Monday, March 15, 2010

Chris Collins Airbrush Demo

Are you ready? Then roll up your sleeves and prepare for a little "how to" demonstration...

This is my airbrush studio. There are many like it, but this one is mine! For a quick rundown of the equipment I use, that's a Silentaire 50-TC compressor in the corner. It is one-half horsepower of whisper-quiet reliability.

I made my own drawing table from a large piece of particle board, propped up at the end by a 2x4, screwed in tight. (This keeps things at a comfortable angle.) All this all rests upon an everyday office fold-up table. The particle board keeps my arms splinter-free, and it has sufficient "bite" to keep the illustration board from sliding off. (Most drawing tables are melamine-laminated, and that is a bit too slippery for my taste.) My current arrangement is more stable than the "professional" drawing table I used years ago. Clamped to the right corner of the table is an airbrush holder.

For lighting, I use a regular swing-arm lamp, which you can see in the left corner of the above photo. To the top arm, I attached one of those energy-saving fluorescent bulbs, the kind that screw into a regular socket. This a great setup — the warmth of the tungsten bulb combined with the coolness of the fluorescent bulb combine to produce a natural spectrum of light, close to 5000 Kelvin. This is very important, because if you paint under bad lighting, your painting will be color adjusted to this, and then will not look right under good lighting! I can't stress this enough. It's similar to why a computer monitor must be calibrated properly for print work.

Stationed to the right are my paints, Medea Comart Transparent Colours, plus some opaque paint — white, for special effects like glows, and black, for my signature background. (More on color later in the demo.) Scattered about is an electric eraser, X-acto knives, erasers, a bottle of distilled water, and a small container of nontoxic airbrush cleaner. This all sits upon a restaurant-grade baking sheet, which serves to catch any spills.

On the drawing board you see the beginnings of the piece. First I found a stunning Stargazer lily, and photographed it during a Florida winter (best time of year for "low humidity" light), right before sunset, when the light is at its most dramatic. Since macro-photography produces lousy depth-of-field, I took many photos, focused at different levels deep, so that with all of them combined, I have ample information.

I then blow up my photos with an opaque projector, and very lightly trace the main contour lines. For those of you who believe this is cheating, I will give you my reason for this method: In a word — composition. The image must be the right size, and positioned perfectly. To hand draw the flower would mean repeated erasures, and they would show through the transparent layers of paint. By using a projector, my contour lines can be minimal, and faint enough to erase without leaving a trace. Plus, I exaggerate the curves of the flowers as I go, so the traced version has more flavor than just a copy. Tracing can be a creative act too, you know!

I use Frisk CS-10 illustration board, made in England. It's simply the best hot-press board money can buy. (More on this incredible illustration board, later in the demo.) As you can see, the board has been masked off, so that I can paint in the black background. I use frisket paper for the edges, but tracing paper for the rest. This saves frisket, which is quite expensive.

The first step is to paint the background. If you look closely at the above photo, you can see the glare from the frisket paper. I use "Frisk Film" matte finish. It has a low tack, and you can draw on it too. But this stuff is expensive, so I just use it "where the rubber meets the road" and then use tracing paper for the rest. The blue tape you see is where I taped the tracing paper to the frisket, to keep out over-spray.

I use a Paasche VL for small backgrounds. This is the definitive T-shirt airbrush, and a great value. I have an Iwata RG-2 background brush, but it requires more air than my compressor can muster. (I found out the hard way when oil got into the regulator and air line.) So now I just use the little VL, which works fine. I'm spraying Medea Comart opaque black, at 30 psi.

When spraying backgrounds, or any significant amount of paint, wear a mask! If you don't have a mask, then tie a T-shirt around your nose and mouth, and around the back of your head to hold it secure, making sure all the air you breathe is filtered, and that there are no "leaks." If the T-shirt came from the hamper, then be careful which part winds up positioned under your nose! Better yet, go out and buy a mask. If you use the really cheap ones, then you can line them with layers of Kleenex for better filtering. Just make sure there are no leaky areas around the sides of your mask, because the polluted air will always travel the path of least resistance to your lungs. To keep the paint off the drawing table, use a big paper tarp. You can't see in the photo, but it goes a good foot up the wall, to protect that from over-spray too.

