Stephen Gibson: A Dive into Air, Oil, and Lead Airbrush Art

GNARLY MAG: Can you tell us a bit about your journey into the world of airbrush art? What initially drew you to this medium?

STEPHEN GIBSON: I had been drawn to the artwork as a young kid watching the t-shirt artists on the boardwalk in South Jersey, painting portraits and such. The airbrush just called me, simply put. It took me years to figure out how to get one, let alone how to use one. I think I only ever had one or two Airbrush Magazines; it was pretty much all trial and error for me. I first picked one up around 1996 after years of thinking about it. It was a dual-action, siphon-feed Badger 150 and a little diaphragm compressor. It was the summer between college sessions at Flagler College, and I was working at a mural company in Atlantic City by day (all hand-painted traditional stuff) and was teaching myself how to airbrush on the side by night. I really started getting involved seriously in custom airbrushing while I was painting cars at a body shop around 2006. By the time I wound up at the body shop, 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 and airbrush (sign shops, mural companies, etc.) 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 soon thereafter; however, I was still moonlighting doing hand-painted murals. Eventually, I started bringing in more money on the side airbrushing than my day job, so I switched it up, stopped doing murals too, and never looked back, so to speak.

Could you share the story behind the Air, Oil, and Lead name and what it represents in your work?

AIRbrush, OILpaint, and LEADpencil. Air Oil and Lead. The mediums that I favor and that drive me. Although there isn’t any lead in a pencil (graphite), it just sounded cooler and more to the point, better than Air Oil and Graphite, you know?

Your portfolio showcases a diverse range of subjects, from portraits to custom motorcycle designs. How do you approach each project differently in terms of inspiration and technique?

All the same to me really, same approach mostly with the airbrush part. But obvious considerations to a client’s needs as well as the overall aesthetics of a bike’s design. I try not to overwhelm a space with airbrush/paint. I’m a big believer in less is more, and with my work, I try to become a part of the overall product, not a show-stealer so to speak. That’s me though.

Airbrushing is a highly specialized form of art. What kind of training or experiences helped you develop your skills, and what advice would you give to aspiring airbrush artists?

I think what sets me apart is that my process and technique allow 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 repurposed years of hand-painting things in oils and acrylics and literally repurposed those processes through an airbrush. Without my past experiences there, I wouldn’t be airbrushing the way I do today. I always find a challenge in making the mundane exciting and the ugly approachable. I think it’s easy to paint something pretty or cool or popular, and it’s easy to mimic what came before. I’m not afraid to fail and try new things. 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. 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 (mid-2000s) 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.

My advice is to just get to work and get off of social media a bit. Find yourself, not yourself as you compare yourself to others on social media platforms. It’s so different from when I started; I feel like people who start need to fall in love more with the journey of “becoming” rather than becoming popular.

Looking at your body of work, one can see a strong influence of realism. How do you achieve such intricate details and lifelike textures with an airbrush?

Stated above, I’m an “all additive” painter. Exactly how I’d approach a painting in oil, I approach it with an airbrush, a very similar approach. I don’t employ traditional airbrush techniques, masks, erasing, etc. I have a small toolbox, and I’m still learning how to best utilize viscosity and pressure; you can do a ton with just that. And I consistently get the same style very efficiently and noticeably by sticking to my rules and using less.

Your website highlights some impressive collaborations and commissioned pieces. Can you share a memorable project or collaboration that stands out to you, and what made it special?

Back in 2019, I was commissioned by Sherwin Williams to paint an 8’ x 4’ panel for a charity auction. They flew me out to do so and I shared the booth space over the next 3 days, long, long days with Michael “Buckwild” Ramirez, who was being commissioned to do the same. It was an immensely intense few days, and I know we both pushed ourselves as well as our skill set to the max over a very short period of time. The conversations and camaraderie I felt over that time was unparalleled to anything before or since. Very hard to describe the experience, but those kinds of intense and pressure-filled experiences really build your character and display your strengths and weaknesses in your craft. I’ve had several like that over the years, but that one, in particular, was special to me.

And can you talk about your experience being on the hit TV show, “American Chopper”?

