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The Essential Airbrush Stroke
It's a Lot Like Golf
I know the connection seems a little far-fetched. But it helps to learn the dual-action airbrush stroke if you think about a golf stroke. The golfer approaches the ball - much like the artist would approach the canvas. He winds up his club, keeps his eye on the ball...swings the club...contact! He doesn't stop there. After hitting the ball, he finishes up with that all important follow-thru. There's three distinct phases of the golf stroke, the wind-up or back-swing, the swing, and the follow-thru. It all happens pretty fast. Good airbrush technique is a lot like golfing. It requires mastery of a three phase stroke too. First, the airbrush stroke begins with a “lead-in” with no paint sprayed. Second, paint is sprayed. Third, a “follow-through” with no paint sprayed.
Just like beginning golfers, beginning airbrush artist struggle with their stroke. A beginner will approach the canvas with the dual-action airbrush in hand, with air on. He selects a starting point, pulls the trigger back until the airbrush begins to spray. He moves the airbrush across the canvas and comes to a halt. He closes the trigger and stops the air. Most of the stroke on canvas may look pretty good, but the beginning and the end of the stroke will look sad. There will be two, big, ugly dots at each end, all a result of poor “lead-in” and inadequate “follow-thru”. If there were televised airbrush tournaments, the announcer would politely say "Oooh".
Timing is the key to well-formed paint strokes. The diagram below illustrates the stroke timing of a beginning airbrush artist and an expert. The dashed line is the stroke path.
It all happens pretty fast too
Here's how an expert will make the essential airbrush stroke. She approaches the canvas, decides where she would like to have a painted stroke. She decides where the paint should begin, where it should end and how it should be contoured. She begins her stroke path with a “lead-in” well before the point where she wants to lay down paint. When she reaches the spot where she wants to begin painting, she pulls the button back and opens the valve. She continues on her predetermined stroke path. Before she reaches the spot where the paint should end, she begins to close the button to end the paint flow and continues with her “follow-thru” to complete the stroke path.
Very often, airbrushing tutorials introduce dagger strokes to beginners. They are necessary strokes for beginners to learn. However, it is just as important to learn to make a stroke that is nicely tapered at the beginning as it is at the end. And if you learn to paint strokes that are tapered at both ends, you will certainly be able to make dagger strokes.
Almost every beginning student wants to make turning the air on and off part of the Essential Stroke. It's not. Air's cheap, keep it on while your painting. You can't airbrush without it. In fact, first-time students should hold the button down and spray nothing but air for more than a minute. This helps to get used to keeping the air on all the time. Chanting helps too. While your holding down the air trigger button, begin to softly chant. I like the old Hollywood westerns in black and white. The warpath dances have great trance-like chants. Nothing helps keep that ol' button down like a good chant.
Practice - It can't be overstated
Make some vertical target lines on your canvas or paper. Unembossed paper towels make good practice paper. Make horizontal practice lines using the Essential Stroke. Start your motion near the the begin target line and try to open the valve (pull the trigger button back) on the open line. When you're halfway begin to close the valve (push the trigger button forward). Try to close the valve on the close line and stop the stroke near the end line. Make some strokes starting from the left and some from the right. Start with your target lines pretty far apart. As you begin to better, set your target lines closer together.
Do the same with vertical strokes. Practice both ways, starting at the top and starting at the bottom.
Practice with contoured strokes. Make them at many angles. Plan the path in your mind. Visualize perfectly placed and finely contoured paint strokes. Try to avoid being too critical of your airbrushing if you find that you suck at Zen.
Practice making circles. Try to get them round and have the ends meet.
This is hard to do. But, it makes you feel good.
Beginners will find most of these examples hard to do, and become discouraged. I found that it was so rewarding, I couldn't stop. Within weeks of picking up an airbrush for the first time, I was making more money than I had at any other job. It wasn't the money however, that made me want to get better. It was the feeling of virtuosity that I experienced. And the adoration of all my fans. I'm sure it must be like the way a rock star feels when he rips a stadium quaking, chainsaw riff and then dives off the stage. Happened every night.