Live Long and Prosper

This artwork could be straight out of a 1970’s Star Trek poster. But it is a 2m wide airbrush artwork on the back of a 1980 Bedford van . . . called GENESIS.

Note: This is a long article. I originally wrote up a detailed account of this project for the Airbrush Venturi teachers. But everyone that read it said that I should write it up for Airvolution because it contained so much information about the process that was used.

The story begins with Garry Armstrong. Garry lives in Auckland NZ and is a man who is seriously dedicated to the van movement. He is a founding member of the Palour Vans Club (an Auckland custom van club) from back in 1976 and a founding member of the Vans Association of NZ from back in 1980. He is currently the Secretary of the “Parlour Vans Club” and the Treasurer of VANZ“”.

He has owned a van for over 40 years and is still passionately investing considerable time money and effort in his passion. His current project, he has had since 1985, a Bedford CF long wheel base van.

This van has been off the road for the last 7 years, but before that it was driven from one end of the country to the other; truly the ultimate “weekender on wheels”.

The amount of work that went into the van even before it arrived at the PPG National Training Centre in Auckland was epic. The custom skirts and rear of the vehicle is all metal. There is no fibreglass. Garry (shown here) did all the metal work himself, by hammer, english wheel, file and and heat treatment. It took both of us 5 hours just to sand the vehicle down with 600, and that was even with the wonderful Mirka pneumatic sanders at PPG.

For those of you that know this vehicle, you will recognise that it is not a standard shape. It has had a lot of work done to change the shape of the sides, back and front.

It would be fair to assume that these shapes are created in fibreglass, but you would be wrong. Garry completed a course in vintage car restoration, where he learned to shape steel, using hammer, english wheel and file and to lead fill. He created all the shapes you see in steel and welded them onto the van. This work was undertaken from 1987 to 1990.

If you have ever tried shaping steel using these tools and processes, you will have a lot of respect for the workmanship and effort that has gone into the preparation of the body.

Then the body was bead blasted back to bare metal, plasmacoated (aluminium galvansided) and then epoxy primed. His preparation has been meticulous. It was then shipped to one of the top custom painters and pinstripers in NZ, Charlie Allen. Charlie applied a black base with blue pearl clearcoat.

I was amazed at how flat the panels were. Normally a vehicle of this age has serious ripples through it and panels don’t fit well, etc. Garry had gone to a huge effort in the metal work, getting the panels incredibly smooth.

From there, the van was flatbed trucked to the PPG National Training Centre in Mt Wellington in Auckland. PPG have been a huge supporter of custom paint in NZ and an even bigger supporter of Airbrush Venturi and myself. I have been conducting airbrush courses out of this training centre for 16 years.

They agreed to allow me to use the training centre to airbrush the van and to supply the materials for the airbrush painting. I would have used close to 10 litres of paint over the 2 weeks. As with the airbrush courses that I run in Auckland, without PPG’s support, this project would never have happened.

PPG recently completed a huge refurbishment of their training centre, building new downdraft prep bays, and it was here that I was to custom paint the van.

This is the drivers side concept artwork. Even though I felt that the design was perfect, when we started projecting and drawing up, it was clear that small changes needed to be made to each design element to better fit the van.
This is the passenger side of the vehicle. The biggest change we made to this side when we were drawing up, was to shrink the rear planet down, so it was not cutting through the passenger window. It now looks much better.

Day 1:
I flew in on Sunday, December 1st and on Monday 2nd, Garry and I spent the entire day sanding, cleaning, masking and projecting the first side of the vehicle.

Having access to the prep bay meant access to the Mirka mechanical sanders. These made a huge difference to the process. We were able to prep the entire vehicle in about 5 hours. We used Scotchbrite pads for the sharp edges to avoid sanding through.

I don’t use Prepsol in the preparation process. I prefer to use a 50:50 mix of metho and water and old fashioned elbow grease. I find the Prepsol can leave a residue, if you do not rub it off properly. The only downside to rubbing it down was the incredible heat and humidity of Auckland in Summer. I drank litres of water every day to ensure that I stayed hydrated.

Garry and I spent MONTHS haggling over the design for the vehicle.

This was one of the many reject designs for the back. In the end, Garry wanted something simple but joined the two sides nicely. I think the final choice for the back does this well.

