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Let's talk about art tool : Airbrush

Savoir ce qu'est un aérographe, outil de dessin perfectionné

There are drawing tools and materials that are like legendary creatures : Everyone has vaguely heard of them, but hardly anyone uses them. The airbrush is one of them. Widely used by illustrators for advertising purposes in the 1980s, this retro-tech gun-like paint spraying tool has faded into oblivion. However, it allows to achieve sumptuous renderings as demonstrated, among others, by the artist Drew Struzan through his legendary film posters ("Back to the Future", "Star Wars", "The Goonies", "Indiana Jones ”, etc ...). So let's take a look at this forsaken treasure.

Airbrush anatomy

First of all, it is important to understand what this device is made of. There are two different types:

1) Simple action :

This type of device is recommended for beginners because it is easier to use. A simple push of the trigger activates both the air flow and the amount of paint in the cup.

2) Double action :

With this model, pulling the trigger controls only the airflow. Pulling back the trigger more or less strongly controls the flow of paint. This requires a certain dexterity but allows, once mastery of the device is acquired, much greater precision and finesse of execution.

Voici les parties composant un aérographe standard
Diagram of the parts of a standard airbrush

Shunned material

We can find two determining factors which contributed to bring down this fabulous material in disuse: Firstly, it requires some logistics. Where all you need to do is open a box and have a sheet of paper in front of you to draw with colored pencils, the airbrush must be hooked up to a compressor or a can of compressed air to work. In addition, it requires precise handling and careful cleaning so as not to damage the small parts of which it is made. Finally, specific paints must be used, otherwise good results may not be obtained or the device may be damaged.

Secondly, the advent of digital painting programs like Photoshop have largely contributed to the decline of the airbrush. When it becomes possible to emulate the effect of an airbrush with just a few strokes of the stylus, why bother with all this tedious set-up and material ?

However, there is this fringe of die-hard designers eager to perpetuate traditional art, to touch the paper, to appreciate the magical mixture of pigments and to see them bloom before their eyes.


The airbrush offers, once in place, great efficiency for covering large areas. Thus, a background will be executed in seconds where a painter using gouache and oil will likely have to spend a few hours. As mentioned above, the very nature of the airbrush requires paint that is sufficiently liquid to be projected through the nozzle of the device. All painters using airbrushes need to find their own recipe for finding the right consistency in their paint. There are, however, some ready-to-use brands such as the "Aerocolor" range from Schmincke which do not require mixing with a thinning agent, a practice which is rather widespread in the field of model making.

"Aero Color" de Schmincke et Abstract de Sennelier, 2 gammes pour l'aérographe
Some brands especially made for airbrush illustrations

I would also like to mention the use of this tool in other trades although I feel less legitimate to talk about their practice in detail. I can nevertheless quote make-up and nail artists, set decorators or even model makers. The latter are actually the ones who talk the most about this fabulous tool that is the airbrush. The mechanical side of the device is undoubtedly fascinating for anyone painting meticulous models.

In addition, the versatility of the airbrush allows it to use a wide variety of pigments, inks and paints. An airbrush can also be used for decorating food (pastry chefs sometimes use it to decorate their creation with edible pigments).

A word of advice

A few precautions must be taken when using an airbrush :

1) Protect yourself with a mask and sometimes even glasses depending on the scope of the creations. 2) Work in a well-ventilated space (it is not advisable to inhale the vapors and fine droplets of paints often composed of acrylic or various solvents). 3) Avoid cleaning the device with water or using water as a paint thinner (risk of corrosion).

Dream wizard

I could not resist ending this article with one of the paintings by master Drew Struzan who greatly contributed to making this tool known and I hope that this will be, if it is not yet the case, a source of inspiration for you, perhaps you will also succumb to airbrush magic !

Affiche de "Harry Potter à l'école des Sorciers" réalisée par Drew Struzan tous droits réservés Warner Bros. Pictures
Poster of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by Drew Struzan © Warner Bros. Pictures

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