creature Features to Star Trek; toy train fanciers use the airbrush to develop not only dioramas, but individual train pieces as well to impart a realistic appearance of soot and rust. Remote-controlled airplanes and boats are also ideal objects for airbrushed designs or embellishments.

Silk Painter--The delicate spray of the airbrush is well suited for the spraying of silk dyes and can be combined easily with brush and resist techniques. Most silk dyes come in a state that makes them easily sprayable.

Wood Carver--The airbrush is a handy tool for the woodcarver, especially one that carves decoys. The luminosity of the Mallard duck's neck is developed with overlapping airbrush passes of metallic colors. When done properly, it is indistinguishable from the real thing. The carver who does fish decoys or bald eagles may have an airbrush at hand to aid in the development of realistic color or for clear coating an unpainted carving.

Sculptor--On metal, the airbrush is used for patina; on plastic, for color; on clay, for glaze. The airbrush lends itself to painting three-dimensional objects and will apply materials to these surfaces so their appearance is equivalent to those factory produced.

Printmaker--Whenever an even coat of ground needs to be sprayed to a plate, an airbrush or spray gun can be used. Stippling techniques can be employed to develop a pointillist effect. The airbrush can be used to spray tusche onto a lithostone or a silkscreen or to spray paint or ink through a silkscreen to add a vignette or create a monotype appearance.

Photographer--And let's not forget photo retouching and photo restoration, the original reasons for the invention of the airbrush in the 1870's. In today's world, a digital photograph can be taken, downloaded into your computer, manipulated and printed out on a color printer, enhanced and retouched with the airbrush, scanned back into the computer, and put up on the Web for viewing.

Once an artist knows how to use an airbrush, and it's easier than some may think, he or she will discover many uses for it; and none of them will be perceived as "airbrush art!"

For a complete tutorial on the basics of airbrush technique on the Internet, go to AirbrushTalk

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This winter's airbrush tips

Hand-Held Templates and Shields

In airbrush technique, stenciling is referred to as "frisketing."  A frisket is a self-adhering (adhesive-backed) material that is cut as needed.  But other tools that are often used in airbrush technique to develop shapes or images are templates and shields.  These are used in all applications from T-shirt painting to technical illustration.  They can be either purchased or handmade, and there are several manufacturers of airbrush-specific templates and shields.

A template is usually a manufactured stencil of a given image--a star, an ellipse, letters, etc., while a shield is usually a random shape that is utilized by artists to develop objects.  Both are made from a variety of materials--acetate, mylar, cardboard, paper, etc.  Shields made from transparent or translucent materials are preferred, since you are able to easily adjust their position for perfect registration.  Unlike frisket film, which adheres to the surface of the artwork, templates and shields can be moved around while you airbrush and therefore afford more flexibility.

Following are some tips to consider when both selecting and using these tools:

1. Be cautious of the thickness of the template.  If too thick, the edges will block the spray; if too thin, the air pressure will make them flutter and spray will leak under the edges.  A 5mm thickness should be considered the maximum.

2. Insure that overspray does not drift.  If working with a template that has many openings, you must make sure that those not being used are covered so that overspray does not drift into them and give you a ghosted image.  Also be sure the perimeter is covered so that overspray will not pick up the outline of the template edges.

3. Be cautious of building up the paint too quickly, since these tools are not adhered to the surface.  If paint is too wet along the edge of the template, capillary action will draw the paint up underneath and destroy the effect you are striving for.

4. Plastic-based templates should be cleaned off regularly while being used so you do not inadvertently transfer wet paint onto the work as they are moved around.  Paper templates, on the other hand, are more difficult to keep clean and don't have the advantage of transparency.

5. When working with non-water-soluble paints--such as automotive, enamel, or lacquer--use templates that are solvent-proof.  If you spray lacquer, for example, onto a non-solvent-proof template, it will curl, warp, or be consumed.

6. For tight, exacting edges, templates can always be coated for adherence to the work surface by spraying the back with a repositionable spray adhesive.  Do not overcoat the template with adhesive, and make sure when you remove it that no adhesive residue remains on the artwork.

Templates and shields, in conjunction with frisketing techniques and freehand airbrushing, give artists unlimited possibilities in the development of their artwork.

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This spring's airbrush lesson

Handling and Care of the Airbrush

To most artists, airbrush maintenance basically means keeping the airbrush clean so that paint flow is uninterrupted.  But another aspect of maintaining the airbrush deals with proper handling and care to prevent damaging the components of this highly sensitive tool.  This can occur when the airbrush is dropped, mishandled, or sometimes lent to a friend.  Let's look at the parts of the airbrush and how they apply to its proper performance.

  1. Airbrush Needle All internal mix airbrushes have needles that run through the body to control the flow of paint.  These are honed to an extremely sharp elongated tip that, if bent, will result in an undesirable spray pattern.  The harder the material of which the needle is made, the harder it is to bend the tip.  (The most durable needles are made of stainless steel.)  Damage can occur to the needle during the cleaning process when it is removed from the airbrush.  Upon replacement, it can accidentally press against metal parts, thereby "hooking" the very fine tip.  This may be remedied by rolling it between two flat metal objects, gently twisting the needle to straighten it.  Be aware that if straightened too many times, the result will be tip breakage and replacement will be necessary.

  2. Head Assembly/Tip If this part--which controls the atomization of the spray--becomes dented, the performance of the airbrush will be compromised.  This can occur if dropped onto a hard surface (and this will bend the needle, too).  If dented, it must be replaced, and the parts are readily available at art supply stores.   When the head assembly is replaced, it must be seated properly and tightly.  Years ago airbrush tips were sealed with beeswax, and then they were sealed with metal "O" rings and after that with Teflon "O" rings; and today there are self-seating tips and head assemblies.  No matter which type is being replaced, it must be seated tightly so that there is no air leak; otherwise, the airbrush will have a pulsating spray.  However, be careful not to over-tighten a head assembly or the threads might break off inside the body of the airbrush.  This would necessitate the tool being sent back to the manufacturer for repair.

  3. Trigger/Back Lever On some airbrush models, when the needle is removed for cleaning, the trigger is susceptible to falling out of the body, and the small spring-loaded return mechanism located behind the trigger can fall out or drop down into the body of the airbrush.  This can be a real nuisance, but everyone who has ever owned an airbrush has been faced with this problem and been successful in replacing the parts.  Once the mechanism is back in place and the needle is reinserted, be sure that the trigger and back lever are aligned properly so that the needle can slide through without the tip being bent.

  4. Threads/Cross-Threads Anywhere objects are threaded together on the airbrush you must be cautious of cross threading, e.g., where the air hose attaches to the airbrush and where the head assembly screws into the body of the airbrush.  Otherwise, an air leak may occur.

  5. Handle There are a number of types of airbrush handles, and in many instances artists work with the handles removed.  These were designed to cover and protect the needle and the inner-workings of the airbrush.  If you work with one of the new handles in which the needle can be removed from the back of the handle or if you work with the handle removed, there is a strong possibility that at some point you will hit the back of the needle against something and either wedge the needle or split the airbrush tip.  Because of this, it is best to work with handles that cover the needle completely.

The airbrush is a durable, precision instrument. But, as with any precision instrument, it is susceptible to damage if handled improperly, so handle with care.

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