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What is Airbrushing?

By J. Beam
Updated May 17, 2024
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Airbrushing is an artistic technique that uses a compressed air tool, called an airbrush, which sprays various media such as inks, dyes, or paints on to most any surface. There are various techniques to the art, many of which can be difficult to master, but artists pursue airbrushing because of the potential for stunning realism in their final work. The first airbrush was invented in the late 1890s, making it an art form over a century old.

While artists often pursue learning airbrushing skills for personal expression, there are a variety of commercial applications where it is frequently used. The auto body industry is one of the leading commercial industries where artistic airbrushing is a highly sought skill. Additionally, photo touch-ups and restoration, custom clothing, and fingernail art are examples of other commercial applications where this art is common. Similarly, but far less artistic, the technique is used to apply coats of paint to a variety of objects and surfaces.

Though airbrushing can be done using stencils, it is most often a freehand process. The artists who master the process must not only be gifted at recreating an image, but be able to manipulate the trigger with the right amount of pressure and to be able to blend various colors together in addition to shadowing and highlighting. Done well, it can add incredible realism to images and graphics and is sometimes used for painting realistic murals.

The custom airbrushed graphics and designs seen on motorcycles and helmets, automobiles, trucks, and boats are usually applied freehand as well. In many cases, similar to a tattoo artist, an auto body artist can design an image based on customer request, making the graphics truly custom. This can be a very lucrative business for the graphic artist skilled in the techniques.

Custom t-shirts are another area where airbrushing can be lucrative. Street artists who airbrush portraits, names, and other designs can be found at amusement parks, carnivals, street fairs, festivals and other venues that draw large crowds. Manicurists who use the techniques for nail art are usually not freehand artists, but rather combine airbrushing with stencils.

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Discussion Comments
By anon275082 — On Jun 15, 2012

A reputable vendor will have properly treated airbrushed shirts to maintain the integrity of the paint as much as possible.

Once home, preserve your airbrushed shirt by washing it as little as possible. Cotton shirts pill with frequent washing, giving the appearance of

fading. When the airbrushed shirt becomes too dirty to wear without washing, hand wash the shirt to reduce wear on fabric and prevent the cracking and fading of the paint.

By pastanaga — On May 23, 2011

Airbrushing has become so associated with commercial projects that it's now considered by some to be less authentic than other art forms. I think this is a shame, because it's just another art technique, not inherently good or bad. And, as the article says, it has a long history.

Fewer people are learning how to airbrush and how to be experimental with airbrush paintings.

Also, fine art is associated with a more painterly style at the moment.

Along with the increasing popularity of graphic art which can easily replicate and manipulate the style of an airbrushed piece, I think traditional airbrushing will become more and more rare.

By umbra21 — On May 21, 2011

@croydon - I didn't realize it took so much effort to airbrush something. I associate it with street buskers who set up in crowded areas or theme parks and airbrush landscapes with enormous moons and planets or waterfalls and so on. They use stencils though, and mostly don't make free form pictures, and I suspect they just learn a few moves off by heart so they can make the picture as a performance rather than a unique work of art. Still, it must have taken some effort to learn how to do it in the first place.

By croydon — On May 19, 2011

Airbrushing is extremely difficult, or at least I found it very difficult the few times I have tried it. The airbrushing tool is so sensitive to pressure that the slightest movement of your finger can cause you to dump a lot of paint into one spot. You not only have to keep up just the right amount of pressure, you also have to move the tip of the airbrush constantly, so that paint doesn't build up in one place.

That means you need to know where the paint is going, you can't just pause and regroup in the middle of a stroke.

I also found it difficult to master the way your finger has to move. I imagine it is the kind of thing that eventually becomes automatic, but I have a lot of respect for people who learn this skill.

By AuthorSheriC — On Dec 20, 2008

I didn't know there were so many different applications for airbrushing techniques -- interesting article!

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