The Golden Age of Airbrush Art and Design

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.

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Zabel, B. (1989). Man Ray and the Machine. Smithsonian Studies in American Art, 3(4), 67–83.

History of Airbrush Development

Airbrush had been a popular tool for art and design for more than a century before being replaced by digital technology. Since the early 20th century, airbrush techniques have been applied in many creative fields such as fine art, illustration, graphic design, architecture, industrial design, and fashion. The mechanical advantages of spraying seamless colour gradients and flat colors make the airbrush an ideal tool for artistic rendering and production. It was widely used in the mid 20th century in many creative industries and everyday applications until digital tools replaced its function and aesthetics for more productivity and system controllability. Thus, airbrush has transformed into nostalgia associated with the pre-digital age and POP culture. Although the history of airbrushing was rarely studied in mainstream art and design history due to its technical nature and its subordinate position in art production, the development of airbrush is arguably an important clue to reflect how artistic practice is shaped by technology. More importantly, studying the history of airbrushing can exemplify how technological changes affect our understanding of cultures, society, and the world. 

The earliest air spray device patent known for retouching and coloring photographs was dated 19 September 1876 and was introduced by Frank E. Stanley as “an improvement in atomizers” (Soltan, 2015). In 1879, a jeweler named Abner Peeler from Iowa invented the first airbrush called “The Paint Dealer,” which he patented on April 25, 1882, subsequently selling the patent to Charles & Liberty Walkup. In 1883, the Walkup brothers founded the Rockford Airbrush Company to make the first airbrush and present it to the world market. (Aerografos. n.d.) Charles Burdick patented the first atomizing’ type airbrush In 1892, which is similar to the modern airbrush that mixed paint and air inside the airbrush and sprayed it out by compressed air for a much better paint mixture. In 1893, Burdick moved to London, England, and established the Fountain Brush Company to manufacture the “Aerograph” airbrush brand. (Merlin, n.d.)

The early development of airbrushes changed photo retouching forever. The continuous improvement of cameras in the late 1800s demanded more ability for capturing reality with clear images. Airbrush, as a part of the post-production process, had expanded the ability of cameras and gave photographers the ability to enhance the quality of the photos for capturing and altering images. On the other hand, photography as a symbol of truth and reality has been fundamentally challenged by the ability of airbrushes in image alternation. For example, propaganda photographers often utilized airbrushing as a way to remove “unfavorable” people from official photographs during wars. 

In the United States, Chicago was a hot spot for airbrush development and manufacturing. Thayer & Chandler(T&C) began manufacturing the internal mix airbrush with an agreement with Budick in 1891. In 1896 Olaus C. World refined the internal mix airbrush for T&C, making the basic configuration of the modern airbrush. Jens A. Paasche, an ex-employee of World and Thayer & Chandler, founded the Paasche Airbrush Company in 1904 and is still operating today in Chicago, Illinois. The famous Paasche VL airbrush is still one of the most recognizable classic airbrushes in the market. Badger Airbrush Co is another well-known manufacturer operating today since 1963. Thayer & Chandlers was bought by Badger in 2000. (Merlin, n.d.)

The rise of airbrush development and manufacturing marked the increasing demand for airbrush usage in both commercial and everyday applications, especially during the 1950s to late 1980s. In both Europe and North America, consumerism, advertising, and popular culture provided opportunities for illustrators, photographers, designers, and artists to use airbrushes for producing and manipulating artworks. Airbrushes were expanded to many types with the quality to fulfill different needs from wider spray patterns to precise detail rendering. Some hardware tool manufacturers that served the war had shifted production to quality airbrushes after WWII, such as the Harder & Steenbeck company in Germany that specialized in producing the high-end Infinity airbrush brand.(Harder & Steenbeck, n.d.) The quality of airbrushes was determined by the precision of the machinery and technology used by its manufacture and nation, and they were often competing for the best quality for their reputations. 

Japan is another world leader today for making quality airbrushes such as Anest Iwata airbrush. Established in 1926 by the Iwata brothers, the company joined the international stage between 1961-1981 and expanded its national sales network, exporting airbrushes to over 20 counties. (Anest Iwata, n.d.) The variety and the quality of Iwata airbrushes have earned its Made-in-Japan reputation as a premium product for the industry. Today, Iwata is considered one of the most reputable airbrush brands and the “must-have” airbrush for professional airbrush artists. Interestingly, the competition between airbrush manufacturing also demonstrated the shift of economic and technological power between the nations.