Despite over 40 hours of Photoshop work over this period, we still couldn’t agree on the final design for the back and front, when I flew into Auckland to start. Not an ideal situation.

A later addition to the design, was the creation of an original graphic spelling out the name of the van GENESIS using “Vulcan” lettering . I worked from the alphabet and the design layouts below for my inspiration. I had no idea there was a Vulcan alphabet!! It took about 6 hours of drawing, vectoring and plotting to prepare the stencils for the two sides . . . a lot of work for a very small feature on the van.

Although it is only small, the graphic filled a void on both sides of the vehicle in a great way. We had tried to fit all sorts of images in these narrow sections, and nothing looked right. Both Gary and I agree that this graphic fills the two spaces perfectly and adds something intriguing to the whole concept.

The Vulcan alphabet spells out the name of the van . . . GENESIS

Day 2:
Starting a project this large is always daunting, even for me (with 34 years of full time airbrush experience). The timeline was cut from 15 days to 11 days. This meant that given the roughly 20 square metre area of the van and the complexity of the designs; everything needed to go right the first time. There would be no time available to completely redo any part of the project a second time. It had to be right the first time!

I began with the drivers side because it was the simplest of the two sides. I began with the nebula because it was the “back” and the easiest part of the artwork on this side.

Every star had three to four layers. I started with a large white glow, then it was colourised blue and then a small white star was added at the end. Sometimes I would then add a white glow as well for the larger stars. Do that 2000 times on a van. It will try your patience.

In hindsight, it would have saved me a little bit of time if I had airbrushed the Enterprise first and then masked it off . . . and then airbrushed the nebula. Trying to create the nebula and galaxy without completely erasing the line work for the Enterprise cost me a little bit of time.

Every single star on this side had three layers of dots. The first layer was an oversized white dot (D700) . The second layer was Transparent Blue (D754) to colourise the dot. The third was a small white dot. Every white star had a blue glow and for the larger stars, I finally added a white glow as well. The same process was used for the blue nebula.

Applying the white cloud felt wrong at first, because it was so bright, but the more I did the better it looked.

This was where I got up to on Day 2 – my first day of airbrushing. I was happy to get this far on the first day, because you are always slow on day 1 and you only get faster from there.

The rings of the planet were created by sliding the airbrush along a broom handle, with Garry holding one end for me. I had a 3inch masking tape roll taped to the handle and could raise or lower it by twisting. It worked very well.

Day 3:
The planet was created using simple Unit 3 textures in white and then colourised using D754 and D777 Transparent Green.

The Enterprise was created using loose stencils. I used the Airbrush Supply Networks A3 Round and Elliptical Spirals and the Curve Master . . . and a straight edge piece of paper. That’s it.

The artwork of William Shatner as Captain Kirk proved to be a little tricky. We had run out of time on the first day when I projected and drew the image, and had rushed the drawing. It proved to be so poor that I had to just visual scale my way out and visual scaling slows you down.

I am happy with the end results.

Starting with a black base meant that I had to start with white and create the form backwards. Then I colourised it with Blue (D754) to flat base . . . and repeated the process several times.

Once I was happy with the base, I then created the shadow and highlight form (Inverse Rendering). At the end the artwork was still too vividly blue, so I lightly worked a pastel blue over the artwork to diffract the blue, lowering its saturation and tonality simultaneously.

Airbrushing this battleship ending up being much more complex than I thought. Because we had flipped it and then tried to flip the lettering back, there were all sorts of problems getting the text to look correct. But that was for another day.

• At this point I would like to say that this entire project was a perfect validation of everything that Airbrush Venturi teaches in the Venturi System. But the processes that I used to finish off this portrait were a wonderful validation of our unique colour systems from Unit 4 and 5.

At the end of Day 3 he helped me apply the Vulcan writing at the back of the van. I applied a white base and then colourised it blue. Then we applied a strong coat of blue pearl (D943).

Day 4:
This photo shows the overall finished Driver Side artwork. Garry would finish work early every day and come in and help out if he could. He would mix paints for me (40% Deltron : 60% Medium thinners) and hold the end of the broom handle, etc.

