For many years, roughly 1979-1990s, I worked on a wide range of illustration jobs: magazine illustrations, newspaper work, ads, album covers, book covers. It was freelance work and things were always busy, and it was an exciting challenge to solve the many different kinds of visual problems which came along with these various assignments.
This was the pre-digital era, of course, and I did many of the jobs using airbrush as a tool. Airbrush was a way to get a relatively fast and clean result, without doing a full painting style, which would be more time-consuming. Besides, I was always attracted to graphic artwork, after seeing many beautiful examples of 1930’s Art Deco renderings by artists such as Ludwig Hohlwein. Tom Purvis, and many others.
As another time-saving measure, I had worked out this method: using a light table, I would trace my final clean pencil layout onto a sheet of frisket masking film, using a ballpoint pen. This technique kept the paper surface itself completely free of pencil lines, which could show through and mar the cleanliness of the work. Frisket was a clear plastic film used for airbrush art which had a light adhesive on the back. It came in big rolls which you could cut to the size needed. The ballpoint pen was necessary since pencil wouldn’t stick well to the plastic surface of the frisket. Ballpoint would adhere, and if you needed to change it you could even erase it off the film with a plastic eraser, or even smear it away with your fingers. Once the ballpoint drawing was correct, the frisket was simply peeled off the backing and placed on a piece of Strathmore 3-ply paper. A roller was used to flatten it and remove any air bubbles. Then the frisket was cut along the ballpoint lines using an X-Acto knife. You had to be careful not to cut too deeply into the frisket: just enough pressure to make clean cuts, but not so deep that the paper was scored (this would create the possibility that the airbrush spray would bleed along and into these cuts, which was unsightly and then had to be painstakingly cleaned up). The final step was a process of systematically removing a frisket shape, spraying the color, then re-covering that shape with the original piece of frisket, which had been saved. Precision was necessary in all steps!
Above is an example of the airbrush art style I was doing at the time: a rendering for Triumph’s 1987 album “Surveillance”. Call it “Modified Art Deco Plus Chrome”. The aim was to establish bold graphic shapes, strong contrasts of both color and lighting, but keep the rendering to a minimum, not getting too “painterly”. On top of that was a shiny-chrome surface gloss which the airbrush was ideally suited for.
This second image is the wider image, with a closeup version used as the main cover. In fact, I’m not sure now if the closeup was a separate piece of artwork done to match the larger version. Also a bit tough to recall if the logo was done directly on the artwork, or separately. It was perhaps illustrated separately and then cut out and overlaid, or, was added at the printing stage. No matter which way, I now marvel at how much it was a high-risk business back then: no mistakes allowed. No undo!
Computers now give so much more latitude and options, but working this way was fine training and had many benefits: it forced you to pre-visualize and think out your work; to be methodical and precise; and to focus on silhouettes, which are a key element in art (you had no choice but to to think in silhouettes, since using airbrush and frisket forced you to reduce the design to a series of shapes to be cut out).
All this airbrush talk has whetted my art-appetite: so maybe one of these days I’ll set up an airbrush once more, and get back to it!