oil painting » Painting techniques » Airbrush


The airbrush is a small, highly precise spray gun for applying paint. It was invented in 1879 by Abner Peeler, in Iowa, USA. This first airbrush used a hand-operated compressor, and the inventor patented it "for the painting of watercolors and other artistic purposes". However this first device was rather crude and it took a number of years of further development before a practical device was developed, which was marketed by Liberty Walkup. The first modern type airbrush came along in 1893, presented by Thayer and Chandler art materials company at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, invented by Charles Burdick. This device looked like a pen and worked in a different manner to Peeler's device, being essentially the same as a modern airbrush. The most highly refined airbrushes today are manufactured in Japan, one of the most popular brands is Iwata.

The paint is carried onto paper or other surface. The operator controls the amount of paint using a variable trigger which opens more or less a very fine tapered needle that is the control element of the paint-metering component. An extremely fine degree of atomization is what allows an artist to create such smooth blending effects using the airbrush.

The technique allows for the blending of two or more colors in a seamless way, with one color slowly becoming another color. Freehand airbrushed images, without the aid of stencils or friskets, have a floating quality, with softly defined edges between colors, and between foreground and background colors. A well skilled airbrush artist can produce paintings of photographic realism or can simulate almost any painting medium. Painting at this skill level involves supplementary tools, such as masks and friskets, and very careful planning.

Airbrushing for photo retouching

Airbrushing has long been used to alter photographs in the pre-digital era. In skilled hands it can be used to help hide signs that an image has been extensively retouched or "doctored".

Many photographs of officials from the Stalinist regime show extensive airbrushing, often entire people have been removed. The term "airbrushed out" has come to mean rewriting history to pretend that something was never there.


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The term "airbrushed" or "airbrushed photo" has also been used to describe glamour photos in which a model's imperfections have been removed, or in which their attributes have been enhanced. The term has often been applied in a pejorative manner to describe images of unealistic female perfection and has been particularly common in reference to pictures in Playboy magazine.

Using today's digital imaging technology, this kind of picture editing is now usually done with a bitmap graphics editor, which is capable of even more subtle work in the hands of a skilled touch-up artist. This technique is called photoshopping. (Also see photo manipulation.)