Prehistoric Airbrushing

One could argue that people have been airbrushing since the paleolithic era. These “airbrushed” hand stencils have been found throughout the major Paleolithic cave painting sites of Indonesia and Europe, as well as throughout Aboriginal Australia. The ancient paintings were accomplished by blowing paint through hollow bones, yielding a finely grained distribution of pigment, similar to that of an airbrush..

Cave painting from about 30,000 years ago.

Bernoulli’s Principle

Ok, so maybe you don’t consider blowing pigment out of a bird bone airbrushing. Well, how about using a mouth atomizer? The mouth atomizer was used long ago before spray cans or airbrushes were invented. It was used by marblers to make the Italian Vein pattern, which requires a fine spray of gall water over the surface of the size, to break up the colors into thin veins.

When air is blown through a horizontal tube it will create a siphoning effect on liquid, drawing it up a vertical tube and projecting it outward into a spray. The science behind this can be explained with Bernoulli’s principle. In fluid dynamics, Bernoulli’s principle states that an increase in the speed of a fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in pressure or a decrease in the fluid’s potential energy. The principle is named afer Daniel Bernoulli who published it in his book Hydrodynamica in 1738.

Pat Dews mouth atomizer (left). Bernoulli’s Principle (right).

Peeler’s Paint Distributor

But is a mouth atomizer really an airbrush? Well, it’s not much of a mechanical devise and it offers little control and therefore is not commonly reffered to as an airbrush.

The subject of who invented the airbrush is of some controversy. Wikipedia credits the first airbrush patent to Francis Edgar Stanley of the Stanely Steamer Company in 1876. However, Professor Andy Penaluna who spent 25 years researching the history or the airbrush acredits the invention to an eccentric jewler from Iowa named Abner Peeler. (Um, we’ll take the guy-who-did-25-years-of-research’s word for it.)

Abner Peeler’s devise was assembled with the following pieces:

• a spoon
• a sewing needle
• a bent screwdriver
• old brass welding tubes

These pieces were placed on wooden pieces and connected to a foot pump air compressor of that Peeler also invention. It was called Paint Distributor and was used to paint watercolor and other pictorial techniques.

A painting of Peeler’s “Paint Distributor” by Andy Penaluna who studied the history of the airbrush for 25 years.

The device seems rather crude compared to airbrushes of today. Yet, here is proof of concept: A painted photograph of Peeler that he painted himself with the tool he invented. Not bad, right?

“I invented the Air Brush in the year 1878, and have the first picture ever made with an air brush, which was made a month after it’s invention”
(Abner Peeler. Fort Dodge Chronicle, 1893)

Air Brush Manufacturing Co

The first company to sell a device called an “Air Brush” was the Air Brush Manufacturing Co. of Rockford IL. Liberty Walkup saw potential in Peeler’s “Paint Distributor.” He and his brother Charles, in 1882 acquired the patent and the original prototype by for $700. That same year, an improved version of the Peeler’s prototype was put up for sale by the two brothers, who marketed is as an “Air Brush.”

“Despite earlier claims to the contrary, the first mass produced art tool for photo retouching and art was sold by the Air Brush Manufacturing Co. in 1885. Based on a device designed by Abner Peeler that employed a jam spoon, a sewing needle, some fencing staples and blocks of wood, this instrument led the way for modern image manipulation. Artwork created with this restored Air Brush has been exhibited in the Mall Galleries London, proving beyond doubt that it was an intricate way of painting. All mechanical paint spraying devices followed this instrument – it was a real world first.”

– Dr Andy Penaluna

This device, made by Air Brush Manufacturing Co. was the first mass produced airbrush.