Airbrush Artist Uses Painting Experience To Create Lifelike Images

While flames and skulls are popular themes for airbrush artists, Cory SaintClair specializes in faces.

Cory SaintClair airbrushes intricate details of a model’s face onto the hood of a car. His technique involves applying paint in very faint layers, so faint, in fact, that the spray is not visible in this photo.Julia LaPalme

The first airbrush was patented in Iowa in 1887, and within a decade it had become popular as a means to touch up or completely alter photographs—like a 19th-century Photoshop. It wasn’t until the 1960s that airbrushers turned their nozzles toward the trunk lids and gas tanks of cars and bikes, and nowadays the word “airbrush” often brings to mind elaborate and detailed mural paintings on custom motorcycles.

The high-water mark for custom paint sits somewhere around 2012 or 2013. The popularity of custom streetbikes and the rise of bike-themed reality TV in the late 2000s sent riders scurrying to paint shops, which seemed to be cropping up everywhere. “Anybody and everybody sprouted up,” says Cory SaintClair, who is widely recognized as one of the best airbrush artists in the industry. “There was so much bad work that got put out there that people started straying away from doing big custom stuff. People got burned.”

"Airbrushing entails laying fine, thin layers to create incredibly detailed imagery."

SaintClair puts 30 years of painting experience to use to create photograph-grade works of art. He’s been airbrushing since he was 12. “As a kid I was really into art, but I was also a car and bike nut,” he recalls. “Then one day I flipped open a magazine and saw an airbrushed car—I had no idea you could do art on vehicles.”

Airbrushing entails laying on fine, thin layers of paint to create incredibly detailed imagery, but SaintClair says the painting part is easy. “The hardest part is the concept,” he says. “I’ll spend more time sitting and thinking than I do painting it. Next is trigger control. That’s a big issue for people. Everybody always goes too dark.” Indeed, SaintClair’s work is so delicate that the changes to the face he’s painting on a fairing are barely visible as he sweeps his gun across the panel.

A mural on a bagger’s batwing fairing might only call for 2 ounces of paint, but that paint may take 12 hours to apply. SaintClair admits that skulls and flames persist as popular themes, but his specialty is faces. “I concentrate on the eyes,” he says, leaving his gaze on the painting as he works. “That’s where the feeling is.”