“Earn $10,000 a Month.” It sounds like one of those come-ons you see plastered on telephone poles and filling up your junk e-mail, but Ellen Torchia, a nail tech and airbrush artist in the Seattle area, says she does it every July with her face-painting business called Air Affair. What began as something fun on the side has grown for Torchia into both a passion and a major source of income. She still works in the salon, but Air Affair now is a major affair with heavy bookings for events ranging from a booth at Microsoft’s annual company picnic to air- brushing the makeup for participants in Bon Marche’s annual holiday parade in Seattle.
Impassioned and energetic, Torchia offers herself as proof that any nail technician who enjoys air- brushing can translate that passion into an opportunity to change or grow careers. For her, airbrushing has provided her a second career that is equally important in terms of both satisfaction and income.
“I first marketed myself by doing street fairs where I charged per person,” she says. “I still do those occasionally — earlier this year I made $1,800 at one, and more than $1,100 at another.” July is always her best month, when she rings up $10,000 or more in airbrushing, but there is one catch: “I have thousands of dollars invested in my equipment, which includes 33 airbrushes.”
Poppo prefers working on nail tips rather than on clients so that he can take his time.
“Airbrushing nails takes you to a very detailed level,” says Katherine Rae, airbrush artist and owner of Strictly Nails in Jasmine, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. “It’s comparable to painting miniatures, and even harder because it’s not a flat surface. If you can airbrush nails and you are artistic, you can airbrush designs on a larger canvas.”
Your only limitations are your imagination, as airbrush artists around the world prove that almost anything can be airbrushed — including clothing, cell phones, and even eyeglasses. Here, nail techs share a few of the ways they’ve translated their airbrushing talents to marketable services that satisfy both their need for new creative outlets and their desire for added income.
Before you get started with any of these services, check with your state board to make sure your license allows you to do the specific service, and check with your insurance agent to ensure you’ve got the proper liability coverage. Then, take aim at new career opportunities.
Polish Your Airbrushing Skills
If you’re one of the thousands of nail techs who bought an airbrush with the best of intentions and the tightest of schedules, take heart—even Picasso required practice. Make work time practice time by airbrushing nail color rather than polishing.
UK-based nail artist and airbrush educator Katherine Rae says, "I earn more doing airbrushing than I do reblancing, and I get a lot of enjoyment from it."
Kim Aguilar, owner of Madison Avenue Nails in El Paso, Texas, and an educator for Too Much Fun, says she let her airbrush sit for several years after getting discouraged, but finally made the time to master the system. Yet even now, airbrushing nail color remains one of her favourite services because of its speed and practicality. “It goes on in half the time of polish, and it dries so quickly that the client doesn’t even have to worry about writing her check beforehand “Aguilar explains.
Nor do clients smudge or gouge the polish on their way out. But the biggest selling point, she says, is her ability to mix custom colors and to achieve subtle effects with color fades and blends. “In the fall, clients love color blends of brown, orange, and mocha,” she says as an example. And by custom-mixing colors, she’s able to re-create discontinued polish colors for disappointed clients as well as innovate made-to-order colors reserved only for them.
“Color blends are the best way to introduce airbrushed nail color to clients, because you get a look that can’t be mimicked with polish,” she adds. You can also offer clients with less- than-perfect nail beds a visual illusion to correct nail beds that are too before short or too wide.
“For clients with wide nails, you can cover the nail with, say, a light pink, and then ‘thin’ the nail by blending a darker pink at the sidewalls,” Aguilar says. “For clients with short nail beds, you can offer a French manicure with a higher smile line to make the nail bed appear longer.”
Airbrushed nail color seems to appeal to all clients because it dries so quickly and wears better than polish, says Julie Kellos of Nail Glyphx in Lay- ton, Utah. Both Kellos and Aguilar recommend charging for airbrushed nail color by creating a base price for fills and an up charge for polish or air-brushed colors. Prices vary depending on the salon’s base prices and what your local market will bear, but Kellos recommends charging $3 per color.
Here Comes the Sun
Sunless tanning continues to gain popularity as concern about exposure to UV rays increases and sunless tanning products improve. Now, a new generation of sunless tanners can get your salon in on the action with air-brushed tans. Invite clients to say goodbye to the mess of self-application and uneven patches or streaks. An experienced tech can airbrush a full-body tan in 5-10 minutes, and the service is easy to master.
“You get a really great, even tan,” says Laura Morgan, a nail tech and airbrush artist at The Fingernail Factory inBeaverton, Ore., and national sales manager for Iwata-Medea. Morgan has yet to introduce airbrushed tanning to her clients, saying she prefers to experiment and perfect her technique before the prime tanning season begins in spring. Yet she emphasizes how easy it is to do.
