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 a 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.