Tools of the Trade

By Daniel Smith

Over the years I have acquired an arsenal of tried and true tools for applying acrylic paint. One of my most versatile and indispensable is the airbrush. It has helped me to bridge the gap between acrylic and oil, allowing me to create smooth gradations and soft edges without blending wet-in-wet.


Early in my career, I was confronted with condescending remarks regarding airbrush use. I got the impression some artists felt that using this tool somehow constituted cheating. Do you use airbrush? This question fell into the same category as "Did you trace that?" Since those early years I have effectively concealed my airbrush use, and now I often am asked how I achieve such realism, detail, and softness with acrylics.


My philosophy in painting is quite simple. "The end justifies the means." In this day and age, we have many tools to aid in the creative process. Among these are cameras, computers, projectors, etc. All of these tools can be useful in facilitating the process, but what is most important is the end result - creating a great painting that is uniquely yours inspired from within.


Most of my painting is done with brushes. Approximately five percent utilizes the airbrush. Nature is comprised of many textures, most of which are best rendered with a brush. Where I find the airbrush most useful is for underpainting and glazing. I lay in all of my shapes and forms with a brush and ultimately refine them with the airbrush. I will blend brush strokes, darken shadows, glaze in color, etc. Once the form has the correct color and value I will render the detail on top, usually with a brush. After this stage I may make further adjustments by lightly glazing with the airbrush. This type of use is virtually impossible to detect and helps immensely to speed up the painting process.


I also use the airbrush to render smooth blends in skies, water, and snow. It is great for creating mist and breath coming from an animal's mouth. I also use a brush when painting these elements. Dry brushing can create similar effects and is great to use in combination with the airbrush. It helps to keep your painting from having a too-soft, over-rendered airbrush look.


One of the aspects of airbrushing I like the least is making a mask. I try to avoid doing so but inevitably end up having to. On occasion I will use liquid watercolor mask. Its downfall is it can be used only once. My preference is a thin sheet of acetate with a light coat of spray adhesive on one side. I cut partially through the film, being careful not to cut into my painting. I then remove it and bend the area until the film separates. The advantage of this type of mask is it can be reused and you also end up with two masks - one for the area inside and one for the area outside of the mask.


For me the airbrush is just another tool for applying paint. The majority of acrylic and opaque watercolor painters I know use one. It is not a magic wand that will transform a bad painting into a good one. As with all painting tools, it is only as good as the talent behind it.


I always say being an artist is a journey with no ultimate destination except to improve. It is crucial to challenge yourself, take risks, and step outside the proverbial box. I hope you all have a pleasant journey.

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