Monday, 31 July 2006 10:00

Start with a stencil; create a custom airbrush design

Written by Rich Evans

Almost two years ago, I decided to design some helpful tools for the custom paint industry, primarily focusing on the automotive airbrushing profession. Having been involved with airbrush artists since I dove into the custom paint industry many years ago, I've watched the profession evolve first hand. 

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A wide variety of stencil kits are available from Huntington Beach Bodyworks and KustomShop.com. They offer a starting point for each artist's unique designs.

Airbrush artists have been receiving media attention like never before thanks to the large crop of custom motorcycle and automotive shows produced in the past few years. The public's interest in the custom automotive market was greatly underestimated for many years and has since exploded in popularity. Even companies in unrelated industries - shoe, snowboard, skateboard, clothing and apparel manufacturers - have been using airbrushing as a lure to their target markets.

Currently, there are two airbrush artists at Huntington Beach Bodyworks - Terry "Kiwi" Stephens and Johnny Sotelo. They always come up with designs for our projects and have, on many occasions, taken the time to make free-hand tools and shields to aid them in their artwork.

On the Skull King, for example, I observed Stephens using skull stencils that he designed and made himself out of some ordinary construction paper and an

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First stencil placed on clean, prepped panel to begin airbrushing projects that can ultimately become the famous Skull King.

exacto knife. With this handful of free-hand stencils and 1,000 hours of airbrushing, he covered every inch of the Skull King truck, creating a jaw-dropping masterpiece that has won us recognition along with many awards.

This led me to believe that a market of aspiring airbrush artists could benefit from having a readily available selection of stencils to help in the creation of their artwork. So together, Huntington Beach Bodyworks and KustomShop.com have produced over 200 original designs. With an easy-to-use, dual layer system, the stencils are made from flexible, translucent, solvent-proof material - laser cut for total accuracy and clean lines. Registration markings - a necessity in the printing industry, but not necessarily common in other airbrushing stencils - make these stencils unique.

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The hood has several skulls in various states of completion.

Paint your masterpiece

On a clean, prepped panel, start with the first layer - an open outline. This layer is for the beginning stage of the artwork, which is usually spraying a base color. Begin by taping down the first layer (marked number one in the corner). At this time, either spray the base color, completely covering the open area, or go to the second layer.

This second layer is also referred to as the detail layer. Align the registration marks from the second layer with the markings from the first layer. When they are lined up, go ahead and tape down the second layer. With the base color, very lightly spray through the detail layer. It is important to keep it very thin and light, because if the detail is too pronounced, it will be harder to cover later with the airbrush.

Remember that these stencils aren't meant to give you a finished piece with a couple sprays and "poof" you're done. They are only tools to aid in the process. You can't get the level of workmanship of a project, such as the Skull King, without a fair amount of free-hand airbrushing. The object of the game is to use a combination of stenciling and free-hand airbrushing techniques to achieve a completely free-hand, but very clean look. The stenciling technique allows us to organize the piece, keep it tight and clean, easily repeatable, and a time saver.


After lightly spraying the detail layer, the stencil can be removed. At this point, it would be a good idea to leave the original layer in place. The detail layer

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This skull combines a variety of tech- niques including shadows, highlighting, sharp details and eyes made simply of circles.

might be used again and it is important to have the original layer to register to.

Using the base color (bone white) and the faint image left behind as a type of map, start free-handing the skull. Start airbrushing with a very loose feel. Don't be concerned at this point with making everything tight and detailed. At this stage, we just want to give the subject some substance off of which to work. These are the building block stages.

Afterward start shading with a darker mixture of the bone color. Keep it loose, but begin to tighten up just a little, being mindful not to completely cover the original white bone color.

The skull above shows a number of different effects you can achieve using stencils and imagination.

Unless Stephens is painting chrome or some other type of skull, he likes to paint a lot of thin tight lines following the contours of the skull. He calls this step "texturing." It is an optional procedure, but could be an opportunity to develop your own style and set yourself apart from the competition. It is an interesting technique providing a very organic look.

After the texturing stage, it is time to tighten things up, adding little cracks and other details to the design.

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 Skulls on the hood

Next reattach the detail stage for the purpose of spraying an even darker mixture. Almost black, but not quite. It should have enough of the previous coloring to give it a smooth transition into the piece and not muddy it up.

This is where the stencils really help out. It is difficult to color in the larger areas - in this case, the eye sockets - without leaving some overspray on the surrounding artwork. In this stage, only spray the the eye sockets and the inside of the mouth. Even though the mouth isn't a large area, spraying helps sharpen up the teeth, which is one of the more difficult steps to accomplish without these stencils.

With the detail stencil still attached, it is possible to even add eye balls. Do this either free-hand or, if you have trouble airbrushing perfect circles like most people, use a circle template. Just add a few more highlights and shadows where you feel applicable and we are pretty much done with our Huntington Beach Bodyworks stencil tutorial.

In conclusion, try experimenting with your artwork. Stephens has used these stencils to create just a few different styles of work, but really the possibilities are endless - piercing, horns, whatever. Make it your own and have fun.

Rich Evans, owner of Huntington Beach Bodyworks in Southern California, is an award winning painter and fabricator. Currently he is offering workshops at his facility so he can share his special techniques to other industry professionals. For more information about Evans, visit www.huntingtonbeachbodyworks.com.