Paint in light coats, allowing each one to dry before proceeding. As with all airbrushing, to insure a uniform distribution of paint, you should press down for air (then keep it on the whole time), begin your arm motion, pull back for paint, push forward to stop the flow, and follow through with your arm movement. Keep the air flowing the whole time between passes with the airbrush. You can spot a charlatan a mile away when they let up on the air with each pass. If you have a compressor, then the air is free, so keep your finger pressed down the whole time! In the above photo, you can see my finger pressed down. My arm has begun its motion from the left to the right, and I'm about to draw back for paint. Then I will release the paint flow and follow through with the arm motion, to keep paint from building up at the end of the stroke. Better to make many light passes than a few heavy ones. (More on this later in the demo.) Also, keep the airbrush pointed at the illustration board the whole time. In other words, don't just twist your wrist back and forth. Move your whole arm and keep the airbrush at the same angle, to distribute the paint evenly.

As with anything, this will become a habit, and seeing as the airbrush soon becomes an extension of your hand, practice good technique! If short "Psst, psst, psst" sounds are coming out of your studio, that means you are not keeping your finger pressed down. Try keeping the air flowing the whole time.

Next comes a little bit of frisket cutting. This is an art in itself. I use an X-acto knife and put masking tape around the blade, except for the tiny bit at the tip that actually does the cutting. This keeps light from shining off the blade. The traced pencil lines are very faint, and then they are under the frisket, so this little trick works well to help me see better.

You can buy expensive knives with blades that swivel, which are supposed to be good for cutting curves, but you lose control with these. Instead, you will find that if you twist the knife between your fingers as you cut, the blade will naturally follow smooth curves.

How hard should you press down on the knife? Just enough to cut the frisket. Any more will damage the illustration board. If you have a fresh blade, you will find that just the weight of the knife is enough to do the trick. If you cut any deeper, paint will wind up in these "cracks" and you won't be able to erase it out.

Here I'm beginning with the flower's stamen, or more precisely, the anthers. This is the part that holds the pollen. Usually logic will tell you which areas to start first. Since you will be masking areas you paint in order to paint adjacent areas, you have to map your plan of attack out ahead of time. I generally paint small areas first, so that I won't have to frisket large areas for any great length of time. The longer the frisket stays on a painted area, the larger the risk of it pulling paint.

One of the reasons why the finished piece looks "hyper-real" is because of these frisketed edges, which, by definition, are "razor" sharp. Try that with a camera. No matter how good the lens, edges are never perfectly sharp. If you think an edge looks sharp in a photo, just magnify it, and eventually you will see a fuzzy transition. Not so with a frisketed edge, which is another reason why only the original painting has this intense look of ultra-precision.

I keep a second X-acto knife to use for scraping off the finest of highlights, where even the electric eraser can't get in tight enough. But for the one used for cutting frisket, I'll go through several blades in one painting, so that they are always at their sharpest. Blades are cheap in packs of 100, so don't skimp!

Next comes the application of paint. Because I'm using transparent paint, I generally work from dark to light. Here I'm spraying an mixture of violet and a Medea Comart color they call "smoke," which is really just a transparent dark gray, diluted with about a third again as much of distilled water. (This work is so exacting that you will notice the buildup of mineral deposits if you use tap water, plus it's better for your airbrush to use distilled water.) Air pressure is set to 20 psi. The idea is to first establish a range of values. I just alternate between light layers of paint, and removing paint with an eraser that has a slight bit of grit to it. If you put on too much paint, you simply erase some.

If you put on a lot of paint at once, and then try to erase that, it does not all come off as smoothly as if you were only erasing a slight misting of paint. What happens is that part of it remains stuck in the "valleys" of the illustration board. This gives a kind of leathery texture, which you can exploit to the hilt. It's this match-made-in-heaven — the Frisk CS-10 board, with the Medea Comart Transparent Colours paint — that makes it possible. So you can get a rough texture, and anything else along the spectrum to complete smoothness, depending upon how much paint you spray between erasures, and how you go about erasing.

This technique relies on alternating between spraying and erasing paint. Although the act of erasing is subtractive, it is every bit as much a creative act as the addition of paint.

But you know, if you are just getting started with this sort of technique, you don't have to worry about remembering the steps. Like in most things, the paint and illustration board are going to revel their secrets to you. I'm just reporting to you my findings in how this stuff works, but you'll probably come up with pretty much the same conclusions if you dig in and try it yourself. Maybe just dive in with the general plan to work from dark to light. Then see what happens!

