Home Retouching Tutorials Airbrushing

Last update:  12-31-1969

Submitted by Jakaleena

Sometimes, when retouching an image, no matter what you try there is no fix that seems to work well - or at all. It's frustrating. At that point, I usually resort to an old standard: Airbrushing.

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Sometimes, when retouching an image, no matter what you try there is no fix that seems to work well - or at all. It's frustrating. At that point, I usually resort to an old standard: Airbrushing.

Airbrushing is much easier to do in Photoshop than it was the old fashioned way using an actual airbrush. I find (for me, anyway) that the airbrush tool is much less controllable than the paintbrush tool, so when digitally airbrushing an image I usually am really using the paint tool. The airbrush tool is essentially just the paint tool with the added variable of "flow" (in PS7, the separate airbrush tool has been removed and replaced by an "airbrush" option for the paint tool). "Flow" simply means the faster you move your cursor, the less density is applied. If you leave the cursor in one place it continally adds density until it reaches 100%. For this tutorial, we ignore "flow".

The most important thing I'll say is that success in painting an image takes some practice to do. Actually, it takes a LOT of practice. It's not like just grabbing a tool and going, or running a filter or action. There is no quick way to learn it, no magic that will make you wake up tomorrow with the ability to airbrush an image. Mastering something like the clone tool only took a me a short time. Feeling just adequate at airbrushing has taken years - and I still wouldn't call my education complete or my technique perfected.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to practice, practice, practice. And then - practice some more. This is a skill of perseverance. Airbrushing is really about the ability to see what is underneath all of the damage, and then paint it back into reality...

The first thing I do is break the image down into small pieces by enlarging it a lot. I look closely at the area. I try to see what WAS there, but isn't there anymore. I notice where the light and shadowed areas are, how the subject curves, and where the edges and angles meet.

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Next, I make a new layer which I leave set to normal blending mode. I select a fairly large, soft brush, and I begin painting. I use a very low opacity on the brush and overlap my strokes to help blend the density changes together. My opacity never goes over 20%, and more often is set at 5% - 10%. I pick up color every few strokes, using the colors already present in the image. Picking up a new color frequently helps me to simulate the light and shadow blending and allows my image to start taking on some depth.

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When re-creating an edge, I use a hard brush for definition and then go over the inside of the strokes with a soft brush to blend.

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In an image, although we see an object as white, it rarely ever is. I never use pure white or pure black when airbrushing. What our eye perceives as white is almost always actually light gray, and black is almost always dark gray.

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Pay attention to how light wraps itself around objects. Try drawing different shapes on a blank file and then painting them into a 3-D image.

There really is no more magic to it than that. Just see what can be there and practice painting it in. If you've never taken a painting or art class, I recommend it. They can be very helpful when learning to do airbrushing. In some areas you can find classes on airbrushing and graphic art. Check with your local colleges to find out what might be offered.

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