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Harness the power of the airbrush to give your images a new dimension

Added on Thursday 22nd of June 2006 06:36 am EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS/CS2

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


While traditional airbrushing offers the capability to create amazing art, it’s no doubt tedious work—from preparation to cleanup. But with Photoshop’s airbrush option you can simulate traditional airbrush techniques and give your art that airbrushed look a lot quicker—and you’ll never have to clean your airbrush.


To simulate the airbrushed look in Photoshop, we’ll:

     Point out the characteristics of traditional airbrushed art as the foundation of the look we’re after.

     Show you how to customize the Brush tool for optimum airbrush settings (even with a mouse!)

     Show you how to properly set up the layers for this technique.

     Illustrate how to create a dynamic painting from only a simple sketch using this technique.


Traditional airbrushing certainly has its place in the art world. After all, the airbrush is the tool of choice for various art forms including street art, non-digital photograph retouching, illustrations, and let’s not forget T-shirt design and body art. But traditional airbrushing has its pitfalls and generally loses a once inspired artist to the realization that he’ll spend more hours preparing friskets and cleaning the tool than he will actually painting. Plus, the canvases are unforgiving; a heavy splatter of paint can ruin your painting. But with the power of the airbrush in Photoshop, we can create art with the traditional airbrushed look, as shown in Figure A. And when we make a mistake, all it takes to fix is a swipe of the handy Eraser tool.




Traditional airbrushed art

It isn’t difficult to spot an airbrushed illustration. They’re characterized by smooth gradients, soft blends of color, and a combination of soft and hard edges throughout.

The “air” in airbrush comes from a compressor or can of compressed air. The air and paint are mixed together in different strengths via the controls on the airbrush tool. Various factors control the flow of paint such as how far away from the canvas the airbrush is, the tilt angle of the airbrush, and how far back the trigger on the airbrush is pulled. Airbrush artists then use different masking tools and techniques to create both hard and soft edges.


Airbrush in Photoshop

The Airbrush option in Photoshop enables you to simulate traditional airbrush painting with the Brush tool. You can vary the distance the airbrush is from the canvas by varying the size and hardness of the brush. You control the flow and opacity of the paint with the Opacity and Flow sliders in the Brush tool options bar. And instead of cutting out frisket masks, you simply use layer masks.

If you have a pressure sensitive pen, you can maximize the full potential of the airbrush options, and refine your settings in the Brushes palette. For more information on how to do that, see our companion article “Maximize your airbrush technique with these Brushes palette settings” in this issue of Inside Photoshop.


Set up the brush tool

The Brushes palette offers better airbrush control settings for stylus users, but we didn’t find much use there for mouse users. So we’ll simply use the Brush tool options bar to set up our brush.


To set the brush options:

1.       Select the Brush tool brush from the toolbox.

2.      Choose a soft-round brush from the list.

3.      Click on the Airbrush button airbrush in the Brush tool options bar to enable the airbrush option.


Opacity and flow

If you’re airbrush painting with a mouse you’ll visit the Opacity and Flow settings often. And knowing the keyboard shortcuts—even if you use a stylus—will speed up your workflow.

        Opacity. Adjust the opacity slider to set the maximum amount of paint coverage. To quickly change the opacity while you paint with the airbrush enabled, press [shift] and enter a number (e.g., 0 = 100%, 5 = 50%). Press two numbers in quick order (e.g., 7 then 5) for a more specific amount.

        Flow. Adjust the flow slider to set how fast the paint is applied to the canvas. To quickly change the flow while you paint with the airbrush enabled, enter a number (e.g., 0 = 100%, 5 = 50%). Press two numbers in quick order (e.g., 7 then 5) for a more specific amount.


Note: The role of the [shift] key is reversed when the airbrush option is disabled. For example, when the airbrush option is disabled, you simply type the number to change the opacity, but you’d need to press [shift] and the number to change the flow.


7 reasons why digital tablets are so great

        A stylus and tablet offer a much greater degree of control and creative input than the mouse, especially when drawing and painting in Photoshop.

        Some tablets are wireless for better accessibility.

        Most styli have added features, such as pressure sensitivity, erasers, and programmable buttons.

        Many digital tablets come with a transparent overlay under which you can position a sketch or photo to trace it.

        Setup is usually plug-and-play easy.

        Photoshop is pre-configured to provide you with pressure-sensitive options on many of its tools.

        You can purchase a stylus that specifically mimics a traditional airbrush—referred to as a digital airbrush—complete with a finger wheel to emulate the trigger and control the flow of the ink.


Begin painting

To create the illustration in Figure A, we started with the sketch shown in Figure B. You can scan in any sketched drawing, or even bring a piece of black and white clip art into Photoshop. If you want to use our sketch, download the file from the URL given at the beginning of this article and extract and open the file crab.psd.




Set up your layers

If you download our file, we’ve already done some of the dirty work in setting up the layers, as shown in Figure C. If you’re using your own art, use the following tips as a guide to get your layers in order. For those following along with our example, skip ahead to the section titled “Let’s get painting”.


To set up your layers:

1.       Put a solid white layer at the bottom of the layer stacking order. It doesn’t have to be a locked background layer but it shouldn’t have any transparency settings applied.

2.      Put your art on a layer directly above the white layer.


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