These '60s inspired nails by Julie Kellos took first place in TeachTech's online nail art competition in the airbrushing category.
“The technique is so simple that you want to make it harder,” she says with a laugh. The trick, she says, is to hold the airbrush 6-8 inches from the skin and lightly mist the solution using a steady, circular motion. To ensure an even tan, start at the top right of the back and work your way down to the ankle; then, switch to the left ankle and work your way up to the left shoulder. Then do the arms and front of the body, finishing with the face. There are a few companies offering a sunless tanning solution for airbrushes, including Fantasy Tan in Augusta, Ga„ and Airbrush Tanning in Atlanta.
The service requires little space, but you will need a private room because clients will want to wear a swimsuit or their underwear (both companies say the product won’t permanently stain clothes).
Your air compressor should work just fine with this service, but Morgan says you will need an airbrush with a larger nozzle and a bottle attachment. Other techs we asked agreed, making the additional recommendation to invest in an airbrush intended exclusively for the tanning service to prevent cross-contamination of products, which can lead to poor results, allergic reactions, and other problems.
First-time applications take just 5-10 minutes for two all-over coats, but plan to book appointments on the half-hour to allow time for the client to undress beforehand and have 10 minutes of drying time before she dresses again. Based on our own informal survey, salons are charging anywhere from $25 to $55 for first-time applications, which last from three to seven days, depending on the client. To maintain their tanned appearance, advise clients to schedule one or two full-body touch-up applications each week.
There’s more than one way to paint a face, and Torchia has mastered them all. Torchia began airbrushing makeup in 1993, starting with fantasy face painting and temporary tattoos and quickly moving into glamour makeup for weddings, proms, and other special occasions. The service remains a solid, if seasonal, seller.
“I get booked solid when it comes time for homecoming and prom,” she says. “I also do a lot of weddings and people preparing to have their pictures taken.” A key advantage to airbrushed makeup, Torchia says, is that once it goes on, it stays on.
Learning to airbrush makeup is matter of experimentation and refining your technique, but Torchia also recommends taking a class. “You have to play with it because you have to be able to see the color building,” she explains. Applied too heavily, for example, the makeup will look artificial and overdone.
While airbrushing nails requires 25-35 PSI (a measure of air pressure that translates to pounds per square inch), airbrushing makeup requires just 3-6 PSI. “Anyone who airbrushes nails knows that when you reduce the PSI the paint stipples out in little dots, and that’s what you’re doing with makeup — you’re applying little dots where needed,” Torchia says. “I think of it as retouching a photo before it’s taken rather than after.”
Most air compressors for nail systems can be adjusted to spray makeup, but you will need a separate airbrush to avoid cross-contamination, which could cause an injury or allergic reaction.
“You don’t want to contaminate the makeup with nail paints or cleaner residues,” Torchia says. “If the client has an allergic reaction because of that, she’ll own you.”
Like most other services, what you charge for airbrushed makeup depends on your location and clientele. Morgan says she’s seen high-end spas command as much as $100 for the service, while medium-range salons charge around $35. Torchia charges $25 for glamour makeup, which takes her approximately 20 minutes to apply. “Price your service so that people will get it,” she recommends. “If people perceive it as too expensive, they won’t get it done.
The Body Beautiful
From a playful butterfly on the shoulder to a more daring heart or rose on the rise of a breast, airbrushed body art opens up an avenue of self-expression for men and women of all ages. Equally appealing to clients is that the art lasts only days — less if desired.
Airbrushing body art differs from airbrushing nails mostly in that you’re working on a larger and pliable surface.
Airbrush artists say anyone who can airbrush nails can do airbrushed body art and tattoos. “The spraying and control of the triggering is basically the same,” says Peter West, senior education consultant for Badger Airbrush and long-time airbrush artist in Pittsburgh. “To spray a temporary tattoo on someone’s forearm, for example, you have a pliable plastic stencil that wraps around the arm. It’s somewhat similar to painting the curved surface of the nail, except that it’s a larger surface.” The key, he adds, is to increase the volume of spray and hold the airbrush further from the body surface than you do from the nails.
According to Morgan, most nail techs get the hang of airbrushing body art in as little as 15-20 minutes. “The self-adhesive stencils do most of the work for you—you just shade the colors on,” she says. “Shading can be as elaborate or as simple as you want. Just by spraying a color, then moving to the next area with a different color and letting them over- spray will create some shading.”
