There is a funny story at the end of the historical stuff, so if you don’t care about how airbrushed caricatures got started in theme parks, skip down to the last three paragraphs.
The Origin of the Airbrushed Live Caricature
There are many different techniques used to color live caricatures, from the old “chalk and glove” method to prisma color stix (essentially crayon), to pastels, to watercolors. Airbrush is one you see in a lot of theme parks and tourist centers all around the country. While I’m sure a few of them started doing it independently, the vast majority of them are offshoots of the company Fasen Arts, which first started using the technique in the summer of 1986 at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Il. I was there when Steve and Gary Fasen worked out the basic method, and I was one of only four artists that worked with the airbrush that summer.
It all started the season before in 1985, when Gary and Steve were trying to figure out a fast, clean, and impressive color technique that would allow them to sell a full color caricature for a higher price. We were using a soft 4B graphite pencil for the linework, and shading it with a blending stomp. One of the initial ideas was to ground chalk into a fine powder and have a palette of colors, each with their own blending stomp, as a variation of the “chalk and glove” technique. That was experimented with and discarded as being too messy, slow and not very impressive looking. During the offseason that year caricaturist Dave Kamish and airbrush T-shirt artist Doug Mahnke (yes, THAT Doug Mahnke who is now a major comic book artist for DC and others) went out to Las Vegas and set up a caricature booth at a downtown casino. Dave drew the caricatures and Doug airbrushed over Dave’s drawings to create a color caricature. They returned to Minnesota from Vegas with examples of how it looked and reports on the proficiency of the technique.
That was great, but we obviously could not have a second artist color the work done at the theme park. We needed to take the basic idea, and make it self contained and efficient. That winter several artists experimented with various paints, kinds of airbrushes, and paint feed methods in the basement of Gary’s Burnsville home. I went there a couple of times and played around with some different airbrushes and paints myself. In the spring emerged a single brush, multiple bottle method that was quick, clean, and looked very cool when completed.
Gary, myself, Chuck Senties and Mark Sanislo were the guinea pig artists who test drove the technique in a commercial setting at one of the three caricatures booths Fasen Arts had at Six Flags Great America. We were still working out the kinks. We started by using a “flesh” colored paint that necessarily contained a lot of white pigment (the bane of unclogged airbrushes everywhere), but eventually dumped it for a palette that used the white of the paper for the “white” paint, building color in layers. That proved to be the final piece of the puzzle.
Today you see variations of this airbrush method all over the country, and probably 95% of those using it learned it either from Fasen Arts directly, or from artists who learned it from Fasen and then went out on their own. It all started in Gary Fasen’s basement.
I promised a funny story after all that history, so here it is:
One of the biggest frustrations with airbrushing a caricature is when your airbrush has some kind of mechanical problem right at the end of a drawing and some unexpected splat of paint comes out and ruins your caricature. This has led to some very creative ways of ‘fixing’ the drawing when that happens. I remember one instance when I was drawing back at Great America where I saved a drawing that was ruined right at the last second.
Great America is located right near the Great lakes Naval Academy, so we would ofter draw a lot of sailors and their significant others during weekends away, complete with summer whites and “Gilligan” caps. I was drawing a couple that was part of a big group of Navy folks, and right at the end of the drawing I was applying the usual “royal blue” color in the background when a big drop of it fell from my bottle and plopped right on the guy’s nose in the drawing. I grabbed a rag and blotted it, but the damage was done. That blue is a very intense color and there was no way I was going to be able to paint over it. It was right in the center of his nose and looked like it was dripping down the side of said nose. The crowd groaned, thinking I’d have to start over.
I sat there for a second contemplating what to do next. The guy had a natural sort of crabby expression on his face in the drawing, so that gave me an idea. I had some white-out with me so I covered the blue paint on his nose with it, making a big blue spot a big white spot. Then I erased his pupil and iris (which where mainly pencil) and redrew them looking up in the sky above him. Then I drew a seagull flying past with a smart-ass look on his face and a little white drip coming out of his rear end. Crowd howled, couple laughed hard, drawing sold.
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