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Bleach: The Airbrush Illustrator’s Harsh Friend

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By Michael Cacy

Bleach can be an indispensable, almost magical tool for the airbrush illustrator. But, before you rush off to the laundry room, there are a few things you should know about bleach … what it can do, what it can’t do, and what its hazards are.

Household bleach may be used to adjust intensity and value in watercolor art. You can go so far as to eliminate most colors. You can also use it to create special effects such as flares and highlights. Art supply stores carry a commercial “color remover” to be used for exactly the same purpose.

Unscrew the cap, take a whiff and you tell me … sure smells like laundry bleach, doesn’t it?

Working With Dyes

I use a watercolor dye … a bottled concentrated aniline watercolor dye (I prefer Dr. Martin’s) on pieces where I plan to, or suspect I may need to use bleach. Almost all of my work is for reproduction, so, because the art is photographed almost as soon as it is finished, I’m not terribly concerned about longeVity. Aniline watercolor dyes are “fugitive color. They fade faster than other media.  I wouldn’t use watercolor dye for a piece intended to hang on a wall for a long period. But store the art in a drawer or
folder and it’ll last almost indefinitely.

I enjoy rendering with concentrated watercolor dye and the bleach adds another dimension to the process. Most often I use a diluted household bleach solution, half bleach and half water. I’ll go a little stronger with the bleach when necessary, but I rarely use it full strength, because the bleaching process can go too fast. It’s too easy to lose control of the process. Remember, bleach is colorless and it takes a few seconds to take its effect on the color medium. Lightly “fog” the area you’re working, and watch for a few seconds to check what the effect will be. Then make consecutive passes in this manner with the airbrush until you get the desired result. It’s a fascinating slow motion process to watch as the bleach takes hold. Don’t get in a hurry. If you can see that the frisket material is wet, stop and let it dry before going any further.

If  there are “cut lines” in the illustration board (made as you cut your frisket), the bleach may build up along tile frisket edge and settle in these grooves, softening tile paper surface. Too much bleach can damage tile working surface.  So by starting on a high quality illustration board you can eliminate headaches further down the line.

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Some colors are more vulnerable to bleach than others, Sepia, for example, is not as easy to bleach as colors in the primary range, I use a scrap of my illustration board for constant color”testing as I work … so it’s easy to experiment with the bleach before jeopardizing the art.

Bleach Can Be Rough On Materials

I pointed out that bleach can, if used too enthusiastically, damage the surface of illustration board. It can also harm the insides of your airbrush if you get careless. Since the interior components are designed to resist rust, most of those parts are made of brass. Brass will corrode with prolonged exposure to bleach. So, it’s best to clear your airbrush by blowing through plenty of water soon after using bleach.

A nice finishing touch technique, for popping in “hot spots” (or small highlights), is to place or dot a highlight in, with the tail end of a regular bristle brush that has a drop of full strength bleach on it. You do this after the frisket has been removed, of course. Then, when this area dries, shoot a quick blast of slightly dilute bleach directly at the spot, to give it some flare.

(I recommend using the tail end of the brush to dot in flares because bleach is brutal on natural bristles. When it’s necessary to apply a highlight with the “bristle” end of a brush, use an old one-or your least favorite brush.)

And Bleach Can Be Rough On You!

Don’t breathe the vaporized bleach when working with the airbrush. I’ve been known to wear a painter’s mask when fogging large areas. If you can detect a “cloud” of bleach in the air, take a break and leave the room for a couple of minutes to let it settle. If you use bleach as sparingly as I do, it needn’t be a health problem. Enough on the evils … let’s get back to technique.

But It Can Be A Lifesaver …

Revisions are common in the illustration biz, so bleach  can be a real lifesaver. Most liquid watercolors can be completely bleached out. If the bleached area is completely dry, new color can be applied as if the board was never touched. Using this technique – of bleaching out large areas – I’ve been able to save jobs that would otherwise have had to have been completely redone.

Other Uses

A speckling effect can be achieved by using a stronger bleach solution. This technique may have a lot of application in some projects, especially on those occasions where you need to create a “texture” to your illustration.

When you want to just lighten a value (in a smooth  manner), simply use a more dilute mixture.
When you need to lighten one of those difficult-to-bleach colors (such as sepia), try to save that portion of the illustration until last. Then mix a little “permanent white” gouache with the bleach solution. What the bleach doesn’t remove the white gouache will cover. This technique, by the way, is one of those fine trial-and-error discoveries that comes along every so often .. .one you use only every so often. But it is very nice to know about.

To sum up, bleach can be a fun tool. It’s a substance most of us consider mundane-but it can achieve spectacular special effects, correct mistakes, and subtly alter color values. It’s just another trick so use it only when you need it.

Don’t find yourself a slave to the technique by designing one job after another around it. And remember, save a little for the laundry!

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