AIRBRUSH MAGIC, THE MASTERS
Featuring Joanne Gair,
Dinah Ousley, Richard Snell,
Tobi Britton, Suzanne Patterson
and Martin Armand
In the past few years most makeup artists have adopted the airbrush for the refinement and simplification of their craft. During this time, airbrush companies have kept busy refining their own craft, making smaller, quieter, more efficient compressors and guns, and safer, more wearable makeup in a wider range of colors. As the technology improves, more and better products become available, and the airbrush sits more naturally in the cleft of the industry's hand.
For now, the airbrush is called useful. It is another tool in the makeup arsenal even an expendable one. But as the concept of airbrushing makeup has grown out of its adolescence, the industry has lowered its guard: the airbrush is no longer an arriviste. And undoubtedly, there will come a new generation of makeup artists who will call it indispensable. But before we get into the particulars of airbrush makeup artistry, a critical distinction must be drawn. Airbrush makeup is necessarily and comfortably divided into two categories: that used for body art and special effects, and that used for beauty and paramedical purposes.
In special effects work for film and television, the artist usually needs a product that will last all day. Body art makeup is usually alcohol-based, and formulated for maximum durability. Much of the alcohol in the makeup evaporates in the air between the gun and the subject. The resulting coverage is denser and more resilient than that of its water-based counterpart. Richard Snell, a Los Angeles-based freelance artist who has done makeup for Star Wars, Star Trek, The Grinch, A.I., and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, says, "When I put makeup on, I pretty much nail them on."
TEMPTU, Reel Creations, and Premier Products (label of the popular Skin Illustrator) make colors that Snell can use without having to mix down from primaries. Mixing down primary colors isn't a real hassle for him, it just takes time. "And in our business," he adds, "we don't have that time."
Beauty makeup artists often find themselves on an even tighter schedule. Suzanne Patterson is a premier makeup artist on Capitol Hill. "I do just about everybody but the President," she says. "When you've got guys that hate makeup, (they're used to it, but they don't like it,) they've got this mode that they kick into. They screw up their faces in anticipation, like, 'It's so painful!' I can have them in and out in 3 minutes." That's a full makeup, even with the obstacle of an occasional grimace.
Having a firm grounding in color theory, Patterson "can measure and mix foundation blindfolded." A well-mixed foundation "does just enough to even out [the subject's] skin tone, allowing its translucency to come through." But she stresses that artists who aren't well-grounded in color theory can't really work in undertones.
Being for the most part water-based, beauty airbrush makeup is often unable to meet the demands of a shoot. The most durable of these bases are water-resistant, but many situations call for a waterproof application. Alcohol bases are going beyond waterproofing, though, as companies are developing colors resistant even to rubbing off. World-renowned body artist Joanne Gair used one such product, a metallic green paint from Reel Creations, for an exhibit that is currently showing at the Auckland Museum in New Zealand.
Speaking of her work, Gair says that the airbrush "certainly is a speedy way to do it." She uses airbrush "mostly for coverage, for smoothing, shading, layering, and for creating stencils." For much of her artistry, she finds herself reverting to working with her hands. "But then I revert to the ballpoint pen and Sharpie often," she concedes. "[The airbrush] is one of my collective tools, not one that overcompensates everything else."
Perhaps her most groundbreaking assignment, the famous Demi Moore 'birthday tuxedo' cover of the August, 1992 issue of Vanity Fair, was done mostly by hand. But there is no roadmap in art. Gair follows her creative vision, and the mechanical result is what she calls the "variable" of means and materials used. For the Moore cover, her variable included a hand-applied base, and both Aqua color and Dinair for smoothing.
Gair says, in the manner of a true artist, "Even though I've done my homework, I often don't know exactly how I'm going to go about doing something until I go to that moment." Great art arises out of an uncertainty, out of not knowing what's going to happen. But when she is working on a commission, Gair has to be certain about what is being asked of her. She says that when she works with advertising people, they all have a different opinion of the project. "This is why I carry so much [equipment]," she says. She needs to have as many options as are available so she can best articulate what interpretation is being asked of her.
