Piers Dowell – Airbrush Master

Enth Degree

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Inescapable Truth

Inescapable Truth

Things I learned on a BIG Picture!

Since the biggest image I’d airbrushed to date was around 400 x 300 mm 6×4 feet was quite a step up. I sat and thought about the many challenges facing me on my first proper Photorealist painting and I came to the conclusion that I must stay with as many of the tried & true methods & materials I’d used over the years custom painting Bikes & helmets. This kept technical unknowns largely at bay.

I used a 6×4 sheet of sign writers high density foam board as a substrate as I had used HoK primer on it before with great success. I could then paint the piece in the same way from a chemical standpoint as I’d done on Bike Tanks with Murals for example. That means over the sanded HoK primer I’d use a white sealer, then a white base coat followed by 3 coats of Urethane clear. All cured at 60 degrees C. The panel was then sanded and wiped down with KC 20 post sanding wipe.

The next thing to do was to transfer the image I’d edited in Photoshop to the panel. Again I decided to go with the method I’d always used which is to print out the image to scale, paste it on a board and cut my masking film on it.

I’d then transfer the film to the panel in individual pieces and re- assemble it like a jigsaw. I’d remove the darkest part of the picture first then ghost in lightly in a colour to be used in that area. Then I’d remove the next darkest, ghost in and so on until I have a complete ghosted image.

I had to size the reference image in Photoshop to scale so it printed correctly but this had an unforeseen advantage later on, although at the time the file size did make my computer groan! In the past working on tanks & helmets the image was always under A4 so no problems with alignment from one print out  to another. In this case I cut a sheet of MDF 6×4 feet as well  and spray mounted each printout on the MDF overlapping them accordingly. Of course this gained inaccuracy as I progressed across the 6 foot wide sheet.

Other potential methods are the grid or projection method. The  latter again being a little blurred or inaccurate at the extremities. Not only that you’d probably have to do the trace in 1 sitting for accuracys  sake! Also the upshot of the grid or projection method would be that the image outline would be in pencil of which I have no experience of as opposed to subtle blocks of ghosted colour using my tried & true template method.

I’d also realised on a project of this scale it’s necessary to break it up into smaller sections and after your initial outline plan, think no further than the end of the section you are on. That way it’s easier to not get weighed down by the sheer magnitude of the project and stops you rushing through sections in order to complete them quicker.

Fortunately this image is very easily compartmentalised with its sectioned shop facade & individual images within TV screens. When doing this though it helps for example to mix enough of the base yellow colour I used for the back lit wallpaper so it’s consistent since there was about 12 months on this  part of the painting due to work commitments not allowing me to work on it in the evenings for 5 months!

I’d spent quite some time working out a method to render the subtle wallpaper pattern accurately and realised that I needed to use a certain amount of the base white luminescence to get the desired effect. This meant I didn’t want to be at home to Mr Cock Up as repairing it would take some very good understanding of colour shift and a horrendously laborious fix. Therefore I settled on the method of putting a base yellow down that saturated & de-saturated according to the wallpaper pattern which was lighter rather than its background. I’d  drawn up a simpler version of the of the repeated scroll in Corel Draw and made up a flat ‘master’ panel slightly in excess of one of the large front panels on the shop front. To do this I imported a Jpeg to scale into Corel Draw and assembled my master panel over it.

I could then copy & paste the panel repeatedly cropping and warping it accordingly. I discovered a very useful Perspective facility in Corel Draw which was invaluable for the panels going away from the viewer. In all honesty in my ignorance I tried skewing & warping originally and it just looked way off so the Perspective facility was invaluable here to maintain geometric integrity. Believe me the viewer of the finished product would spot an error like this a mile off, similar to badly rendered fonts. More on that later.

I then cut a mask for each wallpaper panel and weeded out the scroll  design which I had simplified so it didn’t leave any inclusions or isolated parts behind on removal from the  sheet. On sheets of  such complexity it’s  really important to have plotter set up  sorted  & a sharp blade. Otherwise it’s a very long job to weed out all the scroll sections as  removal of  each one snags if improperly cut.  Times that by 2 or 300 and you get the idea. The mask, once weeded, is transferred to the  appropriate position on the painting and then stuck down evenly but lightly.

After masking the periphery from overspray I then sprayed an opaque white lightly all over, just enough so on removal of the mask it was just ghosted on but not obtrusive in any way. I could then airbrush freehand the wallpaper background colour over the entire panel giving the pattern geometrical integrity with a soft ‘photo real’ edge to the design. And yes I was quite fed up with yellow wallpaper by the end……………….

