The master of pinup art Alberto Vargas would thin out watercolor paint (they didnt make airbrush paint back then) and spray it through a Paasche turbine airbrush to make his perfect gradations. His mastery of the airbrush is acknowledged by the founding of the Vargas Award, awarded annually by Airbrush Action Magazine, which was named after him. However you wont find too many photos of Vargas using an airbrush. That’s because in his day, the airbrush was a trade secret that establishment artist thought of as cheap and looked down they’re noses at. A Peruvian born son of a photographer, Vargas, moved to the United States in 1916 after studying art in Europe. He started his career making movie posters in Hollywood and eventually became a regular contributing artist for Esquire and Playboy magazine. Numerous Vargas paintings have sold and continue to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have an amazing collection of original paintings by Vargas and other commercial artists of his time at the Paasche Airbrush Co. factory.
Gerald Mendez is a professional illustrator who operates Aerografika Art Studios and has some heavy hitting clients like Disney and Dreamworks. He’s also a champion airbrush artist who teaches workshops around the world.
If you have not had the pleasure of browsing through Gerald Mendez’s jaw dropping Vintage Airbrush Collection facebook album, block out a good hour or two of your day, light some candles, toss a Barry White album on the turntable and immerse yourself into a wonderful world of airbrush.
Here are a few snap shots to get you salivating in the mean time…
H.R. (Hans Ruedi) Giger may be the most famous artist to prolifically use an airbrush. The vast majority of his early paintings were done with thinned acrylic paints sprayed through an airbrush. He was very creative in finding objects to use as stencils such as machine parts and templates that he would use in a repetitive manner to create his fantastic and often frightening bio-mechanical creatures and landscapes.
One of the pioneers in bringing airbrush into the world of fine art was an avant-garde artist by the name of Man Ray. Man Ray worked in a variety of materials and was a contributor to the Dada and Surrealist movements. He loved the airbrush for its ability to produce an industrial like appearance with no brush strokes. Around 1919 he produced a series called “Aerographs” in which he used hand made stencils as well as household objects as stencils.
This amusing illustration for a paper advertisement is by William Addison Dwiggins. It pokes fun at airbrush artists of the time. It depicts of a weary artist, slouched in an armchair, using an airbrush to create a painting while a servant operates the hand-pump compressor and a monkey holds up a stencil for him. Many artists looked down their nose at those who used airbrushes and especially stencils. There was resistance to this new “machine” being intermingled into art and illustration. This stigma somewhat still exists today and most fine art schools still do not teach airbrushing.
The compressor depicted is actually somewhat realistic in that back then compressors for an airbrush were hand pump as were early vacuum cleaners.
Philip Castle is British airbrush artists best known for creating the poster art for the Stanley Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket. He worked very closely with Kubrick on these projects and the extent of their collaboration shows, as the posters do a great job of capturing the essence of the films. He’s also known for designing some classic album covers for David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and many others. For more about his process check out this article.
Below is an interesting page from The Art of Show Card Writing published back in 1919. “Showcards” were what they called temporary signs made from cardstock that were displayed in store front windows. (So it’s essentially a sign painting book.) It depicts an artist at work on a sign using and airbrush and a foot pump compressor. The text offers some technique advice that is still relevant today. (Well, minus the foot pump.) You can find the whole ebook version for free on Google Books.
These “airbrushed” hand stencils have been found throughout the major Paleolithic cave painting sites of Indonesia and Europe, as well as throughout Aboriginal Australia. The ancient paintings were accomplished by blowing paint through hollow bones, yielding a finely grained distribution of pigment, similar to that of an airbrush.