• “Three Layer Pearl” artwork
The entire artwork had blue pearl shaded over it. Being transparent, it could be applied to any part of the artwork without covering up anything. The same went for every part of the van. We used the follow PPG pearls . . . D943 / D960 / D958 / D957 / D956. The Yellow and Red pearls have a degree of opacity, but by being careful, this behaviour was used to great effect to blend the nebula textures into the black base even more smoothly.

At just the right angles, the pearls would light up. We are anticipating that the pearl will look particularly good in low light conditions, such as in traffic, of an evening. I was able to complete the artwork on this side to this point after only 2.5 days. Although I would come back at the end and make significant changes on the Enterprise that would swallow another two hours.

I needed the first side of the artwork to go well. I was so relieved when I got to this stage after only 3 days. I started to think I might be able to complete the artwork within the shortened time window. I also needed to impress Garry – to show him that that the artwork was going to live up to his high expectations.

The afternoon on the third day was taken up with turning the vehicle around and projecting up the passenger side. Given the rush during the drawing of the first side, I was keen to make sure that I had the time to ensure that the drawing was detailed and accurate. Once I got into the artwork though, my drawing proved to be inaccurate and did not have enough detail. The lesson is, you cannot not have too much information in your line drawing

• The Venturi Airbrushes from Airbrush Supply Network
Not only was this project a wonderful validation of my 34 years of research into realist rendering systems with an airbrush, it was a wonderful validation of the Venturi airbrush design from the Paasche brothers in the US.

I used two airbrushes, one fitted with a medium 0.35mm nozzle and the other with a large 0.75mm nozzle. I would change back and forth from one to the other often. To say that they worked beautifully is an understatement.

Those of you that know my airbrushing, I use ultra short stroke airbrushing. This means that my finger is rocking back and forth extremely rapidly. There are over 1000 stars on the van, and every one of them has 3 to 4 layers on them. Every layer had to be created with multiple trigger actions. I predict that I would have rocked the trigger back and forth over 10,000+ times just for the stars alone.

I cannot speak highly enough of the Venturi Airbrushes from Airbrush Supply Network. The unique trigger shape and ball-and-socket pivot design makes these airbrushes a joy to use when it comes to 120+ hours straight compressed into 2 weeks

One airbrush was fitted with the 0.35mm set up and the other with the the 0.75mm set up. Both worked amazingly well. The size of the trigger, the smooth ball-and-socket trigger pivot action, and the adjustable tension on the trigger return spring, all helped to make every stroke smooth and less tiring. I don’t want to sound like a paid advert, but these airbrushes rock!

Another major point is the use of siphon fed feature on the airbrushes, with jars. I had 14 jars running and I would change colours every couple of minutes. Over a 9 hour period I would easily change colours 100+ times. Gravity fed airbrushes would have cost me hours of cleaning everyday. Gravity fed airbrushes are a complete waste of time under professional conditions like this!

I have included this photo to show the artwork after the first stage of creating the textures with the custom mix of opaque Pastel Orange.

Day 5:
Starting from black was a little easier with this artwork because I needed to create complex textures as the base and I ALWAYS create these textures using negative space – light on dark. I created the transparent tonal Orange that I used on top first, and then simply added white to create the opaque tinted tonal Orange for the textures.

I worked the textures multiple times and created the highlight shapes, to ensure that I would not have to go back again to create any highlights. Once this stage was complete, I then applied the transparent tonal Orange over the top as an even flat base. The key was to not over darken the Orange at the start of this process. I knew that I would be able to tone the orange further when I got to the shadow stage, if it was needed – and it was.

This artwork is over 2m high and looks very impressive when you are up close. The reaction from the PPG staff when they visited, to this portrait was very positive – always a good sign.

With this artwork I started with “light”, then went “vivid” and then finished with “dark”. Then I mixed a tonal Purple (D979) for the shadow form; and created the shadow form. There is NO Black on this portrait. As much as the Purple on the Orange looks black, the pale layers toned the Orange perfectly, whereas Black would have looked dirty.

The next stage was the use of Ruby (Transparent Purple Hue Red – D757) You can see the Red at the top left of the forehead, but there are areas on the face and hand where the red is clearly visible when you stand in front of the artwork.

The final stage was the vivid white highlights. When I first created them, Garry thought they looked too vivid. So applied a pale layer of the Orange over them. He then said that he preferred the White. It would be easy to get annoyed with a client when they get you to make changes from the artwork design concept – but it didn’t bother me.