Patterson, who blankets her freelance work with the name Creative Artistry, believes in pushing the principle and technology of the airbrush. "My objectives with my workshops are to teach the schematics, the science, and the technology, not to teach a brand [of airbrush]." She teaches two different workshops, which she calls the elementary and the progressive. "You have to have the basic drills down if you're going to move into more finesse work," she insists. She teaches on five different machines, explaining that "[most freelance makeup artists] are going to be doing different kinds of work at different pressures."
Makeup artist Tobi Britton (who started her own line of airbrush products, "Britton Color") offers a comprehensive training course at The Makeup Shop in New York City. She calls her program "Makeup Boot camp," and she has seen a recent surge of interest in the airbrush classes she offers some of which are instructed by Snell.
Britton, who does both beauty and body makeup, knows firsthand what differences exist between these genres of airbrush makeup. "The problem with things that stay put is that it's harder to touch them up," she says. "If something cracks you wind up layering." Most water bases are far less durable than most alcohol bases, but they are less prone to cracking.
Martin Armand, a freelance makeup artist practicing in Vancouver, agrees with Britton. "That's one of the main problems we've had," he says. Armand uses seven different airbrushes, but his favorite is the Iwata Professional. For most of his work, he uses Kryolan makeup's, which are available in both alcohol and water bases. Kryolan offers a compressor, but Armand prefers to run their colors through the Iwata. He has had no problems with this setup no clogging, no cracking even with metallic colors. And in Armand's opinion, Kryolan makes the best silver and gold.
Later this year Armand will be teaching airbrush artistry at Joe Blasco.
All artists are in agreement that the major change in airbrush makeup in the past 2-3 years is product versatility and availability. New makeup developments in this timeframe include water-resistance and the creation of metallics and fluorescents; new hardware developments include reduction in size and noise, battery- and mini-CO2-powering, and pressure streamlining for single-action airbrushes.
Patterson says, "I think that the industry keeps ahead of itself. It's self producing. Interest generates more new and great things." (On that same note, she feels that "the fear of HDTV is overrated way overrated.") Professional makeup artists seem to be in agreement that there is really nothing they would like to do that they can't do, with the technology as it stands. New innovations will come, but airbrush companies are more concerned now with making existing products better.
The only disagreement among airbrush artists about the noise made by compressors regards the larger ones (those used for heavy-duty body art and special effects work): Britton says they sound like a lawnmower, and Armand says they sound like a tank.
Naturally, as the popularity of airbrushing increases, so does competition among manufacturers. And there is no small amount of rancor between competitors. It's no surprise, though: if new products are showing up everywhere, it is logical to ask skeptically, Why? If Brand Y makes an airbrush, isn't it fair to say that it was created to fill some deficiency in Brand X?
Dinair founder and airbrush makeup guru Dina Ousley sees things differently. "I think it's a great compliment!" she says. Ousley, whose name today is as marquee in the makeup industry as are Cindy or Elle in modeling, speaks of her introduction to airbrushing. "I've been in love with airbrushes since the 60s. All my brother's friends were airbrushing T-shirts, and my dream was to be a great artist I never gave up my dream." And 20 years later, she would set the cornerstone, developing an unprecedented airbrush one designed solely for makeup application. Now, she has a product that she thinks can do it all.
Snell, on the other hand, finds capacity in an airbrush's apparent incapacity. The concept is this, that a Ford Model T can handle certain conditions better than a Ferrari 550. "I just found out that the Holbein [pressure-fed airbrush] does a beautiful spray-spatter pattern," he says. "I can throw a single line of dots and I can control the diameter, which is something I could never do with the Iwatas." He has had the Holbein in his kit for years.
Most professional makeup artists use at least three airbrushes and frequently, they will use every brush in their kit for a single job. So what prevents small companies from producing cheap, inexpensive imitations of established airbrush technology? Nothing but their own inferiority. As the market slowly purges bad money, so the makeup industry will deselect knock-offs. Still, though, they are out there. And still, they will profit from the research and experience of the established manufacturers. But the wisest will survive, and the wisest are the fittest in this industry. The best airbrushes are the best because those who make them have been around to learn what's not the best.
