The Golden Age of Airbrush Art and Design
As a popular technical and aesthetic medium in art and design before the pre-digital age, airbrushing was widely applied in many diverse creative areas such as visual art, architecture, industrial design, advertising, illustration, graphic design, and craft-making processes. Because airbrush does not directly contact the painting surface and uses air spray to apply seamless paint, it allows artists to paint anything onto skin, textile, canvas, vehicle, etc. from flat to irregular shapes. The functionality and diversity made airbrushes an advantageous tool to work in art, design, and mass production.
The primary application of airbrush was photo retouching. From the 1920s to the 1930s, European artists embraced this new tool and applied their Modernist ideals to the spray.
(Hathaway, 2008. p27) Influenced by Art Nouveau and Bauhaus philosophy led by Walter Gropius, Vasily Kandinsky, and other eminent artists, the early use of the airbrush proclaimed the interdisciplinary marriage of art, craft, and technology in Modern Avant-Garde art. Modern artists embrace the ability of airbrushes to create flat colours, smooth gradients, and transparent overlays.
Airbrush made significant headway in graphic application in the late 1930s to 1940s. After the great depression of 1929, advertisement companies and magazine publications needed to find new ways of producing advertisements to help manufacturers sell products. Airbrush art and illustration provided a refreshing look in developing images for new consumer desires and behavior. Graphic illustrators George Petty and Alberto Vargas’ pin-up art for the American magazine Esquire not only made a reputation for the artists and the publication but also influenced the femme fatale nose art of WW2 fighter planes. This is where airbrush art appeared as a form of applied art throughout WW2, where the iconic female form was rendered as a symbol of beauty and protection that provided patriotic courage for pilots, and portrayed the new spirit of the ideal, independent, and free American female image with optimism and hope during the war period. (The Arts in Focus, 2016)
Walt Disney began to implement the airbrush technique to create backgrounds that added an extra sense of realism to the animation films from the 1940s. For example, Tinker Bells’ delicate Fairy wings were designed by using a stencil and applying the paint with an airbrush. (King, 2016)
As the world recovered from the Second World War, the rise of consumerism in the post-war period stimulated the need for consumer goods and advertising. Graphic design, film, entertainment, and automobile culture pushed airbrush art to arrive at the beginning of its golden age in the 1950s. Beginning in the 50s, commercial illustration in magazines and advertising started to bring in the lush, romantic, and nostalgic images before the war period. (Hathaway, 2008. p8). The airbrush Pin-up art of the Vargas Girl became a popular icon of the time. Playboy magazine was founded in 1953 by Hugh Hefner and was the symbol of the idealization of the American dream mythology, and airbrush was no doubt the tool for perfecting the dream body of pinup models. (Curtis, 1980. p18)
The rise of Pop art in the 1960s, and the proliferation of consumerist culture prompted a major return of airbrush work into commercial art, illustration, and fine art. Illustrators David Jason and Terry Pastor had glamorized airbrush work into a sardonic, plastic form of reality. (Curtis. 1980. p21) They used airbrushes in a manner that idealized the rendered product and created the illusion of perfection that resonated with the manufactured desires of consumerism. For advertisers, that meant the opportunity to perfect product images with a gloss of seamless makeup. In that sense, commercial airbrush art became an iconic style of consumerism and glamorous material culture.
The golden age of airbrush between the late 1940s to early 1980s has demonstrated the lifestyles and social changes after WW2. It was a time of material proliferation and technological development. The development of consumerism, material, and popular culture has raised airbrush to its stardom status and used its smooth aesthetics to mediate with the trauma of the past and imagine the desirable future. Airbrush as a creative tool for art and design was also a part of the social and cultural media that represented the epoch where technology and materialism became the ideology of everyday life.
Curtis, S. T. (1980). The Airbrush Book: Art, History And Technique. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, NY.
Hathaway, N., & Salisbury, M. (2008). Overspray: Riding High with the Kings of California Airbrush Art. PictureBox.
The Arts in Focus. (2016, December 29). The History of Air Brush Art. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://gandash.com/the-history-of-air-brush-art/
Midwest Airbrush Co. (2017, August 8). Man Ray. Airbrushinfo.Net. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://airbrushinformation.net/2017/08/02/man-ray/
King, K. (2016, February 3). 7 Things you may not know about Walt Disney Studios Ink & Paint Department #SnowWhite. MrsKathyKing. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from https://www.mrskathyking.com/7-things-may-not-know-walt-disney-studios-ink-paint-department-snowwhite/
Zabel, B. (1989). Man Ray and the Machine. Smithsonian Studies in American Art, 3(4), 67–83. https://doi.org/10.1086/smitstudamerart.3.4.3108991