I am extremely happy with this portrait. I think it is a highlight of the artwork. I find the process of making changes with PPG Deltron so quick and easy that I am never bothered when I have to make adjustments.

This brought me to the end of the first week. What an amazing week.

The drivers side was designed to be a “monochrome” artwork – all in Blues . . . with a hint of Green. The passenger side was designed to be a monochrome artwork – all in Orange’s, with a hint of Purple.

I have a real problem with doing “full colour” artworks on cars. I think they just look like a sticker. I purposely set out to deliver the most “creative” mural concept that I could. The idea of creating monochrome artworks with pearl over the top was the best strategy in my opinion.

I think it worked!

Day 6 – Week 2:
I began the day by creating the planet. At first I tried freehanding the textures, but they didn’t look good. So I moved to creating the textures using crumpled paper sponging. The result was exactly what I was looking for.

The only downside was that the thinners would weaken the paper and fibres would break away and embed themselves in the artwork. It took lots of layers of textures and colourising in a receding layer structure to build the planet. Charlie Allen would have had his work cut out for him when he clear coated the van – to get it to show standard.

I was indecisive about the production of the Orange nebula at the start. I tried using torn paper stencils, but again the result didn’t look right. So I switched to the freehand techniques that I use for clouds. So all I did was paint clouds in white all over the front half of this side. Then I colourised them with Yellow and Orange.

I have tried to find a Transparent Yellow in the Deltron range for years without success. But when I asked Luke the PPG Training Manager for NZ, he said “yes there was”! Transparent Gold (D980) . . . where have you been all my life. In the colour fan it is shown as brown. But when applied in pale layers it is a vivid clean Yellow.

Day 5 was very successful.

Day 7-8:
The “wheel fell off” the painting of the Enterprise on this side. It was the first set back.

The below photo shows the second version. The first version was never finished. I miss judged the suitability of the first reference that was used in the design concept. I thought that its “airbrush-ability” was good, but I was wrong. The reference image was far too vague. As a result the airbrush artwork was not coming up to standard.

Garry, being the resident Star Trek expert . . . he dug up a much better image, that was at the exact same angle, etc. The fact that I had already completed the entire background meant that replacing the reference mean that the outer proportions had to remain the same.

The only problem was that the proportions were different. With the digital projector connected to the laptop, I found that by having the image on Adobe Indesign, I was able to stretch the design to exactly fit the existing proportions. Then I turned the reference image into a high contrast B&W, so that I could see the new image on the existing colour base. I literally airbrushed the new Enterprise straight off the projection.

In the end, I only lost 5 hours and was able to render the second version quickly. The final result was an amalgamation of both references, which I am pleased about . . . that I wasn’t just copying a single image. It is an original artwork of this Enterprise.

When we rolled the artwork forward into the sun, the artwork with the orange and yellow pearls over the top just lit up. The edge of the sun is so obvious.

• No Kandy’s
I purposely chose to NOT use Kandy’s on this project (I am convinced they make artworks like this look dirty . . . and they fade quickly), it meant that I had to choose solid colours that were as transparent as possible.

Although they have none of the nasty bleed back problems associated with Kandy’s, the white stars had to be applied several times on this side as they “sank” into the transparent colours – after I had applied heavy coats of the D895 Colour Blender (intercoat clear).

Day 8-9:
After the less than comprehensive drawing efforts on the first two sides, I was keen to make sure that I put as much detail into the back image as possible. The reference I had been supplied for this artwork was very detailed, and this made the process and the final result so much easier and better. The combination of the high quality reference and the fact that it was a simple Inverse Rendering package that we teach every day in class, made this artwork very enjoyable to paint.

The only issue was that it took much longer than I thought it would. I thought one day would be enough, but it ended up taking two full days to create Enterprise. Because I was using loose stencils for all the intricate details, the stencils kept scratching the artwork. This meant that I had to D895 each small section. I would airbrush for an hour and then clear coat, over and over.

The result is a real highlight of the van. The level of detail in the artwork means that it can take close examination and still be effective.

The moon was a last minute addition. I worked from a simple planet reference and just used the standard Unit 3 textures in white and then colourised in Blue.

