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Sailboard Art By Lee Seiler

Airbrush art on sport equipment and vehicles has a long history. For many years, artists have been turning out lavish designs using enamels and auto acrylics on metal and fiberglass surface.

With the invention of windsurfing, a new and interesting area for the airbrush artist materialized. As interest in custom fiberglass sailboards grew, so did the demand for individual graphics by their owners-and in creating the fine art that the new funseekers seemed to want.

The sailboard is basically a foam block covered with a very thin fiber-glass skin. The first effort to add some style to these new watercraft was to paint directly onto the surface of the sailboard. The finishes on these boards was done using the same tools and techniques then popular in the auto and van detailing industry.

The auto acrylics used were stunning but did not last long in the harsh saltwater environment in which the sailboards were used, and they lacked fine detail. Another method was to apply water-based paints directly to the carved foam cores of the sail-boards before applying the thin fiber- glass skin (see “Surfboard Art,” AIRBRUSH ACTION, Summer 1987). Still the most popular, such designs could not be too thick or be allowed to fill the tiny air spaces in the plastic foam; that would prevent the proper application of the resins and glass overlay. Denser applications of paint caused delamination of the skin from the tiny foam openings, causing large opaque spots that obscured the artwork and hastened failure of the basic structure of the sailboard itself. This also meant that fine detail and varying densities were all but impossible.

In the spring of 1983, I decided that I wanted to try sailing a custom fiberglass sailboard. But when I went shopping and saw the prices ($900-$1400) and how plain the art-work was, I decided to try my hand at building and airbrushing my own boards. It took three years and a half dozen sailboards to perfect the techniques of both building fast sailboards and doing what I call “total board art.”

Generally my clients come to me through one of three ways: referrals from past clients, referrals from one of the local sailboard shops, or directly after having seen one of my boards on the beach. I usually ask $500 per side for full airbrush treatment. I have found that I have to pick and choose clients, since I want and need time to sail my sailboard and do other things, such as writing articles for Airbrush Action. Otherwise, I would be swamped with orders. The client must provide the board shaped and glassed, less the final hotcoat.

I usually interview the client, take a deposit, and then do several preliminary sketches. These are later redrawn on an outline of the client’s board, from which I have taken a pattern in full size. Once the client has approved the design, I do a full-size comp, which I will use later while painting the sailboard.

For this article we will be doing a job for a mid western client who wanted a particular mermaid (half woman, half Lionfish) that she had found in an art book of Chris chilleos’s works. I explained that it was common practice of many artists to make copies of such artwork (as she wanted) but that to do so was a copyright infringement of the original work.

I explained that there was another way to create what she wanted without violating another artist’s rights. The solution-I suggested was to use the same idea (a woman-and-lionfish mermaid) but to have her pose for the basic drawings. We could then satisfy her artistic choice of subject and not have to copy another artist’s work.

First I clean the blank board with acetone, after which I mix one pint of white gel-coat and 114 oz. of surface curing agent, which is then mixed with 213 oz. of MEKP resin catalyst in a pint-sized cardboard milk carton. After thorough mixing, the gel-coat is poured onto the board and brushed out into an even coat. This coat is allowed to “go off’ (change from liquid to solid state) and then trimmed around the edges using single-edged razor blades. At this point the resin is like soft jelly but not sticky.


The board is now ready to receive the pencil drawing, which is done freehand using the full-size pattern (Fig. 1).



Following this I will sometimes go over the whole pencil sketch using a fine sable brush and black water- proof ink (Figs. 2 and 3). Never use any kind of felt-tip pen-it will interfere with the resin curing in the next step. I use sandpaper in place of an eraser when I have to remove lines.


The gel-coat is then allowed to cure completely and is then wet-sanded, first using 150-grit sandpaper, followed by 220-, 350-, and finally 400-grit. After the sanding step is completed, the board is again washed, first with soap and water, and then with acetone followed by wrinkle-free rubber cement solvent. The biggest problem in using this technique is contamination of the working surface. In order to work each new layer of resin, it must have a clean (chemically wet) surface on which to bind.


The use of pigmented resins is not new, nor is spraying them through an air gun. Gel-coats are regularly applied to molds in the sail and power boat industry using spray equipment. However, the use of high-viscosity resins is new in the airbrush arts.

Adding the unmixed water-based paints as they come from the tube to small amounts of resin and then thinning with styrene monomer using a ratio of 3:2 solved the problem of high viscosity and retention of the intense colors. Once the color bases are mixed, they can be mixed down into the colors in any combination, either in the airbrush color cup or in larger jars using a few drops of acetone. This will produce a smooth, flowing resin in an intense color medium that will bind structurally to any polyester resin surface.

I begin a sailboard by premixing the colors I think I will need in 1-oz. plastic squeeze bottles using the 3:2 mix of pigments and resin thinned with styrene monomer.

The airbrushing begins with filling the airbrush color cup with uncatalyzed resin rethinned and mixed down with a few drops of acetone the pigmented resin. The catalyzed resin is airbrushed onto the white gel-coat in the same way ordinary paint would be used on paper.


