Monday, July 22, 2013

My first airbrush project

I had been thinking for a while that my motorcycle helmet was the perfect thing to practice my airbrushing on.  It's already pretty beat up, and well passed the point where everyone recommends replacing it anyway, so I couldn't really hurt it.  But I hadn't been able to decide on any type of design for it, either.

Well, I finally decided.  I'm going to paint a section broken open showing a section of brain underneath.  I decided to do a proof-of-concept on my computer case (what I've been using as an airbrush test panel).  The results are below, in stages.

It took me 6 hours to get to this stage.  I tried 3 different methods of doing the broken edge.  First, I tried just holding a sheet of paper to mask just the one edge I was painting.  But the overspray into other areas was just too much.  Then I tried free-handing the edge, both with a fuzzy boundary and trying a fine-line detail sharp edge.  Neither of these gave the definition (or illusion of definition) that I wanted.  Finally, I taped over what I had left with painters tape and drew a jagged edge on it and removed the exterior so I could paint it.  Or at least, I was supposed to.  Instead I removed the interior the first time.  That's why there are cut marks in the brain area (look close at the top right).  I had to do it again and the painters tape isn't clear, so I couldn't cut in the same place the second time.  This method was the best, but I ended up with a nasty overspray line at the edge of the tape in the brain, since I only taped off what I had left, not the whole thing.  I didn't even realize there was paint there until I peeled the tape off.  Oh well.  Anyway, I painted the cracked edge, then painted the brain inside with no masking.

I have no idea how long it took me to get to this stage, but all I did was tape the edge.  This is definitely NOT the proper way to tape something off.  I tried using just the straight edges of the tape at first, but that was wasting too much tape.  Then I tried tearing pieces to match the edges as closely as I could, but that was very tedious and error prone.  Finally, I ended up cutting tiny thin little strips of tape and putting them down the border, then went back with thicker bands further out.  It took way, way too long.  And I really should have done it before I painted the brain, and then I would have been able to better fill the smaller cracks and such, and wouldn't have gotten brain overspray on my edges.

This is after I've added the drop shadow.

Here I've added the shadowed edges of the break. The drop shadow really didn't take much at all, but the edges did.  I have a hard time with detail, and so I thinned the paint out and it took a lot of layers to build up to the full black.  Also, it probably shouldn't be black, but instead should be a darker blue so that you can better tell that it is the edge of the crack.  And, I've screwed up my highlights.  I just can't seem to get createx white to spray fine.  Either it's too thick and I can't get it to atomize, or it's too thin (I think) and I can't get it keep from "spidering" when I'm close to the surface for detail.  I also suspect that either I'm not mixing the reducer in properly, or createx isn't compatible with the com-art paints I was using to tint it.  I had a slight problem with "blue shift", but I fixed that by tinting the white to orange with the com-art.  I would get one spot to spray fine, and then it seemed like a drop of water or something (I have a water filter) would spit out.

Here it is with the tape removed.  You can see where the brain oversprayed onto the edge, since I didn't have the edge masked off when I painted them.  And one spot near the top actually pulled the paint up.  I also cut far too deep when I was cutting the tape, but I don't know how to get around that.  This tape appears to be at least 2 layers, so if I don't cut all the way through, it tears.  Regardless, here are things I've learned.

1) I originally thought one of the great things about airbrushing was that you didn't have to mix your paints.  Sure, maybe you mix a base color, but you just shade it to your desired opacity.  Then you just use primary colors layered on top of that to get all of the variations for whatever you need.  For instance, a hummingbird I started on would have been a solid medium green.  Then throw some transparent black in the shadows, some yellow in the highlights, maybe a little blue where his feathers shift color, and you've got it.
That's not the way it works, at least not for me.  You really need to think about your colors.  The airbrush is really just a blending tool.  Sure, you CAN layer colors to get new ones, but you should only really do that at the transitions.  At least at my stage, if I am trying to go from blue on one end, yellow on the other, with green in the middle, I need to mix the blue, and paint one end, then mix the yellow and paint the other end, then mix the green and paint the middle, blending it into the yellow and blue.

2) The above is slightly modified for transparents.  For opaques, it's hard and fast.  The colors really don't change as you layer them very much.  But transparents actually do appear to mix more.  But still, think about it.  If you were mixing the colors in the jar, you mix too many and you still get a muddy brown or something at the end.  And if you ever lighten with white and then blend it into something you darkened with black, it will do the same thing on the paper (or whatever media) that it does in the jar; it will head toward dirty gray.  So it's safer to mix your colors, and then use the airbrush to get smooth transitions.

 3) I haven't actually tried frisket, but I can't see myself being able to cut a piece out, paint the hole, and then put that piece exactly in the same space, especially on something curved like a helmet.  So the way I should have painted this was to paint the entire area blue (possibly laying down white first, depending on what's under it).  Then tape off the entire thing and cut out my interior.  Then fill that with white to keep the blue from shading my brain, then paint the brain, drop shadow, and dark edges.  That would have kept all of the brain overspray off of my blue, it would have made it much easier to fill the tiny areas of the cracks, and it would have been MUCH quicker than all of those tiny little pieces of tape I used.  Now, if I was confident in my frisketing, I would have painted the whole thing white, frisketed it, then cut and removed the outside.  I then would have painted that blue and then put the outside back.  Then I would remove the inside and paint the brain and the drop shadow.  Then I would have put the inside back, but shifted it down and left and painted all of the shadowed edges.  Then, since I can't get a fine line with the white, I would have put it back and then taken the outside piece and just BARELY shifted it up and right.  Then I would have mixed a slightly lighter shade of blue to highlight the broken edges, as if they were just slightly sloped from the breaking.

