Q&A with Airbrush Master Steve Gibson
Steve Gibson is an airbrush artist whose technical abilities are inspired by traditional oil painting. He specializes in automotive murals and portraiture as well as fine art. He has a BA in Fine Art from Flagler College in St.Augustine, FL. His fine art efforts have been recognized by curators from both The Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as The Whitney Museum of Art with selections into group exhibitions in both Long Beach Island, NJ and New York City. His experimental nature, combined with a colorful and versatile work history make his pieces both highly original at their core as well as masterful in their execution. His caliber of excellence has been called upon by notable bike builders and riders such as Jesse James (Monster Garage), Paul Teutel Jr. (American Chopper), and Carey Hart. He maintains a busy workshop schedule both nationally and internationally for his approach to his craft and the knowledge it embodies. He runs a studio out of Purdy Collision in Galloway, NJ. Steve is also in his 13th year teaching studio classes in traditional approaches to drawing and painting at Cygnus Creative Art Center in Southern NJ.
Tell us a little bit about you and art growing up.
I have been creating art since I can barely remember holding a pencil. My parents actually still have some of my artwork dating back to as early as kindergarten. However, I was always fascinated with process and realism right from the get-go while most of my friends were drawing cartoons. I was copying the plumbing and electrical systems of the space shuttle Columbia taping pieces of paper together and color-coding it. I was very much a curious kid right out of the gate, and art has always been my vehicle for exploring the world around me.
Your skills and attention to detail are inspirational to a lot of people, so who inspires you?
My biggest inspiration has always been process. How other people get from point A to point B. If the journey does not captivate me then I have no interest in the end result. The contemporary artist Chuck Close has always been a huge inspiration to me just to that fact. He has pushed just about every type of two-dimensional media to its maximum potential and has always done it on his terms without wavering. One could look at his equation for putting together a plausible body of work and say that it is almost absurd that he has been able to make a living and a lucrative one doing things the way he has done. That is inspiring to me, the guy put the journey first and everything else fell into place after the fact. It is a testament to having that blind faith in really believing in something that you were doing when everybody around you is doing something different. Another artist that really inspired me when growing up and whom I still gain a greater appreciation for as I get older is Rick Griffin. I grew up in a surfing culture and his name was synonymous with that late 1960s and 1970s counterculture appeal, it was his imagery that partially fueled the identity of that era. One part discipline, one part in your own little world, and the synergy of those two have always appealed fantastically to me. It pushes me to better develop my imagination and apply that to the more rigid way that my mind works.
How long have you been at this?
I have been in business since 2006, but my business model, like most people sitting out on their own, caters to everything from large scale mural projects on building exteriors to the smaller murals on gas tanks that I am more well known for today. I have used everything from a 2-inch paintbrush to render my imagery right down to the small airbrushes that I use today. I would say that my background in traditional oil painting and fine art very much influenced my direction for my automotive work later on.
I think most people who are creators of any kind would say something similar, that they really have been creating art their entire lives in one way or another, and you don’t need motivation if you were geared this way. It has to come out of you — there is no other option. The idea as you get older is to find something sustainable and reinvent the reasons as to why you were doing your art and they have to be larger than just for oneself. I try to never forget what swinging a hammer and driving nails all day feels like (old school). It's a constant reminder of what a gift it is to even have the privilege to attempt to make a living being an artist of some sort. And then there is definitely the fear-based motivation of keeping food on the table and a roof over the head of my two kids whom I have joint custody with. I’m a single dad half the week and straight balls to the wall for the other half of the week to provide. So if you ask me to paint a skull on the side of your gas tank, I’m gonna make damn sure it’s the best fucking skull you have ever seen, that’s my bread-and-butter and the shit is hard to make a living at at times.
What are the tools of the trade for you?
I use a mix of urethanes, predominantly House of Kolor, and water-based paint from Createx Colors. I began marrying these two paint systems together over a decade ago and have traditionally leaned on the House of Kolor black and white Basecoat colors to serve as an underpainting while implementing the Createx illustration colorline for my color work. Most of my process finds its roots in traditional oil painting practices and I find that these paints work well with the way I approach my artwork.
What were you doing before you became a master airbrush artist?
I started getting involved in custom airbrushing while I was painting cars at an auto body shop around 2006. When I wasn’t doing full dips and panel blends as well as mud work I started putting some of my fine art skills to the test behind an airbrush. I have a degree in fine art from Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Florida, and which I graduated in the late '90s and had worked various art jobs after graduation. From graphic design to sign shops to mural companies. By the time I wound up at the body shop around 2006 I was pretty burnt out on the whole commercial art thing and was looking for a new direction. I had quite a bit of experience behind a production paint gun. I just had not used that skill set in the automotive industry. I applied for a job at a local body shop and was their lead painter in about a month. I started messing around with an airbrush again probably within the first couple of years, as I was still entertaining hand-painted mural jobs on the side.
What made you decide to become an airbrush artist and what does kustom kulture mean to you?
