Creating Simple Effective Textures with the Airbrush

by Kent Steine

In this example, we will be re-creating the look or illusion of texture on the surface of a wood plank. Flawlessly integrating the airbrush with various media to create elements of texture, highlight or informational detail has always been a difficult task for many an "airbrush artist." Even the controlled edge, whether created by shield, mask or frisket, yields a different look and effect than an area or passage created with various brush techniques. The real trick here is to integrate the two applications without contrast or conflict. Remember, the effect is meant to supplement the airbrush; by increasing the variety of "edges," we are able to create.

The result, when applied with authority and dexterity, can create the illusion or our impression of, in this case, wood. I learned some of these techniques many years ago while painting backgrounds and special effects for an animation project. The veteran background painters offered similar views on their artistic approach. This was that they were creating "illusions." Rocks, trees, grass and wood were all suggested rather than precisely detailed photo realistic renderings. For example, in my last article, I mentioned that painting hair wasn't necessarily about rendering it strand for strand.


When we think of wood, a variety of impressions may come to mind. An infinitely detailed representation, as one may view wood through a magnifying glass or macro lens, is probably not one of them. Everyone has stored impressions of their visual experiences. When we see a painting, for example, with only one dimension, canvas, and brush strokes, it is the experience of our visual memory that allows us to assemble the elements. If there is something amiss, out of proportion, perspective or place, our "visual memory" becomes strained to put the image together. This is why, in some cases, the untrained eye finds it difficult to fully appreciate a Picasso or Van Gogh, for example.


Remember, we see with what is behind our eyes.


Enough of the psychology of painting, it's time to create an illusion.


For this example, I will be using series 310 illustration board, value 2 orange (burnt umber), value 4 yellow-orange (raw sienna), ivory black, white, an Iwata HP-C airbrush, an Artool shield, a cheap watercolor wash brush and a number 1 sable brush.

The first step involves blocking in the area to be rendered as wood, with a mixture of raw sienna and burnt umber, in my HP-C. I am not concerned with spray pattern, or evenness at this stage, as much as simply filling in the area with a local color. With the remaining burnt umber in the color cup, I remove the air caps and stipple the darker color randomly. During this stage, I vary the air pressure to create larger and smaller dots. Thus begins the creation of texture for the wood surface.
With a number 1 sable brush, a mixture of the burnt umber and ivory black, I very loosely establish some large cracks that will follow the grain of the wood. They are randomly placed, yet have a directional and mass order of composition. This dark color is mixed at the same viscosity used for spraying in the airbrush.
Adding water to the same mixture, I quickly spray over the entire area. With the paint still wet, I use the watercolor wash brush tosweep the surface in a horizontal direction. This is executed in a loose, yet orderly manner. The soft bristles of the wash brush in the wet paint create the effect of long running lines of wood grain.
Using the same mixture of burnt umber and black, I soften the shadow side of the large cracks. This is the edge closest to the light source. It is done to increase the depth of the cracks, identify the light direction, and separate the height of the adjacent planes.
With raw sienna, burnt umber and white, I make a lighter, duller version of the originallocal color. Using the HP-C and an Artool Essential Seven Shield, I lightly spray elected edges of the light or higher side of the cracks. This dulls or weathers the overall look of the wood and further represents a variation of height and depth. I save this mixture of lighter value color for the final stage.
At this point, the effect or illusion of a wood surface has already become apparent and would almost pass. However, adding a few more stipple effects and some directional highlights will give it added texture and polish the rendering. Using the lighter and dulled local color loaded in a number 1 sable brush and the HP-C with water (only) in the color cup, I highlight the edge adjacent to the softened shadow side. As the line or edge is established, I am following with the airbrush, lightly spraying water on the paint. 
This slightly blurs the line, while retaining the desired sharpness. The greater or lesser amount of water applied will vary this blurring effect. This same effect is executed with the dots created by the stippling procedure. Only the larger dots require this treatment for the effect to read as a whole.
The final rendering . Although this appears to read as a wood surface, upon closer inspection, it is merely airbrushed paint, dots and lines.

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