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To Airbrush or Not To Airbrush?

Butch ‘Superfrog’ Anton shares his views on what tools to use to create airbrushed effects on vinyl. What you discover may surprise you.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Airbrushing may not be your best option in the age of aerosol cans and digital imaging. Learn what method works best in different circumstances, and then protect the final product.

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  • There are airbrush artists working at T-shirt kiosks in malls. There are airbrush artists who live for the sake of their art. And then there are airbrush artists who are really just sign guys looking for a new revenue stream.

    In the latter case, airbrushes may not always be the best tool for making money. Sometimes, an old-fashioned aerosol can will do just fine.

    Of course, that doesn’t sit well with diehard artists who liken aerosol cans to graffiti-making weapons. But Butch “Superfrog” Anton, founder of Superfrog Sign University, better known as Frog U, says it’s not about attitude. It’s about serving the customer in the best possible way while making a profit.

    Sometimes that means pulling out the airbrush and the most expensive paint possible. But sometimes that means pulling out a can of Krylon and zipping through a project. And sometimes it even means creating the image on a computer and printing it digitally. It depends on the customer’s needs and budget.

    “If you look up the definition of airbrushing, it means to distribute paint by means of an air source. So an aerosol can to an airbrusher is taboo. But to a sign guy who’s making money, an aerosol can is nothing more than an airbrush. That’s the way I look at it,” Anton says. “But when I have to do the really nice detail and beautiful imagery, then I get my airbrush out.”

    Valuable advice
    Anton is proof positive that if you choose the right tools and pigments for the right job, you can yield healthy profits for your sign business. He teaches some of these principles at Frog U at his one-, three- or five-day hands-on school taught in-house at Superfrog Signs and Graphics in Moorhead, Minn.

    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.

    Anton has written countless articles for various industry magazines and offers a series of instructional videos on working with vinyl. Indeed, Anton’s innovative ideas have changed the sign industry in many ways, the most obvious being the three-tier pricing concept.

    The high-tech approach
    Could Anton, an airbrushing guru that many in the industry look up to, possibly be suggesting that airbrushing is not always the best approach? That’s exactly what he’s suggesting.

    Anton added new perspectives to his airbrushing expertise in 1991. That’s when Gerber Scientific Products sent three representatives to his shop in Minnesota to see what he was doing with Krylon. According to Anton, Gerber was developing its Edge product and wanted the machine to do blends, outlines and shadows. The result was a product that did automatically what sign makers had been doing manually for years.

    “In our shop, we have digital printing; we have thermal resin printing, and so on. When you look at it from that standpoint, it means we can do these blends, outlines, and shadows on our computers,” Anton says. “But when a customer comes in and says he has ten semi trucks he needs done tomorrow, it’s faster for me to grab an aerosol can and do the airbrushing by hand than it is to even go to the computer and set it up.”

    Phew! So what Anton is saying is that even with all the computerized technology in his shop, because he is self-described as “old school,” he knows when to do things by hand and when not to do things by hand. That is a valuable lesson for any sign maker to learn.

    “My colleague is doing a semi-truck out in the parking lot on diamond plates and it’s got a big dragon on it. There’s no way I would paint that dragon when he’s already got the picture, scanned it into the computer, fed it into the digital printer, and printed the dragon on the diamond plate with the verbiage underneath it,” Anton says. “If I had to go in and hand paint those and airbrush those that would take several hours. So that wouldn’t make any sense.”

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    Vinyl versus other substrates
    OK, so we get the idea. Next issue: what about one brand of vinyl versus another? How does it differ in the context of airbrushing and what about other substrates?

    Vinyl is a PVC, which means it’s got plasticizers in it. It’s made under specific manufacturing specs and most manufacturers follow the same general guidelines. “You can usually cross brands,” Anton says. “I can take anybody’s vinyl and make it work. That’s one nice thing. If you know your chemistry and if you understand your paints and availability of what you’ve got, then you can it stick to anything.”

    Here’s an interesting twist, however, Anton says once you change substrates, the story also changes. The minute you go to a soft PVC or a foam-PVC, like Chomatex, you need to keep a whole new realm of possibilities in mind. (Made in Germany, Chomatex is 1/8th-inch thick. It’s a soft material kind of like plastic.)

    “The nice part about Chomatex is this: We have learned that we have to make up a background for the local symphony orchestra and they want something really funky. We can take the Frog Juice Colors and physically spray it on the Chomatex,” Anton says. “We can manipulate it. We can press plastic in it to get a mesh affect. We can do cross-hatching with a comb. We can do stippling with a piece of pre-mask. We can marbleize it ­ all with the aerosol can.”

    When you hit the Chomatex with heat, it dries in 60 seconds. That means that within five minutes you have a complete background with a nice pattern and some “funky stuff” to which you can apply vinyl. That, Anton says, is a good example of combining substrates, and understanding what you can do with each one.

    Sealing the Deal
    Once you’ve created your masterpiece, how do you protect it? Anton is glad you asked. If you use solvent-based paints and plan to use the final product indoors or in some other temporary application, then you don’t need to do anything else to it. You are done.

    However, if you use an aerosol can with solvent-based paints on a vehicle, then you need to seal it. Anton says you do that by spraying on one heavy wet coat of Frog Juice Color’s clear coat. So the Frog Juice becomes the sacrificial lamb when the customer uses strong soap. The clear coating can withstand that pressure without any problems.

    “Let’s say you have a four-wheeler and you are out driving in the mud. Your car is now completely covered with mud. You go to wash it. You soak it with water and soak it with a rag,” Anton says. “Well in reality you would scratch the paint. So you put the clear coating over it because the clear coating is designed to take the abuse.”

    If you use a water-based paint, it always needs a clear coat no matter how or where you use it ­ even indoors and temporary applications. That’s because water-based paint, even though it’s quicker, faster, easier to use and more environmentally friendly, does not have the scuffability that the solvent-based paint offers.

    “With the water-based paint you always clear coat it with Frog Juice,” Anton says. “That way you’ve got maximum durability and scuffability and you can put it indoors, outdoors, airports, planes, trains ­ you name it.”

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