No effort was gone to, to keep the edge of the planet or Enterprise clean, because I planned to mask both of them when I did the background, and this stage would clean up the edges.

Day 10:
I was well into day 10 when I finally completed the Enterprise and Moon. I quickly gave them a layer of D895. Once this clear was fully dried, I masking the Enterprise and the Planet using clear app. tape (that we use in the Pinstriping courses). This enabled me to use white to build the nebula’s across the whole back section, and at the same time clean up the overspray when I airbrushed the Enterprise and planet.

The only problem is that this mask created a sharp lip in the paint which will make it harder to get a glass finish clear at the end of the project. Although I applied numerous heavy coats of D895 across the whole back, to try and lower the height of this edge, it will still require a flow coated clear to fill this edge.

I went crazy with the nebula shapes on the back in white. Then I colourised them with Ruby D757, Transparent Blue D754 and Transparent Violet D979. This meant that they all looked to vivid and in your face. So I then finished off all the shapes with a custom mix blue black and toned everything down.

Day 10.5:
With no after hours access to the training centre, and with time running out, we resorted to unbolting the bonnet and taking it home over the weekend. Being able to relax and take out time with the bonnet over the weekend bought me valuable time and ensured that the final day was more relaxed.

Clint from Headspace Signs cut out the GENESIS stencil. We got him to cut it straight, but we later realised that the area we were going to place it had a subtle curve. So we sliced the stencil down the middle and gave it a 3mm bend. The lettering followed the curve of the bonnet nicely.

The Star Trek logo was a last minute addition. We applied excess vinyl from the lettering and taped a print of the logo on top. I then hand cut the stencil shapes. I had to cut very carefully. I then just progressively lifted and sprayed each section. The results look good.

Day 11:
The final day was always going to be a busy one. It began by bolting the bonnet back onto the van and then airbrushing the nebula out across the bonnet and onto the quarter panels, to link everything together. Again I applied several heavy coats of D895 to try and flatten the raised edges of the stencil airbrushing of the letter and logo.

I really like the front layout. This is all Garry. I tried all sorts of concept layouts and nothing looked good. But this is a great “beginning”.

• The client can lead you astray:
Garry is a passionate Star Trek fan and he was keen for everything to be as authentic and accurate as possible. On this Enterprise he pushed me to render the engines with the correct bright blue. The only problem was that the blue suck out like “dogs balls” and looked wrong. I had to re-photoshop the artwork to show him how the side of the van would look with the engines coloured with orange and purple, to be in keeping with the monochrome scheme.

We reached a compromise as you can see. I layered Orange and Purple onto the engines, to make them fit with the overall theme of the Orange / Purple . . . but a pale hint of the blue was left showing.

• Finishing Up:
With artworks this complex and involved in their production, after 10 days there are numerous marks from my accidentally scuffing a spot, or a buried hair, etc.
Garry and I both tack ragged the entire van and then Garry inspected the vehicle minutely, looking for any little mark that needed attention. He used Yellow masking tape to mark every spot that needed to be adjusted. The van was covered in dozens of Yellow tape snippets. But each only took a minute to repair.

Where ever I had used stencils, there were issues with the edge after the D895 had dried and shrunk back. There was a lot of loose stencil corrections of the original sharp adhesive stencil edges.

• D895 Colour Blender:
I am always surprised by how much the D895 reveals places where I had not airbrushed a shape properly. I say surprised, but I knew it would and relied on the Colour Blender to reveal the areas that needed to be reworked.

The last big change was to re-airbrush the top half of the Enterprise on the drivers side.

Garry was so impressed with the textures that I had created on the back Enterprise that he asked me to apply the same textures to the drivers side. He also wanted the lettering to be completely re-airbrushed.

Initially I had freehand airbrushed the lettering but it looked too out-of-focus. So the second time, I loose stenciled the letters. I am going to go into detail about how I did this on the next page.

The photo here shows me loose stencilling the lettering. It was quite straight forward. The problems arose because I had flipped the Enterprise on the concept artwork on Photoshop, so that it was traveling in the right direction, but it meant that the lettering had to be flipped.

But then it turned out that it also needed to be rotated around the Enterprise to align with the centre of the space craft. Rotating it meant hand drawing the lettering to fit properly. This all turned out to be much trickier than we both thought it would be.

