The Airbrush: The Early Years.

Who was the first person to use an airbrush? Well, obviously the inventor. So who invented the airbrush?

There are two candidates in ‘airbrush history’ — Abner Peeler (1836-1895) and Francis Edgar Stanley (1849-1918).

Francis Edgar Stanley
Francis Edgar Stanley and his airbrushed portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Although it was called the ‘Atomizer’, the first practical airbrush was patented in 1876 by Francis Edgar Stanley of Newton, Massachusetts. He opened a photography studio in 1874 and during that time he patented the first photographic airbrush, which he used to colourize photos. It worked similarly to a diffuser but did not have a continuous air supply. Stanley and his twin brother, Freelan Oscar, later invented a process for continuously coating photographic plates (later sold to George Eastman of Eastman-Kodak) but are probably best known for their Stanley Steamer automobile. No artistic images that used their original ‘paint distributor atomizer’ are known to exist, but there does exist an airbrushed portrait of the poet Longfellow by Francis Stanley.

The first instrument to be later named an ‘airbrush’ was developed by the professional and prolific inventor Abner Peeler “for the painting of watercolours and other artistic purposes” in 1878. It used a hand-operated compressor to supply continuous air.

Abner Peeler
Abner Peeler and his airbrushed portrait of himself.

He tested the device to colourise a photographic portrait of himself.

Four years later he patented the device and sold the rights to brothers Charles and Liberty Walkup of Rockford, Illinois for $700. Walkup re-patented the instrument under the name of ‘air-brush’ — a name his wife Phoebe Walkup came up with. Therefore the formal birth of the name ‘airbrush’ can be traced to a stakeholders meeting of the new Air Brush Manufacturing Co. at 7.00pm on 6th October 1883.

The first definite ‘atomizing’ type airbrush was invented by Charles Burdick in 1893. He founded the Fountain Brush Company and launched the first series of airbrushes onto the market; a device almost the same as a modern airbrush, resembling a pen but working in a different manner to Peeler’s device. (The airbrush led to the development of the spray gun; a similar device that delivers a higher volume of paint for painting larger areas.)

The painter Man Ray (1890-1977) was possibly the first fine artist to exhibit paintings created exclusively with the airbrush. Ray learned to use the airbrush while working in an ad agency in New York between 1917 and 1919. His fine art airbrush renderings were shown in NY City galleries and were called ‘aerographs’.

For more information on the history of the airbrush visit:

To select from our stock of world-class modern airbrushes from makers including Harder & Steenbeck, Iwata, Mr. Hobby, Sparmax, and Neo; and different designs and styles like gravity feed, bottom feed, side feed and pistol grip airbrushes, visit:

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