Thursday, April 13, 2017

How the Airbrush Changed How I See

© Copyright Eugene R. Young. Acrylic on illustration board.
I remember when airbrush art was my holy grail of realism in illustration. In the late 80s and early 90s, I discovered books and magazines on airbrushing. Artists like Olivia De Berardinis, Luis Royo and Hajime Sorayama used airbrushes and I wanted so much to paint like them. The airbrush itself at the time was a mildly expensive option. I first settled for a Badger spray gun that claimed to be able to spray down around a 1/4 inch. Figuring out the right paint to thinner ratio for my enamel paint model kit projects was tough enough. The cans of compressed were just barely enough to let me do a pretty good job of painting camo on a few larger kits. It wasn't until I bought my first dual action Passche VLS and low-wattage tankless compressor that things got really interesting. It was a beautifully engineered chrome unit with a bright red plastic handle. Part of the fun of working with it was the breakdown and clean-up process. You really got to know and respect your airbrush by taking it apart and maintaining it.

I worked in my parent's garage on paper and fabric. Sometimes I had the patience to carefully mask and plan out a painting, but that was rare. I admired the work of H.R. Giger along with anyone who could paint freehand with an airbrush and achieve near photo-realism. Eventually, not having a proper studio space and concerns about inhaling vapors got me to put it away. As I improved as a painter with acrylics and digital tools, the airbrush seemed less and less practical. That said, the experience of having used one still informs how I paint in Photoshop. It also led to an unexpected change in how I see things.

In order to paint with an airbrush, you have to see form as both structure and process. By structure, I mean values, edges, plane changes, hue, gradients and textures. "Process" refers to the step-by-step setup and execution of the painting. Airbrushing taught me to visualize how I might approach painting anything I saw as a series of steps that included masking, choosing the right paint, mixing the right color, possibly layering if working transparently, and drying times between layers. This way of seeing is always "on" when my eyes are open. I constantly scan and analyze things in order to remember how to paint them. I ask myself questions like "what color is that" or "is there a hint of color in the white surface".

A recent project as a freelance digital matte painter, has me returning to this "structure and process" model for rapidly organizing not only my layers, but also when to paint what and with what tools.

Learning how to paint is a life-long endeavor that should draw on the best of your formal training and constant reinforcement through independent study and practice. The learning extends well beyond the completion of homework and classroom assignments. It happens in the quiet isolation of a studio, in a noisy cafe with a sketchbook, or on a hiking trail with oils and a plein air easel. While it is possible to master a "thing" that gets you paid, my gut tells me that there is always something to learn and room for improvement.

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