I have not altered my airbrushing techniques in any way from those I learned in doing ink on paper. I use templates and dodgers to control over- spray and create shadow lines (Fig. 5). The catalyzed resin will begin setting in about 15 minutes, depending on the temperature. You must pause in your painting before this happens and clear the airbrush with acetone. If you don’t, the resin will set up inside the airbrush and require complete break-down and cleaning.

I use an emulsification cleaner (Bio-7 Resin Cleaner) to clean my brushes and airbrush. This is done both between color changes and after each painting session. I have found that rexhaust the color cup in a matter of seconds and have never come close to having the resin set up in my airbrush. 1-should note, however, that there is a risk of this happening, and the artist who wishes to learn this technique must be prepared to do a fast teardown and cleaning of the airbrush if the resin begins to set up in the color cup.

You can apply one color over another and blend both transparent and opaque colors in the same fashion as you would ordinarily.

The effects on the resin surface are the same, with the exception that your work will have a deep brilliance not attainable using paper and ink.

This mermaid subject has three basic elements. The first is the fish that are both behind and in front of the mermaid. The second is the mermaid herself, composed of the two separate elements of woman and fish. The final element is the seaweed that swirls around the main figure of the mermaid.

The first elements to be painted using the airbrush are the fish that are just behind the mermaid. These are airbrushed onto the sanded gel-coat just as they would be in any ordinary airbrush work, except that I do not use frisket. I adjust the spray setting to fine and begin filling in the first color, in this case yellow. As you paint, you will note that the resin lays down in a fine line that tends to widen slightly. I have found that this spreading can be gauged so that you can blend up to any point you want, allowing for exceptionally fine line results.


When the first fish is completed, I go on to the next fish requiring yellow hair dryer as a h&t gun. The heat causes the resin to and to any other parts that require the get almost instantly and prevents bleeding same colors. Following this, the next darker color, brown, is airbrushed onto the fish (Fig. 6). If I get all the first colors laid on the board and the resins have not begun to set, I often use my hot airgun to speed things along. By this time you will see why friskets are not necessary. The resins lay down nearly as well as using an ordinary pencil with very little overspray.

An important note: If any water pigmented resin, the next layer will not cure and you will have a sticky mess that will never cure. It might be wise at first to force-cure the resins until you are used to their appearance in various stages of cure. Once you are sure that the resin is cured, wash the painted areas with wrinkle-free solvent. If there was water or alcohol left, the solvent will pick up some of the resin.

You will have to go back and repaint any pickups and recure the area. The rewash with wrinkle-free. You should, of course, get no resin pickup. This is important because I found out the hard way that the resin must be thoroughly cured before applying the next layer of resin. One good indication is that the resin will feel very warm to the touch and have a slight foggy glaze to its surface. The first indication of setting of the resin is that it will get a waxy look to it, and then this waxy look will change to a satinlike finish. The room temperature should be at least 68 degrees and preferably 72 degrees. The curing will require about an hour, depending on room temperature.


In the next step, the newly cured resin fish are sanded out so that excessive buildup is prevented. As you do this, the fine, clear details you painted in resin will become dull-looking (Fig. 7). Use 150-grit sandpaper followed by 220 and 320. When completed, your fish will have a dull satin finish In the photographs you can see the difference between a fish that is newly painted and one that has been sanded down. The idea is to work the image painted down but not to remove so much resin that the layers below show through.



The idea here is to feather the edges of the overlaps into the underlying surface so that when you airbrush in the adjoining segments, there will be a continuous flow of color in the subject when it is completed.



I apply the next elements of my painting, in this case the body of the woman and overlapping parts of the seaweed (Fig. 10):first the seaweed, which flows as hair from the body to the tail of the board; then, using a flesh tone, the major body parts, followed by liquid frisket (Fig. 11) for the hair next to the body for controlled mixing of the reds and flesh tones. Now I reinforce the shading and tonal changes in the body.


As before, the resin is cured and washed, followed by another sanding using 150-, 220-, and 320-grit sandpaper.


At this point, it depends on how fine you want your piece to be. I continue by filling in the overlapping red seaweed hair and the gold helmet and arm jewelry, followed by parts of the mermaid fish body (Fig. 12) and then washing and sanding as before, followed by further detail in the gold parts.


This now leaves the tail and fin of the mermaid (Fig. 13) to be completed. Since the values of these parts are the same as those I want to use in the face, I do them all at the same time. Now the final shading and highlights are added to the mermaid to create the final touches and complete the painting (Fig. 14).


This section is sanded as before. Next, the whole sailboard is lightly sanded with 320-grit sandpaper and hot-coated with finishing resin (Fig. 15). You can see the uncured resin dripping from the edge of the board. This is trimmed off when the resin is in the jelly state.


In the final step, the whole sail-board is wet- and dry-sanded. At this point, the art part of the job is finished and would be sent to the board builder for installation of the foot straps and other hardware. In this case I did these chores and finished the sail- board, which is now ready for use by the client.

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