Since the early 2000s, airbrushes made in China have become very competitive in the market, which brought much competition to the established airbrush brands. The competition made airbrushes much more affordable for everyday DIYers to learn and practice airbrushing. Moreover, the low-cost airbrushes enabled the revival of airbrush practice with the help of the internet, social media, and Youtube DIY videos. More amateur users started to use airbrushes for more individual-based art and design customization, which extended the popularity of airbrushes from mainstream to more sub-cultural aesthetics. 

The development of airbrushes is not only the mechanical development of making spray tools but a synthesis of technology and creativity for producing and manipulating reality in visual culture. It is a combination of human desire in pursuing perfection with its belief in technology. Airbrush as a symbolic art tool of the 20th century has its iconic meaning in both artistic development and technological advancement, which reflects the relationship between art production and market economy, technology to profitability, and individual value to system controllability. Moreover, as airbrush practice has been disappearing from mainstream art and design production, a more democratized shift of artistic culture occurs in everyday application, where airbrush is used for creating individual expression and human interactivities. 

Airbrushing as a creative tool in the development of art and design demonstrated the human desire in capturing realities and pursuing perfection with technology. Even since the appearance of photography, the meaning of reality has been challenged by the mechanical ability of cameras to capture reality. To help mediate the quality of early photographs for rendering images as close to real life, airbrushing first appeared as a technological advancement to improve the quality of photographs. The ability to create sharp contrast as well as seamless blending soon evolved into a diversity of techniques and styles in image rendering manipulation and airbrushing thus expanding from a photo retouching tool to a creative tool in fine art, painting, illustration, advertising, film, and other creative disciplines. Typically with its advantage of rendering realistic images with photographic quality, airbrushes were not just used as a technical tool, but also a creative medium in image manipulation and composting. It was regarded as one of the most advanced technologies in creative industries in the first half of the 20 century. In a way airbrushing has expanded artistic production from the traditional media to a mechanical process, in which a machine helps the artists to achieve a high quality of image-making in realism and photographic quality. 

As a symbolic art tool of the 20th century, airbrush has an iconic meaning in both artistic development and technological advancement. The development of airbrush techniques has inherited the traditional techniques of oil painting. With adjustable air pressure, airbrushes can produce a similar soft and tender blending of colours and lighting effects as an oil painting rendering. However, unlike oil painting in which the blending was applied by smearing oil paint with brushes or cloth, airbrush uses air to spray paint onto painting surfaces without direct contact. The ability of contactless painting in airbrushing allowed artists to use quick-drying mediums such as acrylics, watercolors and gouache, hence it provided more freedom and versatility for artists to develop new painting and rendering techniques. At the same time, new techniques from photo retouching such as masking and layering allowed artists to produce high precision rendering in realism and lighting effect. In this light, airbrushing as a technological and artistic development bridged the gap between traditional painting and photography, and it set a foundation to combine art and technology into the process of art and culture production.

A more democratized shift in airbrushing occurs as digital technology rapidly replaces the mechanical process in art and design production. Contemporary airbrushing takes a new turn in sub-culture aesthetics and the DIY process in which individuals apply airbrush techniques in customization and personalization of everyday objects. This type of approach to custom airbrushing was a revival of automobile airbrush and disco culture from the 1950s to the 1980s, where airbrush was embraced as an expression of individualism and freedom. As digital technology monopolized the creative industries at the beginning of the 21 century, the nostalgic aesthetics of airbrush and its versatile production process provide individuals the alternatives in spite of highly sophisticated digital tools. In such conditions, airbrushes were welcomed in the individual-based creative process and embraced pop cultures such as rock n’ roll, punk, graffiti, and hip-hop. More often, the contemporary airbrush styles embarked on the freehand styles with a more antagonistic attitude rather than the traditional commercial airbrushing that emphasizes clarity and perfection. In a way, it can be seen as a more class-based aesthetic movement that demands individual freedom and self-expression. 

The history of airbrushing can provide a unique way aside from academic art history to look at art and culture. It is an important medium to fill in the gap between academic knowledge and pop-cultural insights, in which the development of airbrushing reflects how technology changes artistic production and society. More importantly, by investigating deeper into how the demand and function of airbrushing are changed in different times and spaces, we can gain more understanding of the changes in social and cultural structures.



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(Doctoral thesis), Northumbria University.
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