The following article was published in the March-April 1988 issue of Airbrush Action magazine.
The airbrushed license plate has long been a favorite product of mine. It always seems to sell itself. I couldn’t begin to count how many I have painted in my time. Like the personalized T-shirt, they appeal to the customer’s ego. When a customer shops for one, he wants the best. A plate that will sell itself requires a good composition, contrasting colors, and most important, a high-gloss finish. Accomplishing these things takes a lot of practice and experimentation. I have tried many methods and have compiled what I feel are the best. So in response to letters from our readers, here’s my approach to creating a great-looking license plate. The first step in painting a license plate is to have a clean airbrush. A marketable plate must be flawless so your airbrush should be free of all lubricants and dirt. This will help you avoid a horrible problem known as fisheyeing, which is when lubricant is invisibly
blown out onto the plate surface. As we all know, oil repels water. So when a water-based paint is used, the spots of oil repel the paint, resulting in a pattern that resembles fish eyes.
When cleaning your airbrush, be sure to use solvent such as window cleaner or dishwashing detergent to break down the oil. If heavy lubricants such as fishing reel oil or any other long-term lubricants have been used, a thorough cleaning must be undertaken. Looks can be deceiving, so check care-fully to make sure that no lubricants still linger in the airbrush. Sometimes this may take two or three cleanings.
Another form of oil contamination comes from compressed air that is not properly filtered. This may be corrected by cleaning the moisture trap, draining the holding tank, or replacing old or dirty moisture trap filters.
Priming the Plate
Opinions differ as to which type of plate surface is best to paint on. Some artists prefer to use flat white plates, while others prefer a gloss white plate. I have observed that using the gloss enamel plates will create a higher-gloss finish. To prepare the plate for painting use Scotch Brite sanding pads instead of sandpaper. Sandpaper tends to cut tiny grooves into the enamel surface that will show up in the final finish. Start the sanding in a circular motion until the gloss on the plate is no longer visible. This process creates a tooth that will make the paint adhere to the plate. After sanding, clean the plate with soapy water or window cleaner to eliminate any dust or oil.
Now that we are ready for painting, I would like to share some thoughts about style. Every artist has his own. Creating your own style is what makes you stand apart from others. So be creative and experiment to find what’s best for you.
The scene that I have chosen to paint will demonstrate simple placement techniques that must be observed. In preparation for a new scene, I go through my reference file and find several photos of sunsets, beaches, and any other outdoor scenes that interest me. I then mentally piece together a scene.
I have chosen to use Aqua Flow textile paint. It seems to bond to the plate surface better.
Starting with blue, I paint the crest of the wave about one-third of the way from cleaner or dish washing detergent to the top of the plate. This will leave enough room for any lettering that may be added. Then I fill in the rest of the wave, keeping the bottom portion of the wave the darkest and gradually getting lighter toward the top. This gives the wave the illusion of depth. Some darker splotches are added to the breaking portion of the wave. The water in the fore- ground is added by using horizontal lines of different sizes.
Next comes the sky. A light mist of blue and long misty horizontal clouds are added at the top of the plate. Experiment with the placement of the clouds for greatest depth. Since these clouds are closer to you, they will be higher up on the plate.
At this point I select where the placement of the sun will be so that I can effectively place the clouds around the light source. To accomplish this, I put a light mist of pink around where the sun will be. Don’t over do it; leave a white space where the sun is. A light yellow mist is then laid down over the section closest to the sun. Layering the colors creates a smooth transition of color.
I usually run the horizon clouds up next to the top of the wave. Due to the limited amount of space, I’ve chosen to delete the background water to make more room for lettering. I use a violet for the horizon clouds. Keeping in mind the light source, I paint around the sun, somewhat framing the sun with the clouds. Don’t overdo it here. The key to this step is to keep it clean and simple.
To give the illusion of greater depth, I’ve added pink to the bottom of the long horizontal clouds at the top of the plate.
White has always been the most magical of all the colors. It seems to bring a beach scene to life.
I start with the white in the break of the wave and along the crest of the wave. For the breaking portion of the wave, I paint different-sized splotches of white, giving it a crashing effect. A light mist of white can be added above the crest of the wave, for mist being blown back.
Next the sun is added. Along with the sun, I rim-light the clouds closest to the sun with a fine white line. Notice that the clouds farthest away from the sun are mistier. A reflection of the sun is added to the water in the foreground.
Black is the final color to work with. Sea oats or palm trees may be added to frame the scene off. Again, don’t overdo it. Too many sea oats or palm trees can interfere with lettering.
The final and most crucial step is the gloss coat. Through many trials and errors I have perfected a high-gloss finish using K-mart clear enamel. It is inexpensive and very effective. Note that not all clear enamels are alike. Chemical make- up differs from product to product.
Make sure that the plate is dry and free of dust or lint. Any dust or lint will create a small bump in the final finish.
I apply a very light coat of enamel first. This helps to get an even second coat. (Note this coat should appear flat and not glossy.) Let the first coat dry. The second coat is tricky. I apply the second coat very thick or until a high gloss appears. This should be the way the plate will look when it is thoroughly dry.
Now the plate is ready for baking. I place the plate under the heat press at 350 degrees until dry. Once dry, it may take up to a week for the enamel to harden.
If a heat press is unavailable, a kitchen oven will do. The oven door must be kept open or the paint will discolor due to overheating. When using an oven, watch carefully for discoloring.
Once it’s dry, the plate may be dis- played and sold. If a customer wants a name added to the plate, you can sand off some to the gloss finish, add the name, and repeat the finishing process over it.
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