Putting the Gloss onto Glossy

Lately, I’m missing shiny. After two decades of adhering to the flat world, I’ve begun to admire the shiny stuff. For years, clients asked for shiny and sparkly type in three dimensions on every motion design project. Of course, we didn’t do that. We took the opposite point of view, focusing on the simple forms and lack of ostentation. So, why now, am I drawn to airbrush illustration of the 1970s and 80s? Everything in these images is so clean. Even skin is glossy because it’s so pure.

I assume the crystal clear, high gloss approach was a reaction against the earthy and organic design of the 1970s. Much of the airbrush work was done for the music industry at the time. The crunchy political music was replaced by slick disco that celebrated hedonism. So it makes sense that the illustration would also celebrate a slick veneer and present sex, fast cars, and youth as the subjects.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that our Eames conference table at the studio was too matte. Somebody had repeatedly cleaned it with 409 or Windex. That’s not so good with wood. So I brought in my trusty wood oils and wax. After one application of oil, the table still seemed dry and flat, so I flooded the surface with it. “I’ll let this sit overnight and soak in,” I thought. Unfortunately, I didn’t count on someone using the conference room for a meeting. Since I am one of the owners, I couldn’t be fired. But, if I weren’t, oh boy I’d be out the door fast. People don’t like oil soaking onto their shirts and presentations.









Spray and Pray

On my first day at art school, a student two years ahead told me emphatically, “You need to know how to airbrush.” As freshmen, we used colored pencils and gouache. In the junior level studio, they all used the airbrush. The sound of the spraying and chug of the motor was often interrupted with, “sonofabitch!” I was frequently concerned that my career would never happen because I couldn’t use an airbrush.

For those of you who only know the spray paint can symbol in Photoshop®, an airbrush is a machine that is like a fancy can of spray paint. A compressor runs a stream of air through a nozzle that has paint. To make an image, you mask off the areas you don’t want painted, and smoothly spray. Then you take off that mask and make another one. The airbrush sounds easy. I’m sure you may be thinking, “so what, I can use spray paint.” But it clogs, splatters, your masks pull off other paint, and you shout “sonofabitch!” a lot.

My inability to use the tool only makes my admiration for the masters of airbrush greater. Digital perfection and high-definition may be in vogue today, but I think it’s time to celebrate this great work. It was a southern California art form that screams Venice Beach, roller-skating, Xanadu, Sunset Strip, and palm trees. And even better, the guys who were the airbrush kings, such as Charlie White, were the most laid-back, down-to-earth, and just plain nice people I’ve ever known.