An airbrush is a small, air-operated tool that sprays various media including ink and dye, but most often paint by a process of nebulization. Spray guns developed from the airbrush and are still considered a type of airbrush.


The first airbrush was patented in 1876 (Patent Number 182,389) by Francis Edgar Stanley of Newton, Massachusetts. Stanley and his twin brother later invented a process for continuously coating photographic plates (Stanley Dry Plate Company) but are perhaps best known for their Stanley Steamer.

The airbrush was later improved by Abner Peeler which used a hand-operated compressor, and the inventor patented it "for the painting of watercolors and other artistic purposes". It was rather crude, being based on a number of spare parts in a jeweller's workshop such as old screwdrivers and welding torches. It took 4 years of further development before a practical device was developed. This was marketed by Liberty Walkup, who taught airbrush technique to American Impressionist master Wilson Irvine. 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. Aerograph, Burdick's original company, still makes and sells airbrushes in England.

For more a detailed academic study, the University of Wales Library holds a detailed PhD on Airbrush History. Likewise the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia retains a copy - authored by Dr. Andy Penaluna.


An airbrush works by passing a stream of fast moving (compressed) air through a venturi, which creates a local reduction in air pressure (suction) that allows paint to be pulled up from an interconnected reservoir at normal atmospheric pressure. The high velocity of the air atomizes the paint into very tiny droplets as it blows past a very fine paint-metering component. 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.

Some airbrushes use pressures as low as 20 psi (1.38 bar) while others use pressures in the region of 30-35 psi (2-2.4 bar). Larger "spray guns" as used for automobile spray-painting need 100 psi (6.8 bar) or more to adequately atomise a thicker paint using less solvent. They are capable of delivering a heavier coating more rapidly over a wide area. However certain spray guns called, High-Volume Low-Pressure (HVLP) spray guns, are designed to deliver the same high volumes of paint without requiring such high pressures.


Airbrushes are usually classified by three characteristics. The first characteristic is the action performed by the user to trigger the paint flow while the second is the mechanism for feeding the paint into the airbrush and the third is the point at which the paint and air mixes.


The simplest airbrushes work with a single action mechanism where the depression of a single "trigger" results in paint and air flowing into the airbrush body and the atomized paint being expelled onto the target surface. Cheaper airbrushes and spray guns tend to be of this type.

Dual action or double action airbrushes separate the function for air and paint flow so that the user can control the volume of airflow and the concentration of paintflow through two independent mechanisms. This allows for greater control and a wider variety of artistic effects. This type of airbrush is more complicated in design than single action airbrushes which tends to be reflected in its cost.

Feed system

Paint can be fed by gravity from a paint reservoir sitting atop the airbrush (called gravity feed) or siphoned from a reservoir mounted below (bottom feed) or on the side (side feed). Each feed type carries unique advantages. Gravity feed instruments require less air pressure for suction as the gravity pulls the paint into the mixing chamber. Typically instruments with the finest mist atomization and detail requirements use this method. Side- and bottom-feed instruments allow the artist to see over the top, with the former sometimes offering left-handed and right-handed options to suit the artist. A bottom feed airbrush typically holds a larger capacity of paint than the other types, and is often preferable for larger scale work such as automotive applications and tee-shirt design.

Mix point

With an internal mix airbrush the paint and air mixes inside the airbrush (in the tip) creating a finer atomized "mist" of paint. With external mix the air leaves the airbrush before it comes into contact with the paint which creates a coarser stippled effect. "External mix" airbrushes are cheaper and more suited for covering larger areas with more viscous paints or varnishes.

Spray guns

The airbrush led to the development of the spray gun; a similar device, that typically delivers a higher volume of paint and is configured with a pistol grip to facilitate painting larger areas.


Airbrush technique is the freehand manipulation of the airbrush, medium, air pressure and distance from the surface being sprayed in order to produce a certain predictable result on a consistent basis with or without shields or stencils. Airbrush technique will differ with the type of airbrush being used (single action or dual/double action).

Double action airbrush technique involves depressing the trigger on the top of the airbrush with the index finger to release air only, and drawing it back gradually to the paint release threshold. The most important procedural dynamic is to always begin with air only and end with air only. By observing this rule, precise control of paint volume and line width and character can be achieved. The single most important airbrush stroke consistently utilized by professionals is the dagger stroke. This describes a stroke which begins wide and ends as a narrow line, created by starting with the brush far from the support and moving it evenly closer as the line is drawn.

Single action airbrush technique derives its name from the fact that only 1 action is required for operation. The single action of depressing the trigger releases a fixed ratio of paint to air.Achieving different line widths requires either changing the tip and nozzle combination or else adjusting the spray volume manually between spray width changes. The most important aspect of proper single action airbrush technique is to keep the hand moving before the trigger is depressed and after the trigger is released. This avoids the "bar bell" line.


