Freehand airbrush vs stencils and subtractive methods.

Recently I saw an advertisement for a freehand stencil, and I wondered how is this possible? The very act of using a mask is a denial of freehand, and the definition of freehand means to spray without a mask.

This made me realize that there must be a major misunderstanding of the concept of freehand airbrushing and the use of masks, so I thought I'd add some clarity. Basically there are 2 types of airbrush artists when it comes to masks. Those who use masks in their airbrush work, and those who do not.

First, lets define the word mask. A mask is a device that is used to block or partially block the delivery of paint to a surface. The first known use of a mask was about 39,000 years ago in a cave in France, where the painter used their hand as a shield while spraying pigment through a hollow bone. Another name for a mask is "shield" or "stencil." A mask can consist of paper, Mylar, or any object that blocks paint, including your finger or hand.

Freehand airbrush is defined as airbrushing without the use of any other tools besides the airbrush. Line thickness is controlled by the distance and triggering of the airbrush.

Two schools of thought

There is a purist camp who champions airbrush-only creations. They do not advocate the use of masks, erasers, bladework, or any type of subtractive methods. Mistakes are usually corrected with opaque white paint, if at all. The result is an image with slightly softer edges. These artists usually must work on a larger scale to compensate for the detail limitations of the airbrush..

On the other side of the coin is a  group who utilizes the airbrush with combination other tools to achieve their results. The use of other tools allows them to work at any scale. Those tools can include, but are not limited to erasers, blades, and masks.  The downside of masks is that, if improperly used, the result is a cut-out and less-realistic look.

 Side note -The myth of "multimedia"  I've heard some people claim that using tools such as an blade to remove paint is equivalent to "multimedia," but this is an  incorrect use of the word. Multimedia means using more than one type of medium, such as  combining colored pencil and acrylic. Since most airbrushing usually involves only using airbrush paint  there is no other medium introduced when removing airbrush paint. Therefore the term multimedia applied as such is in error.


Freehand or Masks - Which is better?

Truth be told, there are situations where masks are more advantageous, and times where freehand is more suitable. If you want a soft, graduated, transition, nothing beats the freehand delivery of the airbrush. However, when it comes to hard edges, a mask yields superior results. Since the world is full of soft transitions, hard edges, and everything in-between, its worth considering both  both methods in your artistic repertoire.


What is the advantage of Freehand-only painting?

In one of my freehand workshops, we created a painting of a character without using any tools. At 19 hours the painting was still not completed. In a separate class we painted the same character at a slightly smaller size, using additional tools such as the blade, dowel, eraser and mask, and completed the portrait in 4.5 hours.

At the end of the freehand-only class the students concluded that the only advantage they could determine about freehand-only is being able to say that they completed the painting  freehand-only.


Oddly, the positions between the 2 camps is often contentious, with both sides hurling disparaging remarks across the aisle.

In the end, its always about personal choice. Some people enjoy the act of painting freehand only, even if it takes longer to complete a painting.

The other camp enjoys the speed and quality associated with using stencils, and subtractive techniques. With few exceptions, the quality of the final work is superior when using additional stencils and tools with airbrush work. However, for some individuals, the act of making the art is more important to them than the final outcome.






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Jaymz Onion

April 08, 2021

I have always regarded the customer who promptly attends to their payment installment to be the only source of criticism that should guide my decision of what technique to employ in any given project.


April 08, 2021

The style and surface would greatly factor into any decision to completion a t-shirt is different than a motorcycle tank. But mostly I think what ever it takes to achieve your desired end result is the factor, it is art after all and artists have license to use any tool they feel is necessary.

Greg Harmer

April 08, 2021

Bloody ridiculous! Of course stencils, masks , sheilds , blade , dowels and so on make for better quality, quicker art.
Can you picture a builder building a house with one tool only ? Or a dentist doing his job with only a drill ?
Does an airbrush artist who advocates airbrush only eat his food without a knife and fork , or walk to his work place while his car sits dormant at home ? .
I do and will continue to use anything that will help me in my quest to produce my artwork. Im sure that the purist airbrush only guy or girl uses some form of projection and a pencil ! If so then its not 100 percent airbrush only.

Frank Alexis

May 11, 2021

“Oddly, the positions between the 2 camps is often contentious, with both sides hurling disparaging remarks across the aisle.”

This is an understatement. I recall reading an artist’s post and she just kept going on and on about how she airbrushed her pictures in total freehand. I mean, she made it a point to highlight the fact that she hadn’t used any masks, exacto knife, eraser or anything. I don’t know why this irritated me so much.

It’s like she hadn’t placed the focus onto her artwork, as much as she was pointing out that she used the airbrush and only the airbrush and that was that. Maybe it was that she was speaking so highly of doing her work freehand that perhaps she felt that others who didn’t were probably cheating. Which sadly is something that I’ve heard before. I love my masks, both my personally created ones and the ones that I purchase. I just couldn’t see myself not using one.

Joseph Marquez

July 24, 2021

I am new to airbrushing, but I have been a tattoo artist for over 25 years. Only, the purest diehards tattoo without a stencil. Have you ever looked at the top tattoo guys patterns when doing a portrait? They look like a topographical map of Utah! Like most have said here, whatever achieves the best result, do it!


March 11, 2023

Je ne peux pas dire si les pochoirs sont ou pas les outils du vrai peintre… Personnellement, j’utilise lame, gomme et pochoirs pour les formes et textures.
Mon handicap m’interdit certains mouvements, l’utilisation des 2 mains simultanément, alors j’ai une plaque de fer et les caches et outils pratiques sont mis aec des aimants. Sans tout cela je ne pourrais pas peindre.
Alors dois-je me considérer comme un peintre de pacotille ? Je ne sais pas. LA peinture pour moi est un ressenti, une histoire que l’on se raconte. Alors cette histoire a-t-elle plus de valeur si je la lis en numérique ou avec un livre broché ? Tout es là. ! Si seulement certains arrêtaient de vouloir tout catégoriser, mesurer ou se croire meilleurs… LA vie est belle et nous offre des facilités. C’est bien… Je les utilise. Belle journées à vous. JJ VITIELLO

Michael Talo

April 16, 2024

The most advantageous part of airbrushing free hand is the time you save and not having to stop to access tools cut templates redraw other templates using freehand and be truly proficient at freehand is meaning that it is simple to dictate as a wood a pencil so the timeliness and the application is much faster but you must dedicate yourself to freehand for many years I am now a free hand airbrush artist of 30 years using that airbrush repeatedly and now can do anything by request without having to stop to cut draw or design when you work in venues such as bike week NASCAR outdoor venues where you have a lot of volume of people this is also where airbrush freehand is advantageous

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