Here is the philosophy of the technique, in a nutshell:

The airbrush is great for things like clouds, and any situation where you need a smooth gradation of color. But for depicting texture, it just plain sucks! Most people just accept this and live with the smoothness, which is why most airbrush paintings you see have that telltale "look." Enter the eraser! By spraying layers of transparent paint, and "treating" the surface with various erasers between each spraying, you can impart any texture imaginable.

My main airbrush for the entire painting is the Iwata Custom Micron B. It is arguably the highest quality airbrush in the world. It puts the paint just where you want it, and can paint a line as fine as a human hair.

I've owned a Paasche AB turbine airbrush, and yes, that can paint even finer, but it's hard to maintain, and there is always the risk of paint building up on the needle bearing, then splattering all over your work along with the entire contents of the color well. Since wet paint also acts as a solvent, if (more like when) this happens, kiss your painting good-bye! In short, the Paasche AB is best used for only photo retouching. And these days you'd probably scan the old photo and retouch it in Photoshop.

The Custom Micron can paint with more detail than any airbrush other than the Paasche AB, but it also can paint a fairly wide pattern, so it is the only airbrush I will use for this painting, other than the background brush. If you can't afford this airbrush, then go with the Iwata HP-B. It costs about a third of what the Custom Micron will set you back. The HP-A has no color cup. You can only put a couple of drops at a time into the cavity in the actual body of the airbrush. While this may seem like an even more precise airbrush, you need that color cup, not because you will use more than a few drops of paint at a time, but to insure that paint does not spill as you make your wide passes with the airbrush. That said, if you can afford it, get the Iwata Custom Micron. It's one sweet instrument!

As you might have noticed in the previous page, I neglected to mask my frisket. So a bit of over-spray got on the painting. I was able to erase it, but it's hard to completely erase a hard edge, no matter how faint. Luckily, I woke up in time to fix this. So now I have the area masked, but not overly so.

With this kind of precision painting, over-spray will not travel far, so you won't need a mask. (I'm talking about the kind you put on your head, not on your art!)

Here we are getting into how the color theory works. When you look at photos in a magazine, you are seeing all the colors, but really there are only four colors of inks used, applied individually in four "processes." The dots are so small that they mix optically on the surface, and your brain perceives the full range of colors. No white is used. White is just the absence of ink, the color of the bare paper, or in this case, the bare illustration board.

So you have to calculate in advance in what order to apply your colors. It's kind of like doing a "four color separation" in your head. Except you have the luxury of more than four colors. You can use as many colors as you want. Now it's impossible to completely calculate the whole thing in your head, but if you work from dark to light, logic will tell you what to do, and you can fine-tune your choice of colors as you go.

And how do you calculate? You have to study your photos carefully, and have an empathy for color. It is an intuitive process, but one that is grounded in a good understanding of color theory. So go back to that color-wheel, and study!

In the above example, you see that I have misted a certain red-orange color over the entire thing. Since the paint is transparent, the previous color shows through. So where I sprayed the dark violet before is more of a violet-magenta color now, and the areas that were white are now the red-orange color. And so naturally, depending upon how I erased, I have every level of color established between these two ends.

But wait, there's more! So far I have only sprayed two different colors. I will now do some more erasing. So with each subsequent layer of paint coupled with each "treatment" with the eraser, the sum total effect increases exponentially until you wind up with great complexity with minimal work!

So follow me along here for a minute. See how my colors are a bit more on the violet side than the photo? That's because I know ahead of time that with the addition of the oranges and yellows that are to follow, they will "adjust" the paint on there already. The deepest shadow you see in the anther is only a violet color now, but try mixing violet with yellow, and what do you get? See how it works? You just have to calculate in advance what order to apply the paint, and then trust your judgment. The transparent colors mix optically on the surface of the illustration board.

So for this anther, there is only a small part of pure orange-yellow, right on the tip. I've erased it to complete white with a miniature electric eraser, which spins like a dentist's drill. I can get in there tight. With the next addition of paint, that part will then be orange-yellow, and the rest will be color-adjusted. With the anther under that, there is more orange, and more yellow, so that will require more erasing toward the end.

In nature, everything has a bit of all the colors in it. So when you work from dark to light, it's usually that last subtle misting of yellow that can bring the whole thing to life, with all the colors reinforcing themselves for the ultimate in a realistic effect. And then for the brightest highlights, you would just erase one last time, but not add paint on top of that.