Well, I’ll give you the first: It’s probably the most interesting. I was to start shooting the day after SEMA ended. I took a red-eye to Philly from Vegas (this was 2017) then had my car parked and loaded with my brushes, paint, etc., and ready to make the 3-hour drive to Paul Jr’s shop. I was going to paint on-site, no plan, totally improvised on the spot. If I timed it right, I would be arriving just about the time they needed me to start. I forgot where I parked; it took me an hour to find my car, which was dusted in a very early snowfall. Made it to NY and literally brainstormed the project and started freestyling the tanks from images we were just pulling off phones and an iPad with the crew filming. That’s what you see on the “Buffalo Chip” bike in the comeback episode, Spring 2018. I had to complete the project over the next three days; I literally was awake for the next 60 hours, sans 2 cat naps. All the while, as fate would have it, I found myself without a permanent residence while supporting my two kids. When I left for SEMA, I had no home to speak of literally; it’s hard to remember, hard to believe now too. I remember the nights in Junior’s shop painting as a real trial of my resolve and character; they were lonely unlike anything I had ever felt before, because to me, at that time, everything was riding on that job and the potential success of the show, for me, and my two kids. It was my ability to focus and airbrush that saved me, gave me hope, and got me through a really dark period, not just intact, but stronger than I was prior. When I think of that particular episode, that’s what I remember most. There are definitely other stories, but I’ll save those for another time.

The airbrushing community is relatively small compared to other art forms. How important do you think it is for artists like yourself to connect with and support one another?

It should be very important; that’s my only comment.

Technology has had a significant impact on art in recent years. How has digital technology influenced your work, if at all?

I remember when Photoshop came out when I was in college in the 1990s. I was so resistant to the idea of technology, almost considered it sacrilegious. I think it’s impossible to not employ technology of some sort these days, especially commercially for rendering and mock-ups. I feel like if I could remain a total purist within my art form, it would be amazing, and I’m more than capable, but the reality of today, for me, is that it’s just not realistic to make a living. As far as “influence” I’m much more influenced by realist painters of the 1500s through the early 20th century than anything digital today. That’s where my heart is, and for now, I’m fine with that. Tradition over technology always for me, but sometimes technology can give you a better understanding of tradition depending on how you use it.

On your website, you mention a love for motorcycles. How does this passion influence your art, and do you have any favorite motorcycle-themed pieces you’ve created?

I have a love for the culture and its builders and the fringe personalities that it attracts, much like the counterculture of the surf/beach scene I grew up in. 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 are definitely on a level with the communities that I surrounded 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, this as well as how to take criticism both constructive and off-base. 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.

As for favorite pieces, I’ve been having fun looking at real and famous museum paintings, like really seeing them in person and not just online (way different experience, as online doesn’t show you anything about how some of these paintings were made), and trying to airbrush them onto motorcycle tanks, replicating what I was taking notes on at the museum and as far as my speculation as to how a particular artist made certain art marks, and what I can learn about their journey as it correlates to mine on a bike tank. That’s for me though; if you dig the trip, great. If not, then it’s not for you.

Many artists use their work to convey messages or emotions. Is there a particular message or feeling you hope viewers take away from your art?

I’m currently working on a series of works, traditional paintings so to speak, that addresses just that question. Gotta wait and see. It should be my first cohesive body of work in almost 2 decades. I’m very excited about it.

Could you walk us through your creative process, from conceptualization to completion? Are there any rituals or routines that help you get in the zone?

I’m honestly always in it; my rituals and routines are I live clean and have a clear mind (I don’t drink, etc.). I’m always listening to audiobooks when I work and am constantly curious about other people’s processes, mostly people outside of art. I’m always trying to be more focused while working as I have to balance that time with being a father and a good partner.

As an airbrush artist, you must work with various tools and materials. What are your favorite airbrushing tools and paints, and why do they stand out for you?

I primarily use an Iwata Takumi for detail work and an Iwata CS for most of my work. I use both House of Kolor urethanes and Createx Illustration colors together. That’s it; nothing else.

How do you see the future of airbrush art evolving, and what role do you hope to play in its development?

I used to think about that a bit. But I don’t anymore. I’ll just continue to do what I do and leave the labels to everyone else.

Lastly, for our readers who may want to explore airbrush art, what resources or advice would you recommend for beginners interested in trying their hand at this unique medium?

I feel like there is so much out there these days it’s hard to even point people in the right direction. I think that an understanding of how to draw is so important and rarely talked about. It’s literally the foundation for all the arts. I taught at an art center, traditional painting and drawing for 13 years. Start there. What I’ve observed recently is that social media has driven people to want to be “great” instantly without learning their respected craft properly. My advice- take the long road. Don’t subscribe to the quick fix, mastery in 3 days BS. It cheapens our art form. It was the biggest fight I had with the powers that be at Airbrush Action getaways when I taught them years ago when they wanted results in 3 or 4 days. Find anyone that makes sense to you on YouTube if you’re just starting out for the basics. There are a ton of people, but take your time, really learn and struggle with it. You’re not just training yourself in your medium but you’re developing your character too outside your art form, which will eventually help you find your own “unique voice” inside your art form. It’s cyclical; it should feed itself for a lifetime, not a short time.

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