About this time in the project I realised that it wasn’t always necessary to slavishly adhere to my print out method of image transfer. This was evident in establishing the general structure of the image.   As this image is very simple geometrically speaking I realised I could use the navigator facility in Photoshop to give me co-ordinates of the the corner of each yellow panel for example.

Since it was only a straight line from one corner to another this was pretty simple stuff. My datum point being the top left corner of the painting. Although I didn’t start with using this method, I worked all the remaining basic geometry out from the left hand yellow panel all the way to the right hand side with this technique.

I’m sure it’s common to not realise what programmes you have on your computer, this was the case with the Trace programme that came with Corel Draw. I realised on the image of the Croc & Wildebeest that cutting my templates in the usual manor on a pasted print out was going to be very laborious. After a Christmas holiday experimenting with various outputs  from Corel Trace I realised that I could get all the information I needed  by combining various results from different settings on the same image.

I could drop out the nonsense and just kept using the parts I needed that made sense registering them on a common border around the image. This way I knew they were all in the correct place relative to one another. This image is high in contrast so lends itself to this method ideally. The screen grab shows all the outputs coloured differently that were cut on the same sheet. The parts I didn’t want from each already being dropped out.

I cannot get the same results however on a softly lit Girls face for example. I find the decisions I make when cutting templates like this on a printout are invaluable to me understanding the subtleties of such an image. I cannot make sense of the computers decisions on images like this. I am effectively out of the loop at the start. In short the Corel trace method is not appropriate for all cases but is an extremely useful option in some.

Another method of image transfer on the simpler sections was to just draw it up over  a sized imported image in Corel draw. I found that on the doors in the centre of the painting, this method  was ideal. I brightened my imported image up so I could see more than enough detail  (you’d be amazed what’s in there!) and then drew the basic shapes that I saw in the reflections and through the glass. All these sections were neatly contained in the glass panels of the door. The rivets on the door for example were also just a case of cut and paste as was the padlock repeated top & bottom.

You don’t have to be super accurate on stuff like this, in fact to keep it simple I never even curved any of the lines, just pegged it out in straight lines.  One benefit of these electronic means of generation & transfer is that I can easily cut another exactly the same in case Mr Cock Up makes an appearance………

As I touched on before, obvious geometric shapes & lettering are a always tricky, especially when a soft edge to them is required. This usually means freehand airbrushing and a high potential for a mistake. I found that if I drew up the lettering in Corel Draw over an imported sized Jpeg, I could cut the mask, weed it, and just use it to ghost through in the lettering colour.

Then remove the mask and free hand it. This can require immense airbrush control for narrower fonts scaled right down but at least you have an accurate guideline.

Although I’ve been using a monitor for reference for some time I think it’s worth a mention here as it came in very useful on this project. The clarification of what colour you want to achieve in a given area is always tricky due to preconception of an items colour and what’s around it.

The white of the human eye is always used as a good example but reflective surfaces are another. I found that using the eyedropper tool in Photoshop was really useful although care must be taken when setting the amount of pixels it samples. This way you can isolate the colour and even look in the libraries section rather than the picker and it’ll tell you what pantone it is!

Another low tech trick used is a piece of white paper next to something you perceive as white to show just how grey it is! You can easily do this in Photoshop by simply drawing a white square next to whatever you want to refer.

Lastly I found that when clear coating the piece I should have used a slower thinner for something of this size. I didn’t get dry lines as I used a big spray gun but for something 6×4 feet in 20 centigrade I should have used a slower activator just to get the mat finish to level out a little better and sweat out a bit more solvent early on and therefore give me a better mat finish.

I also found that there was a dramatic difference in the finish of the opaque black and transparent black COM ART I use. This meant it was very difficult to tell how dark some pieces were relative to each other if they were rendered in either of the two above. Fortunately I intended to clear the whole painting in HoK urethane clear and sand it with a view to making adjustments and amendments before mat clear.

This gave me the option to try a few things that if I didn’t like I could just sand off without affecting what was underneath and to evaluate the shades of black now they were all uniformly finished. The 2 highlighted areas are both full black but I couldn’t tell until after clear.

If you are dying to find out what you can really do with an airbrush when you aren’t constrained by size budget or design brief I’d strongly recommend you have a go. The feeling of achievement on a piece that in this case took 451 hours is immense and worth every minute.