It's a joy to paint this way, because you have to practice deferred gratification. You can't paint what you see with with the first coat of paint. Instead, you have build up the layers slowly, according to your color calculations. Then you have to proceed with the faith that color theory will come through for you, and give you the results you were hoping for.

This system of painting is based on many influences, most notably the great airbrush illustrator, Mark Fredrickson. I had run into him by chance at an art supply store in Tucson, AZ, and he turned me onto the sweet combination of Medea Comart Transparent Colours, sprayed on Frisk CS-10 illustration board.

Jumping ahead a bit, I've completed all of the anthers, and now will proceed to the filaments, which together comprise the stamens, the male reproductive organ of the plant.

Notice that I don't mount the artwork to the table. You need to be able to turn it around to get to certain parts, and see things in different perspectives, like upside-down, for instance! The blue border of tape is so that I will get a clean white edge.

The dust brush is to sweep away the eraser crumbs. The little electric eraser is for special applications, but most erasing involves the Eberhard Faber Eraser Stik. You can see one of mine held up by the ruler. They have a slight grit which works perfectly to erase paint. The Medea Comart paints use a special form of acrylic, and so it takes a slight amount of grit to do the job. But for more subtle erasing, I use the Pink Pearl, which contains a finer grit yet, made from Italian volcanic ash. See it on my desk? Eberhard Faber died in 1879, but his descendants have carried on to make the best erasers in the world.

I use reading glasses with a 2.75 X magnification. The magnifying glass you see is mainly used to study the photographs for detail. A friend gave me this magnifying glass with I was 12!

People ask me why I chose flowers for my favorite subject matter. It's because of all the abstract curves, and all the color. Nature rules!

Onto the filaments! This required a lot of masking. You can see the anthers, but trust me, they are safely tucked away under a frisket mask! The edges of the filaments are also frisketed, and I just used tracing paper for the rest, because this sort of misting can produce a bit of over-spray.

The tricky part here was the fact that some of the filaments overlap, so it required a lot of masking and re-masking of adjacent edges. But once I had my tonal ranges definded with the darker colors, I was able to mist in some of the color-adjustment layers on top of all of them without having to mask adjacent edges of the filaments. You look for time-savers wherever you can.

Although masking can be tedious, it allows time to digest what you have done, and to plan what comes next. You can be in airbrush mode one moment, then switch to frisket cutting mode. So you get a little variety with this kind of airbrush painting.

Now let me say that even though I am painting each part individually, some of the color adjusting is done to groups of objects. All the parts have to blend well, and it's hard to do this by painting each part separately. Up to now I've worked on each part as an entity unto itself, but in the end, the parts have to work together. Fortunately there is another cool kind of mask that makes this a lot easier. To find out about it, read on...

The first thing you might notice is that curvy thing by the dust brush. This is the contribution of a great man and friend to airbrushing, Mr. Radu Vero. His book, "Airbrush: The Complete Studio Handbook," is the main reason you are even reading this page. I had tried all kinds of painting, gravitating to realism. My sister found this book at her college library many years ago, and checked it out for me. I could not put it down, and became obsessed with the airbrush.

It's a good book for beginners. He will start you off on gouache, a very forgiving medium. Gouache is essentially watercolors with a talc additive to make the colors opaque. It requires a different way to think about color, but is a good way to get started.

But perhaps his biggest contribution is what he calls "the shield." It's a collection of French curves adapted for airbrush, and distilled into one mask. The book contains a template that you can use to make your own shield from a thick piece of acetate, which is what I did.

The shield contains all kinds of curves, ranging from tight convex to tight concave. You simply find the correct curve on the shield, and with the hand not holding the airbrush, press it to your work, for a quick and easy mask. Mr. Vero's book is evangelical in tone, and he shows how with practice, the shield becomes an extension of your one hand, just as the airbrush becomes an extension of the other. Because you don't have to cut frisket, you can do spontaneous airbrush sketches with it. The reason you have to cut masks in the first place is because the problem with airbrushing is keeping the paint from where you don't want it to go. This shield solves the problem, and is fun to use too.

It's not a cure-all, but his shield works well for many things. For instance, I used it a lot for where the edges of those filaments meet. I was not able to see exactly how the colors interact between the filaments and anthers until all the masks were removed. Here the shield comes to the rescue, allowing me to make quick adjustments of color.