Art and illustration

Since the inception of airbrush technology, commercial artists and illustrators realized airbrushes allowed them to create highly rendered images and a high level of realism. Techniques tend to be split into two areas: firstly, using the airbrush in combination with cut stencils or items held freehand to block in controlled manner the flow of paint onto the paper (or digital alternatives) with fantasy and science fiction artists. Airbrush images can be found today in advertising, publishing (e.g., book covers), comic books and graphic novels.

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".

As a result of Stalin's purges, and later destalinization, many photographs of officials from the periods 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.

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 unrealistic female perfection and has been particularly common in reference to pictures in Playboy, and later Maxim magazine.

Using today's digital imaging technology, this kind of picture editing is now usually done with a raster image editor, which is capable of even more subtle work in the hands of a skilled touch-up artist. This technique is still called airbrushing or photoshopping.

Coating firearms

One of the most popular coatings available to the do-it-yourselfer looking to protect the surfaces of firearms is a multipart product called Duracoat, which must be applied with an airbrush, spraygun, or HVLP gun. People also use airbrushing techniques to create custom camouflage designs for their entire rifles, including stock and scope.


Airbrushes are also suitable for painting murals.


Airbrushes are commonly used by scale modeling enthusiasts because finer coats can be laid down, as well as opaque effects, like weathering, adding stains etc. The fine atomization of paint in modern airbrushes also makes it possible to accurately reproduce soft-edged mottled camouflage schemes, which are very hard to do convincingly by hand-brushing. (Luftwaffe aircraft are a good example of this)

Many Radio Control hobbyists also use the airbrush to create works of art on the lexan bodies. The paint jobs range from a basic one-color paint job to fine detailed works of art.

Airbrush makeup application

Though the earliest record of this type of cosmetic application dates back to the 1925 film version of Ben-Hur, it has recently been re-popularized by the advent of Hi-Definition Television and Digital Photography, wherein the camera sees more detail than ever before. Liquid Foundations that are high in coverage but thin in texture are applied with the airbrush for full coverage without a heavy build-up of product. Because of the spray dot pattern the airbrush puts down, this products also reads as more even to the camera, which records the image in similar tiny pixels. It is also a highly popular technique for Special F/X Makeup.

Temporary airbrush tattoos (TATs)

Airbrushes can also be used to apply temporary airbrush tattoos (TATs). An artist sprays ink onto the skin through a stencil. Often, the resulting design mirrors the look of a permanent tattoo, without any pain or discomfort. In the past, TATs might only last a week, but now, the best inks can last up to two weeks or longer.

Airbrush tanning

Airbrushes are used to apply special tanning solutions as a form of sunless tanning that simulates the appearance of a natural sun tan. It is promoted as a safer and healthier alternative to the damaging effects of long term exposure to the sun. It is often performed by companies also offering other sun tanning alternatives like sun beds.

Finger nail art

Airbrushes are also used to apply images onto human finger nails as well as synthetic ones that are later glued to the person's actual finger nail.


T-shirt airbrushing is popular—many t-shirt airbrush shops offer to paint any textile that will hold paint, including jeans, denim jackets, leather apparel, pillow cases, and hoodies.

One well known producer of airbrushed clothing is Marc Ecko. He used to airbrush t-shirts when he started his clothing company. [ [ Loud and Dumb Never Looked Better] New York Times ]


Airbrushes are used to spray murals, graphics, and other artwork on automobiles, motorcycles and helmets. This artform has been around since at least the fifties, but more recently it has seen an increase in popularity thanks to such shows as "Rides" and "American Chopper". Most professionals prefer to use automotive grade bases through top of the line gravity fed airbrushes. It is not advised that the novice or hobbyist use automotive grade paints either in their home or garage, but rather in a well ventilated shop equipped with a spray booth. The cost to hire a professional artist will vary from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on location, skill level and reputation.

Street artists

Many street artists use airbrushing to create names and pictures for tourists, such as around Jackson Square in New Orleans. In the mid-seventies, Panama City Beach, Florida was the airbrush capital of the world, with hundreds of artists painting custom designs on T-shirts. Visionary airbrush painter Kenneth Albright was the pied piper, urging his friends towards forming an artist colony on the Gulf Coast, and his influence remains in the work of those who followed him there.


When inhaled, finely dispersed paint and solvents can produce serious health hazards. Regulatory povisions such as OSHA empart strict requirements to prevent unsafe use in work environments.

ee also

Frederick William Lawrence - an early airbrush arist


External links

* [ Airbrush Tricks] Free resource for new and experienced airbrush artists.

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