by Terry Hill (Airbrush Action Magazine March – April 1999)
A big part of being a T-shirt artist–or being in any business is knowing your market and how to capture its attention. This article focuses on young children. It isn’t about the average spring-breaker; we have plenty of designs for them. This is about their little brothers and sisters, whom we hope will grow up to be party-animal buyers.
The kid market is potentially the most stable-remember, many parents have a hard time saying “no.” The point is to capture children as customers now and ensure that they stay customers. I’m at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to designing for kids, because I have none. I don’t have any idea what the hottest doll or collector card or video game is at any given moment, so I listen closely to my customers. Through them I stay aware of what’s happening. I’ve determined that there are basically two types of kids: sweet, passive innocents or loud, obnoxious terrors. This standard appears to apply to both girls and boys.
In this article I present a design solution for each type. For those angels there’s “Cute Little Frog,” and for the terrors, “Aggressive White Shark.” I’ll also discuss proper stenciling techniques and offer advice on how to choose color properly to create more impact.
To be successful in the T-shirt business you have to keep abreast of trends and react quickly to events. For example, a savvy artist could have a design worked up and painted within hours of an extreme weather event such as a flood, hurricane, or earthquake (“I survived … etc.”)
Teenagers are also an important, but fickle, market. Airbrushed T-shirts may be cool one month and totally out the next. The mid- to late 1980s-when the preppy look was popular, followed by the grunge rocker look were the low point. You couldn’t give teenagers airbrushed shirts.
Thankfully things have changed, and for the past seven years, sales have been up in both our local and traveling businesses. Younger kids are the one group that will probably always buy airbrushed products. Focus a lot of effort on designing for them, and you will see returns. Display your kid designs at their eye level. Often, children will fall in love with a certain item and won’t leave without it, no matter what the parents do.
The average price of a child’s airbrushed shirt is $16 to $24, including the shirt, and the designs featured in this article r6ughly represent both extremes. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have things available for $10. You have to cover all the bases and make sure you have something for every budget. Offering a large design on the back of a shirt and suggesting customers put a small pocket name on the front is a nice way to build sales. You’ll be surprised how much this option can make you in a day. It’s a lot like going to a fast-food restaurant and being asked if you’d like to enlarge your order for 29 cents. People usually say “yes.”
A salesman at a state fair taught me a valuable lesson once: “If you come out here and ask for quarters you’re going to go home with a bag of quarters. If you ask for dollars, you’ll go home with dollars. I choose to ask for twenties.
Cute Little Frog
I usually begin the design process by creating rough sketches. I’ve found that sketching with a light blue pencil is liberating. It removes some of the pressure and allows me to stay loose; when you miss a line or a perspective it’s easy to correct. I started this sketch with two basic shapes: an oval representing the mass and angel of his head, and a V shape to create the flow of the legs.
After I’m satisfied with the rough composition it’s time to refine and correct. I use tracing paper for this. I simply trace the parts that are correct and redraw anything that’s bothering me. A neat trick is to flip the paper over and look at your drawing from the opposite side. If it looks good from both sides, your drawing has balance.
You may sometimes feel something is wrong with your drawing but can’t put your finger on what. When you flip it over and look at its mirror image the mistake will usually be obvious.
If you’re cutting your stencil by hand then you are ready to start creating your stencil. Spray a little adhesive on the tracing paper; stick it to your stencil material, and start cutting. If you have access to a computer plotter, you can ink your lines to make them easier to scan.
I’ve been cutting my stencils with a plotter for about seven years and am not ashamed to say that I’m totally spoiled. The thought of having to cut a stencil by hand makes me cringe. If you have a computer I suggest that you make your next art-business purchase a plotter.
After scanning my inked image into a sign-making program, I adjust the drawing by manipulating the vector path for the best possible combination of negative and positive shapes. A negative shape is generally understood to be a void into which you paint and a “positive” just the opposite. Spraying around a positive masks the area underneath. A good way to remember the difference is to use the phrase “a positive is positively in your way.”
My Allen Datagraph plotter in action. Another nice thing about using a plotter is that you can make multiple copies at the same time. Here I cut four frogs at once in minutes, and they will all be exactly alike. If someone likes this design but wants it, for example, painted smaller for a hat, I simply adjust the size in my sign program, push a couple of buttons, and presto- new hat design!
The stencil is mounted to a piece of Pellon with spray adhesive. Many shops use Pellon as an inexpensive alternative to painting. This stencil is predominately a positive shape, even though negative shapes are cut out of it. Note: I’ve sprayed colors on the stencil so that you can see where the edges are. There’s no paint on the background at this time.
I start this image by picking up the pthalo blue. Write the name across the top then fill in the â€œnegative cluesâ€ on the arms, legs and feet.
Spray a fairly heavy line around the positive shape of the frog and a tight pinstripe around the lettering.
Blacken thepupils and the remaining lines in the face, leaving a light area to represent the tongue. I’ve also added a touch of black to the top of each letter in the name. Fill in the tongue with hot pink.
After you remove the positive, there’s a nice negative shape to fill in.
Using pthalo blue, I outline the major shapes and use soft shading to create shadow and dimension. Don’t be afraid to use a lot of blue shading here. It will be helpful in our next step.
Using fluorescent yellow, I spray the entire frog except for his eyes and tongue. The blue shading applied in the previous step creates a beautiful fluorescent green. This combination actually ends up brighter than if I had used hot green and also saves a step.
The final touch: Highlight the eyes and body with white, as well as the tops of each letter.