The thing that really amazes me about this shield is not just how many curves are contained in it, but how the curves blend into other curves. And if the curve transition is the opposite of what you need, just flip the shield over! It seems like it always has the perfect curve I need at the time! There are no redundant curves either. I still can't figure out how Radu Vero did it! Not too long ago I received quite a suprise. Mr. Radu Vero himself contacted me after seeing that I had reviewed his book for We exchanged a few emails after that.

If you need a sharp edge fading into smoothness, you can press the shield against your art for the sharp part, but bending up from there. Then when you spray, you get the fade. The farther the shield is from the surface, the smoother your edge.

For more precise quick masks, I invented a little trick: Get some Post It note pads and just cut around the sticky part with scissors. The tack is just right to keep it in place. I often use a Post It note sheet in conjunction with the shield. This is faster than cutting frisket, so you don't lose your train of thought.

You can see my mixing dish and eyedropper in a shot glass. I just keep some distilled water in there. I mix a few drops of different colors into the mixing dish, then dilute it slightly. You mix the color just by swishing it up and down the eyedropper. You add a few drops to the airbrush, and spray. Then after that, I suck out what I didn't use with the eyedropper, run a drop or two of special soapy cleaner through the airbrush, followed again by distilled water.

I will not go into airbrush maintenance here, but the acrylic from the paints can build up on the tip of the needle. The special cleaner clears most of it, but I just swab a paintbrush full of cleaner over the outside of the needle assembly, followed by distilled water. If you run a half-teaspoon or so of distilled water through your airbrush between applications of color, it won't need much cleaning.

Anyway, now I've completed the stigma and style of the flower (which, including the ovary, make up the pistil, the female reproductive organ of the flower), and am ready to begin work on the petals.

Now things are really taking shape. I just keep working from dark to light. On the upper-right petal, you can see how much variety of color is in there. I had all the reds, violets and blues in there, but then when I came in with the yellow misting, it all came together.

In choosing what part to do next, I often just do what seems to be easiest. Then with that experience fresh in my mind, I am in better shape to tackle the more difficult parts. I this case, I was just dreading the daunting task of masking the stamens! You would think you could recycle the part of the masks used to cut the original windows, but it's impossible to line them up perfectly. So you have to start over from scratch.

I was doing these petals at about the rate of one per day. There is no rush until you have frisketed a painted area. And that is just what needs to be done to the stamens. Then you can't take a day off, because the more time that frisket remains stuck to the paint, the greater the chance that when you remove it, it will pull up paint. It is very hard to fix an area where paint has been pulled, due to the fact that the colors are the result of many subtle layers of paint.

It has happened to me before. My solution is to mix the closest version of the color, in opaque form, apply it with feathered edges (not difficult with an airbrush!), and then treat it with more layers of transparent paint and erasing. With gouache, you can just paint over your mistakes, but although you get a greater richness of color with transparent paints, they are unforgiving.

A painting like this takes me around 100 hours to complete, and the farther you get to completion, the greater the stakes. Even at the stage of completion you see here, if I was to ruin the painting accidentally, it would be a real buzz killer. (Duh!) The tendency is to be overly cautious when you get past 50% completion, because you don't want to mess anything up.

So now the stamens are frisketed, and I'm tackling each remaining petal, one-at-a-time. One petal is frisketed so that I can get the green and yellow edge in there. I decided to push the green a bit more than in the photos. In the end, nobody is going to see the photos, so the painting must stand on its own.

Because of this, I will start to deviate from the photos as the painting progresses. Mainly, I push the values of certain colors. My college art professor, Jack Girard, used to say, "Push your values!" Good advice for any artist.

Here I'm using a combination of frisket, shield, and Post It note, to mask a little area. As you can see, I like to use my pinkie to steady the airbrush when getting in tight.

Things are nearing completion now!

All of the petals are done now. You can see a slight edge on the pistil and the filament underneath it. This is frisket. I was making some color adjustments at the base of the petals. Now the only thing that remains is to darken the base of the filaments, so that they seem to disappear into the flower. So I'll have to remove this mask, and apply one last frisket.

After all this work, I like to sit on it a few days in case I think of little color adjustments to make it look better.

And here it is, finished:

Thanks for checking out this demonstration. If you decide to try this technique, please e-mail me with your results, so I can see how you did!

Take it easy,


  1. Amazing. Where did you get the C.S.10? I can't find it anywhere. I used to use it for water colour painting it has such a smooth surface that I could get a very realistic finish. Thanks