The natural challenge in improving airbrush makeup lies in bridging the gap between the product's staying power and its gentleness to the skin. Snell may be forced "to nail on" his makeup, but he knows that this can be quite harsh on the skin. "[Alcohol-bases] have a drying effect," he says, "and you must always end up using emollients." Like all professional makeup artists, he takes excellent care of his talent. He always covers the eyes, nose, and ears when spraying. He adds, "At the end of the day we steam their face with a hot towel."
Alcohol bases in the airbrush can be as resistant to solvents as they are on the skin. Armand says that the higher-pigmented reds, yellows, and greens can be particularly difficult to rinse out. Also, the tiny glitter in metallic colors can clog in the nozzle of the airbrush. But again, for Armand, Kryolan at least has solved that problem.
The airbrush has not been embraced by all branches of media. 1stHOLD interviewed CNN's makeup team for the Fall, 2001 issue. When asked why they didn't use airbrush in their work, their answer was brief and conclusive: it makes too much noise. But compressors are only going to get quieter and if there were other reasons they weren't using airbrushes, those reasons are soon to be removed. Airbrush companies are always striving to make their products more affordable and more portable. And this will only grow truer as competition among airbrush manufacturers increases.
The airbrush clearly has made the makeup artist's job easier. Britton says that in most of the news shows she's worked on, the reporters come in on the fly. "They've already got makeup on, and I can just airbrush right over it and blend it all in a matter of seconds. It's much easier.
By definition, being much easier to work with in any case earns the airbrush a permanent place in the artist's hand. But could airbrush be the exclusive future of any area of makeup? The answer from the pros is a resounding "No."
Really, airbrush could do it all. But with the airbrush's current capabilities, certain applications are far better and much easier to do by hand. If, say, you want to stencil butterflies on your eyelids, then by all means, use an airbrush. But for now, applications such as lipstick or a standard eye shadow are easier to do manually. And most airbrush users maintain that this won't change.
All airbrushes undergo environmental testing, and must be found not to exceed what is called "normal background particulate" a measure of the gun's localized air pollution. While they were developing their first compressors, Ousley and Dinair CEO George Lampman called the EPA and OSHA to ensure that their product was painting by the government's numbers.
Even though any marketed airbrushes technically will not emit unsafe levels of background particulate, it is advisable to keep the spraying area well-ventilated. A decade ago, airbrush artists would open a window and turn on a fan. Snell even used an ionizer to keep the air clean. Now, trailers are being designed with a fan above each station.
Ousley, who introduced the airbrush to the commercial makeup forefront some 20 years ago, is particularly optimistic about its future. "I don't know if you can teach all old dogs new tricks," she says with a smile, "But this is the way. The future is here." She has built her career around promoting the airbrush as a tool to apply makeup, and now the makeup industry is building itself around the airbrush.
In 1895 (coincidentally, only a few years prior to the advent of the airbrush), an executive at the U.S. Patent office declared that "everything that ever could be invented has been invented," and he argued that the office should be shut down. Today, nearly all makeup artists agree that the airbrush is not the exclusive future of any area of makeup that its role is not one of replacement, but of augmentation.
We might not be mistaken, but we should remain duly inquisitive. As Lampman says, "The only antidote to assumptions is curiosity." So instead of standing on their achievement, Dinair and other airbrush manufacturers are continuing to push the envelope, always testing and sometimes breaking the mold.
The shards of a broken mold are the remains of yesterday's standards. Examine them, and learn from them. Then look forward.
A young Joanne Gair was curious when she was drawing mokos (Mari for "tattoos") in ballpoint pen on little children in New Zealand. "I didn't really realize what I was doing at the time," she says. "I was following something I loved." And without a minute of formal art training. "If you're going to evolve in a craft, make sure you're loving it, because it will show."
The airbrush was created to help the artist love his or her craft and evolve in it. Be curious. Evolve with it. Back to Top