Avoiding Airbrushed Vinyl Mistakes
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SGIA Expo 2014 - Las Vegas, NV - October 22-24, 2014


Avoiding Airbrushed Vinyl Mistakes

Perfecting the art of airbrushing on vinyl takes time ­ but you can avoid beginner’s mistakes with a few insiders’ tips.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Before you make big bucks airbrushing on vinyl, you’ll probably make plenty of mistakes. Find out the common pitfalls so you can steer clear of trigger-happiness, poor lettering and the like.

SGIA Expo 2014 - Las Vegas, NV - October 22-24, 2014

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  • Even though you can learn basic airbrushing techniques in a half hour demonstration, perfecting the skill is no different than perfecting any other art ­ and you will inevitably make mistakes. After all, you are a signmaker, not an airbrush artist. Airbrushing and vinyl application may make a great combination that adds revenues to your business, but the two skills are worlds apart.

    So what’s a beginning vinyl installer-turned-airbrush artist to do? That old adage “practice makes perfect” applies to all things well and airbrushing is no exception. The name of the game is trial and error. Trial and error will help you perfect everything from the triggering mechanism to the force of the sprayer to your lettering skills ­ and more.

    Just don’t get frustrated. Making mistakes is part and parcel of trial and error. Of course, the goal is to make as few mistakes as possible. You can accomplish this goal by arming yourself with some knowledge. Indeed, a little knowledge about the mistakes others have made goes a long way toward avoiding mistakes of your own.

    Don’t get “trigger-happy”
    Let’s start with the airbrush itself. Learning how to use the triggering mechanism on the airbrush gun alone can cause you some minor headaches. That’s one reason why some airbrushers prefer an old-fashioned aerosol can.

    You can avoid a lot of wasted vinyl by taking a few minutes to spray little dots and then thin lines until you get accustomed to how much force to apply to the trigger. Remember, anyone can pick up an airbrush and spray a thick line. The skill shines through in your ability to create thin, detailed, fine lines.

    Butch “Superfrog” Anton, founder of Superfrog Sign University, says one of the biggest mistakes beginners make is spraying the paint on too heavy. Anton is well qualified to impart the knowledge it takes to become successful in airbrushing. He has a degree in industrial technology and has been an educator on the national sign circuit since 1990. He has taught classes from coast to coast and all over the world on this very subject.

    Anton says while many beginning airbrushers put too much paint on too fast, others spray it on too light. The secret is finding just the right level of pressure. That comes, again, through trial and error.

    Indeed, since the effect you get is determined by how much paint you spray combined with how close you hold the airbrush to the vinyl, it takes practice to get it perfect.

    But here’s a tip: if you spray a little paint very close to your vinyl you’ll get a pleasing fine line. If you spray a lot of paint from the same distance you’ll get a blob that will ruin your design. Find the middle ground and you are on your way to masterpiece status.

    Banning graininess, spiders and other problems
    If your work of art has an orange peel, or grainy, look to it, that probably means the paint has dried too quickly. Oftentimes the paint partially dries between the airbrush and the surface of the vinyl. You can avoid this mistake by reducing the air pressure, reducing the distance between the airbrush and the surface, or thinning out the paint a little more.

    Besides orange peel, you may get spiders. This is a pattern that looks like a blob with lines extending from all around it. Spiders are born from a lack of motion. Here’s how to avoid it: Start moving your hand before you push the trigger and keep moving your hand until you let go of the trigger. If you are faithful to do these things and you still get spiders, then check your nozzle and needle. You may have a damaged air gun.

    If you experience other ill effects such as these go back to basics and check your gun, your motion, and your distances before throwing up your hands in frustration. Once again, mastering airbrushing on vinyl is trial and error.

    A few words about lettering
    Lettering is one of the most common requests a signmaker will get in his airbrushed vinyl adventures. In fact, probably as much as 80 percent of your airbrushing business will be lettering and 20 percent may be more exotic designs. So mastering lettering is essential to building an airbrushing business.

    Unfortunately for vinyl installers-turned-airbrush artists, one of the most common mistakes beginners make is inconsistent lettering style. It’s the equivalent of someone whose handwriting mixes upper and lower case letters inappropriately or uses plain handwriting mixed with cursive. It’s confusing to the viewer and detracts from the message.

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    Lettering needs to be consistent throughout each word or sentence. But that’s not the only consideration. It also needs to have consistent size, spacing, slant and line quality. Developing consistency means experimenting to find the motion that produces the desired results and then maintaining that motion throughout the letter to the next letter and so on.

    Another lettering mistake boils down to impatience. No one likes to start with what may be considered boring single stroke print, but the truth is even the most basic lettering takes time to perfect and plain lettering is a building block to the curved and shadowed letters that are typical of airbrushing.

    You can perfect your single strokes by practicing straight and curved lines joined to form letters…a few hundred times. Airbrushing circles a thousand times or so will also help you master this fundamental. Pretty soon, basic lettering will become a natural part of your hand motion and you can move on to the more exotic lettering that you imagined when you first picked up the airbrush to begin with.

    Cutting, cleaning and sanding mistakes
    Other common mistakes beginner airbrushers make include wiping the vinyl with alcohol, contaminating the vinyl, and airbrushing prior to cutting the vinyl. Each of these three mistakes can ruin your work of art.

    “Cut your vinyl first, and then do your airbrushing. That way you get your airbrushing paint where you want it,” Anton says. “A lot of people try to do their airbrushing, put it into the plotter, and then try to find it and locate it so they can cut through it. That doesn’t work.”

    Yet another mistake beginners make is sanding vinyl. Anton says after he made a name for himself in airbrushing on vinyl, auto body guys began to take notice and wanted to cash in on the concept. But Anton says their big mistake ­ and one that signmakers who work on automobiles can still fall prey to today ­ is sanding the vinyl.

    “Some people immediately sand or scuff the vinyl and spray it with automotives pigments. Then they go tell other people to do the same thing, not understanding that chemistry 101 works better than sanding,” Anton says.

    Woe to wet applications
    A final mistake beginners make, albeit after they airbrush on their vinyl, is doing wet applications. For more information about wet versus dry applications, read our article entitled “When to Use Wet”.

    “Beginners always do wet application and 99 percent of the time you don’t need to do a wet application,” Anton says. “The reason they do this is because when they got started somebody taught them how to do wet so they could reposition it easily,” Anton says. “If you are good at applying vinyl, then you don’t worry about repositioning it. As you know, when you apply wet, you can’t get the pre-mask off until it dries.”

    The good news is you don’t have to do all of this practicing on expensive vinyl. An old piece of wood will do just fine. More good news is you don’t have to be a great artist to be a great airbrusher. If you can draw a straight line, and you have patience, then you can learn to letter with the best of them. It’s OK to make mistakes ­ just learn from them and prepare to expand your business.

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