Scanning Around With Gene: Painting With Air

Originally published December 29, 2011

When I came across a 1947 edition of “Painting With Air” (published by the Paasche Airbrush Company and written by Frank J. Knaus), I assumed the airbrush had lost favor in our digital times. Once a standard for photo retouching and original illustration, the airbrush was a common tool in many commercial art and design studios. Now it’s software like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop that dominate the creation of original art and the retouching of photographs.

But the airbrush is far from dead. After researching it, I was surprised to find that today, people use the airbrush to paint on cakes, fingernails, and fishing lures, and even to apply cosmetics and spray tans. And there’s an active airbrush market for motorcycle and vehicle painting, hobbies and crafts, and textile painting. I imagine some illustrators still choose to use traditional airbrush technology, too. So while its role has changed, the airbrush remains an important art tool. Click on any image for a larger version.

I was always fascinated by airbrushes. They seem like such complex and precise instruments, and very difficult to master — more like a technical pen than a paintbrush. I worked in studios that had them, and someone always seemed to be fussing to get them to work correctly.

And at least in the original illustration and photo-retouching areas, most of the work seemed to be in cutting the “frisket” paper to create masks and guides so the paint didn’t go beyond where the artists wanted it. The actual airbrush time was minimal in comparison.

The airbrush has a rich history. Did you know that “Aurignacian Man” used hollowed-out deer bones to spray cave art some 35,000 years ago?

One of my favorite uses for airbrushes is in the field of industrial art — illustrations of machinery and things technical. Some of these illustrations started as photographs and became highly retouched, and others are original works of art with extremely complex detail.

The airbrush seems like a natural tool for illustration of the human form. Hollywood imagery and the airbrush have gone hand in hand over the decades.

Long before drop shadows became so popular thanks to digital tools, a good airbrush artist could turn simple type into dynamic, three-dimensional art.

I know it’s possible to do just about anything with digital art tools, but there is something unique about real airbrush art, at least to me. Perhaps it’s the slight imperfections that make the difference.

I’m glad the airbrush is still in use in many fields, though I do wish we’d see more original illustrations and even photo retouching done this traditional way. There is a softness that’s lost with digital technology.

I’d love to hear if you’re still using an airbrush, and for what. Just click the word “Comments” below. I hope commercial artists keep this tradition alive on some level, even if it isn’t for use in heavy production, which, admittedly, is impractical.

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Posted on: September 28, 2015

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

8 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Painting With Air

  1. Very interesting. Thank You for Gene!

  2. I use it for painting (on canvases) when I need a softer look than I can get with a brush or to add an effect. My son does surfboards and canvases as well. They aren’t finicky if you keep the right kind of “paint” in them and keep them clean. Nice pics!

  3. Thanks for the memories. I still have my airbrushes (6). Aztek was my favourite. I did custom paint jobs on almost anything (helmets, motorcycle parts, theatre props, etc.). I don’t use it as much these days except for the rare t-shirt design.

  4. You might want to look to the art of Dru Blair (, Jennifer Janesko, ( or my friend Jason Palmer ( for examples of modern airbrush illustrators. In the Kustom (yes, with a “K”) vehicle realm, few can compare to Craig Fraser ( of Air Syndicate at Kal Koncepts.
    The airbrush is alive and well, creating stunning pieces of art and lively illustrations worldwide!

  5. Thanks for this article and photos. In college I took an air brushing class and the teacher worked for Hughes aircraft for many years as a designer. We learned all the colors to use (water-based gouache) for every metal imaginable. It was fun but difficult too. Making friskets was a real pain. Later, I found my Paache airbrush pretty useful to add shadows to my hand dyed and pieced textile murals. Most people had no idea how I did it.

  6. Always loved traditional Airbrush – thanks for reminding me of the softness and beauty of the real McCoy!

  7. A friend of mine, Dan Picasso, still uses a real airbrush for his illustration work ( People probably assume his work was done in Photoshop, but he’s one of the most computer-averse people I know. I think he only uses it for scanning and transmitting the work to clients.

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