The saving grace of this whole project is my ability to make endless changes to an artwork until something feels right. The system we teach of “Clean and Base” is so powerful.

• ASN Lettering Stencil:
Airbrush Supply Network manufactures hundreds of stencils, but many are not appreciated for their usefulness at specific times. The ASN Zig-Zag stencil is one of them.

This stencil has a series of sharp corners, varying from 160˚ to 10˚. This stencil makes the task of creating lettering on artworks easier than any other way. You simply create the corners with dots and then join the corners with half dot gradations.

In the case of this artwork, if I got any overspray outside of the corner I was trying to create, it was simple to reverse cut with the grey base colour . . . using the opposite positive space mirror of the negative space stencil at the bottom edge. In the situation that I was in with this artwork, there literally was no other way of do this.

As effective as this stencil was, it was not until I fogged the lettering with white, with only a very light 10% layer that the lettering looked like it was genuinely part of the Enterprise.

After this there were numerous small touch ups require to satisfy Garry that we had done everything that could be done. We could easily have gone on for another 4 -6 hours of changes and touch-ups. But we simply ran out of time. I had a plane to catch and the cleanup was going to be a time consuming task.

In all there were 25 colours at the end.
1 x Colour Blender
1 x Thinners for rinsing
4 x Pearls
6 x Blues
1 x Green
1 x Purple
1 x OH Yellow
1 x Trans Yellow
2 x Oranges
3 x Reds
1 x Black
1 x Blue Black
1 x Grey
1 x White

Once we packed everything and folded the tarp we had down, you would never have known that we had been there.

• Intercoat Clear-Coating
I have written about the importance of intercoat clearing many times and I think I need to keep saying it.

The intercoat clear . . .
• protected the artwork from loose stencils scratching it
• melted the layers together to show how the artwork would look once cleared
• exposed any layers that needed to be touched up
• smoothed out any textures and prepared the surface for the 2K clear at the end

But it all depends on how it is applied. On many occasions I applied the clear with the 0.75mm nozzle Venturi airbrush but it never gave the same results as when I used my Sata RP 4400 mini gun. This gun is amazing. I know of no other spray-gun that applies clear with such a controlled fine “fog”. The results are superb!!

This video was shot by Charlie Allen, after it had been clearcoated and polished.

• Costings for the project
For those of you that have made it all the way to the end of this article . . . you must be seriously interested . . . so I will end this article by going into some detail about the financial component of this project. Most artists do not like to reveal the money side of their projects . . . but I am not a commercial airbrush artist. I am an airbrush teachers and as such, “giving knowledge is my business”.

I charged Garry $11,000 for this project. This was for 50+ hours of design work and photoshop concepts and for the 12 days @ 9 hours a day. I would say that I spent about 160 hours on the entire project, overall. PPG supplied all the materials and the venue for free, saving Garry several thousand dollars.

Many has said that that this is very cheap. But if your were in Garry’s shoes, this is a lot of money. But I like to think that it is money well spent. This van is going to be the talk of NZ through the year 2021 and beyond for many years – because of this artwork.

The last point I want to make about this artwork costing, is that I roughly costed it at $500-600 per square metre. A digital print would half the price, once it was applied, but nobody would have been impressed . . . it would not win any “best paint at show” at any car show . . . it would fade quickly and be easily damaged . . . and it would have none of the vibrant colour intensity that comes from transparent pigments and pearls.

I want to thank . . .
Garry Armstrong for making all this happen!
My wife Bridget Vowles for arranging everything.
The NZ PPG team . . .
Dave White Meri Matich
Luke Cosford Tony Thorpe
Nick Black Duncan McDonnell
Mark Brierley Tim & Steve
. . . all for their enormous support and patience . . . and for all the material support.
Ken Fuller, for the use of a car.
Clint Herring, for the lettering stencils
Last but not least . . . Charlie Allen, for the base colour and amazing clearcoating.

• Auckland Airbrush Courses
I personally come over once a year and run a 10 Day airbrush course in Auckland, at the PPG National Training Centre, in Mt Wellington. This van artwork is the sort of thing that I can teach you. If you are interested, please contact me (Tony Vowles) on +61-418-324-530.

Written by Tony Vowles