I feel like the industry chose me as much as I chose it, and as far as the culture I could say about the same. While I did not grow up a grease monkey or around the scene so to speak, the culture and the camaraderie is definitely on a level with the communities that I surround myself with growing up both as an artist and avid surfer. There is certainly a real do-it-yourself and counterculture type existence there that I find very familiar in this industry. Again it boils down to finding a niche for something that you were good at and can sustain for the long-haul, that’s what I have been looking for. I think because I am a bit of an outsider, my take on things both graphically and from a process and technical standpoint hasn’t been very influenced by the traditions that came before me. I try to keep in mind those traditions though and I definitely try to pay homage to those that came before me with my current approach to custom airbrush work. I think the one thing that the college experience gave me that most self-taught artists lack is appreciation for history as well as how to ask the important questions before getting your hands dirty. It’s a fine line to walk to still identify with what I would consider core imagery and the soul of what I do while being progressive with my approach and trying to push the envelope with the imagery.
What sets you apart from other artists in your field?
I think what sets me apart is that my process and technique allows me to explore subject matter that I think was not so easily attainable in a lot of the ways that things were being done when I decided to have a go at it. I think their perception is half the battle. We all know that fire will always be cool and that skulls will always be cool with a core group. But as another artist and colleague told me once, he never thought that a pile of dead leaves could look so rad and neat. I always find a challenge in making the mundane exciting and the ugly approachable. I think it’s easy to paint something pretty and it’s easy to mimic what came before. I’m not afraid to fail and continue to do so on a regular basis. I also try to steer my customers away from the norm so to speak and I have never been in it just for the dollar, and that’s finally starting to pay off. Financially I would be way better off if I just fell in line with the rest of what I normally see out there, but I knew from the get-go that would never be my trip and I had a lifetime to improve upon that. I have always been a long haul and patient person with a good work ethic, and if you are right with yourself and continue to reinvent your own sense of vision in a sense you never really burn out. I basically sat in a cave for 5 to 6 years honing my craft under the radar of most of the people in my industry and thoroughly enjoyed that time of growth. Sitting in my metaphorical cave is where I find most of my joy still to this day... off the radar and without influence mostly.
What does the future hold for you as an airbrush artist?
I have a real positive outlook about where my art is taking me and has taken me really since I committed to this journey back around the time my son was born, 2012. In my heart and my mind, I picked this direction intentionally as an airbrush artist in this field and I did it with conviction. I remember making that decision and turning down a mural job that would have been worth about $10,000 because it did not fit the path I chose. And I think decisions like that very much define your character. It felt right and I had faith in my decision to do this, and that did not fit my plan so to speak so I was very militant with my decision-making around that time about what I would do and wouldn’t do. Within four years I was accepting a House of Kolor Prestigious Painter Award at Counts Kustoms during SEMA in 2016. It was a real defining moment for me. When my son was born I knew I had to find something and get really good at it so that I would not be bouncing around different jobs my entire life; art-related or not. I really wanted to lay the groundwork for something that could grow so that as he grew I could look him in the eye and tell him to keep after his passion and his dreams and I wanted a life of example to prove to him that it could be done, no bullshit.
My plans for the future are pretty simple, and that is to stay the course and keep trying to be better than I was at the job prior. To still be the first one up and the last one to bed every day, that kind of blue-collar work ethic. To be the best worker not necessarily the best artist, but I'll be damned if I don't keep trying to be better at my craft too. THAT gets me out of bed.
Tell us a little bit about where you're from.
I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but grew up just south of Atlantic City New Jersey in a small shore town called Ocean City. Traveled the country a bit in my 20s, looking for some direction and pretty much leading a bit of a beat, Jack Kerouac kind of lifestyle. I think self-reflection and calling yourself out on your own bullshit on a regular basis is pretty important for a sound mind and keeping all of the riff-raff away. Surfing has always been my outlet, and while I don’t get in the water as often as I’d like these days, I’m starting to thoroughly enjoy introducing my kids to my passions and to the cultures that surround me. I’m trying to make sure they “get it” right out of the gate.
When you look back, what has airbrushing given you?
What airbrushing has given me over the past half decade or so has been the ability to share my skill set teaching workshops all over the country and abroad, and I am starting to get more invitations to teach internationally also. It is starting to give me the opportunity to build a global network of friends and associates from different races, cultures, and religions of which we all share a common bond, and that’s a pretty unbelievable statement. Not through social media but in a physical reality. I have definitely met some really cool people and done paint work for some pretty incredible builders. I am pretty much a fanboy over anybody who is really good at their craft, and I find myself to be a better observer and listener. As an artist, I think that keeps me curious and attentive to my own skillset.
Highlights & Awards
- 2013 Airbrush Action Magazine Excellence award winner 1st place automotive
- 2017 House of Kolor prestigious painter award
- 2017 Air Oil and Lead custom paint kit sponsored by Createx Colors "grisaille grey" master set.
- 2020 Cyclesource Artist of the year