Airbrush Trivia – Abner Peeler, Inventor of the airbrush in 1878
—Abner Peeler, of Webster City, IA, invented the airbrush in 1878. Imagine, over 130 years ago! Abner, a professional inventor who tinkered with things such as screw machines, bicycles and typewriters, developed this painting tool—originally called a “paint distributor”—specifically for photographic retouching. The paint distributor, which was similar to today’s oscillating internal-mix airbrush, had a wooden handle with metal parts and sold for the incredible price of $10. The first such airbrush was sold to S. M. Thomas, and we know that the first painting completed with this paint distributor was a self-portrait of Peeler himself done by his wife on an enlarged photograph.
The painter Man Ray (1890-1977) is probably the first fine artist to exhibit paintings done exclusively with the airbrush. Ray, considered the only American Dadaist, learned to use the airbrush while working in an ad agency in New York City between 1917 and 1919. His fine art airbrush renderings were shown in NYC galleries and called “aerographs.?nbsp; Looking at them with today’s standards of what we consider airbrush painting, these works of art would be considered simplistic—but at that time, totally new. They consisted of images developed by airbrushing around found objects, such as paper cutouts, tools and paper clips that were used simply as stencils. Man Ray worked flat on a table, allowing gravity to hold the stencils in place, and sprayed around them with black ink. He repeated these images in both opaque and transparent ink and the end products lent themselves to the look of cubism.
It is said that Man Ray was primarily interested in producing paintings with a smooth machine-like finish. And because the ink was airbrushed onto the surface, there were no brush strokes in the artwork, which imparted an industrial appearance. An excellent collection of his works is held by and exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago; and even viewed today, their simplicity is astoundingly modern.