4) I wasn't really considering light and shadow when I did the wrinkles in the brain.  I didn't really consider it until I was working on the highlights, so the wrinkle shadow is equal on both sides.  I really should have made one side of the wrinkles darker than the other.  The drop shadow should also be larger on one side than the other for the same reason.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

After 20 years, I have an airbrush that works

20+ years ago, our high school art teacher invited an airbrush artist to come in and teach the class.  We all got to play with the airbrushes, and I got a kick out of it.  I'd always enjoyed airbrushed art anyway.  Not long afterwards, I bought an airbrush at a pawn shop for forty dollars.  I couldn't for the life of me get it to work.  It would sputter, spit, bubble into the jar, etc.  I took it up to the airbrush artists shop, and she was no help.  Granted, just because she taught for a day didn't mean she wanted kids showing up at her shop asking questions, but it seems to me now that she basically knew how to clean her brushes and such, but may not know the underlying technicalities of why any particular problem happens, or maybe just didn't know anything about airbrushes in general, just her airbrushes specifically.  Regardless, I asked her and various others and got mostly either thin the paint (which I was), I'm missing parts (which I eventually called Thayer and Chandler and found out that either I wasn't, or there weren't any rebuild kits anyway), or that they just didn't know.  I ended up discouraged and the airbrush sat on a shelf.

I picked it up a couple of times over the years.  I bought a tiny air compressor at an auction, thinking maybe my father's big air compressor I tried in high-school was just too big, even turned down, and that didn't work.  I picked up a new compressor and airbrush at an art store several years later and it seemed to work at first, until I took it apart, cleaned it, and put it back together, then it started doing the same kind of thing.  I returned it and the guys at the art supply store couldn't figure out what was wrong with it either, even after they took it apart, cleaned it again, and put it back together.  I did keep the little Paasche air compressor, swearing I'd end up with an airbrush some day.

Eventually, a month or so ago, I decided to check the internet again.  In high school, there was no internet, and I either didn't think to check much later on, or there just wasn't as much information out.  This time, though, I made a concerted effort to determine exactly how the thing was working, and what could cause the symptoms I was seeing.  Spitting and spattering could be related to several things, but mostly thick paint or paint dried on the inside (or on the needle, but that was clean).  So I tore the whole thing apart and traced the entire paint and air channels and cleaned everything, even using an interdental brush to get the tiny openings.  A possible cause for bubbling into the cup was a clogged pathway, but after all of my cleaning, I knew there weren't any clogged passages.  But I also worked out what had to be happening.  One way or another, air was leaking from the air channel to the paint channel, and I new there were only a few places it could occur.  I determined it had to be leaking passed the threads in the tip, and I started looking up sealing it.  I tried teflon tape and it worked to an extent, but was a major pain.  I finally found a guy talking about using bees wax.  I didn't have any, but I had a bar of soap, and I'd used that to lube threads when putting tiny screws in wood before.  Sure enough, that fixed it right up.  I now had a working Thayer and Chandler Model C (as far as I can tell) airbrush.  I got some airbrush paint (because I didn't want to risk my paint quality as an issue again) and started messing around with it.

I'm real bad about dropping stuff like this after a few months, so I really didn't want to put any money into it until I had been practicing a while to figure out whether I was going to be able to do any good or not.  But I was definitely seeing issues with this airbrush.  For one, it has a massive tip for an airbrush.  And as luck would have it, Thayer and Chandler went out of business a few years back, so I can't get any smaller nozzles or needles for it.  It also is not a very fine atomization pattern, but it could be that it is actually meant for still higher pressure than my little air compressor can provide.  But I was puttering along.  Really just the equivalent of doodling, and getting discouraged again.  But my wife decided to buy me an Iwata Eclipse HP-CS for my birthday.  It worked out much better, much finer atomization, and I could tell that eventually I should be able to do detail with it.

It's working out.  I was still getting myself discouraged though.  I couldn't (still probably can't) even write my own name.  Any lettering I tried to do was just junk.  Nothing really was half way decent.  And on top of it, I've apparently forgotten how to even draw, which definitely wasn't helping.  But the real problem was that I didn't have a goal.  Even with the lettering, I had no concept of what I wanted the letter to look like when I was done.  It's just doodling.  So I started a hummingbird, but that was screwed from the get-go.  I was painting it too small, and had some misconceptions on how to actually use an airbrush.  I watched more online videos and decided on a very simple project; painting a ribbon.  I used to always doodle a ribbon that undulated toward and away from the viewer doubling back on itself.  It seems like a perfect project for an airbrush; just one single color, with highlights and shadows in a single direction.  So I cut a stencil for it and went to work.  It sucks, but only because I only cut the outer bounds.  I though I could go back over the small overlap sections with the original color to fix overspray, but that didn't work.  But the sections that weren't covered by anything else did actually look shadowed and highlighted.  It was definitely a start.

And then, finally, my "creative juices" finally started going and I decided on a project.  But I'll talk about that in a later post (mainly because this is extremely long-winded, and no one will really care to read this just to see the project pictures).  Suffice it to say, it's not perfect, but it's MUCH better than I expected, and I learned a lot.