In Morgan’s salon, interest in body art is seasonal and event-driven, with the highest request rate around prom time, holidays, and special occasions. Younger clients will make up the bulk - of your body art and temporary tattoo clients, but don’t write it off as a teen thing. “They’re great for parties and special occasions,” West says. “You’ll also get women of all ages who want something exotic and exciting to show their friends or husbands.”
“I was surprised to find it appeals to a large age range,” Morgan adds. “Once people realize they can remove it whenever they want, they’re very interested. Body art is inexpensive, fast to have done, and easy to take off, so people don’t feel like they’re making a big investment.” Market the service by wearing designs yourself and by displaying a design board or binder. It’s also a great service to promote for kids’ salon or spa parties.
Body art requires a paint intended for use on the skin, and the same advice about a dedicated airbrush applies to this service as well. West and Morgan recommend looking for one with a larger nozzle and gravity-fed cup. Your nail air compressor should work fine; just reduce the PSI to between 7-10, Morgan adds. As for what to charge, she opts for a base price of $5 and scales her prices up depending on the size, complexity, and number of colors for a design.
Fits to a T
Create a truly unique retail boutique with T-shirts and other clothing featuring your exclusive airbrush designs. Or, invite clients to bring in their own items that you’ll then airbrush to their specifications.
Deborah Laws, a nail technician at Strictly Nails, charges about $43 per hour to customize clothing designs, which she says market themselves when she wears them. “I’m always stopped and asked, “Where did you get that?’” she says. Clients, too, sometimes bring in a design they’d like on a clothing item.
You can use stencils and masks on T-shirts and other textiles, but this is one medium where the talent to freehand airbrush will serve you well. Whether you use stencils or freehand a design, always master new designs first on paper because fabric dyes won’t wash out of clothing like paint will wipe off of nails.
Airbrushing textiles is the largest leap from airbrushing nails of all the services featured here because it requires a larger compressor, larger airbrush, and special ventilation. “Clothing is absorbent so you need about 50 PSI,” says Mo Manor-Arnold, owner of Mo’s Salon in Arvada, Colo. “I also prefer an airbrush with both a larger tip and a bottle attachment so that I can mix a larger volume of color.”
Start with simple designs, experimenting first on paper, then experimenting on some of your own shirts. Manor-Arnold introduced the service in the salon by marketing it to youth sports teams in her community. Then she moved up to cartoon-like designs, which she found both fun and forgiving. “If they weren’t perfect, no one noticed,” she says.
Catch Their Eyes
In her 37 years as a licensed cosmetologist, Manor-Arnold has airbrushed anything that will remain still long enough: clients’ nails, bodies, T-shirts, and tennis shoes. And now she’s got her sights on a new service: airbrushing eyeglasses.
When a client who owns an optical store complained to Manor-Arnold that the custom-made gold jewelry she had sold to customers for their glasses (the jewelry was affixed to glass lenses similar to how nail jewelry attaches to nails) was no longer available, she asked Manor-Arnold if she’d be willing to offer customers at her optical store the same artwork she’d been airbrushing on this client’s eyeglass lenses for several years. Since, eyeglass airbrushing has become a healthy sideline service Manor-Arnold offers to salon clients as well.
To market her designs in the optical store, Manor-Arnold airbrushed a selection of designs on clear lenses, which are displayed at the optical store. When a customer requests a design, the store delivers glasses to Manor-Arnold, who returns them within 24 hours. For salon clients, it’s a “while you wait” service that she usually combines with their regular appointment.
“These are more single-element designs — like a flower, a tiny snowman, Christmas tree, or small stars,” she says. “You have to be careful not to go into the line of vision.” The simple designs take 15-20 minutes from start to finish, including prep time to cut her masks. Manor-Arnold charges $15- $20 per design, which appeals to clients ages 7 to 70.
The only precautions she offers are to refuse airbrushing on lenses with anti-glare and other special coatings, and to keep the design small and out of the client’s line of sight. To get started, practice on old eyeglasses.
“It took four or five tries before I liked a design well enough to seal and keep it,” Manor-Arnold says. “I had to fine-tune my spray to get the right amount.” For example, the paint will puddle if applied too heavily.
Manor-Arnold uses the same airbrush and water-based paints as she does for nails and airbrushes directly onto the glasses. She advises masking the eyeglass frame to protect it from overspray. Once the paint dries, seal the design with nail art sealer. For daily cleaning, she advises clients to use eyeglass cleaner, cautioning against window cleaners, many of which contain ammonia that might break down the sealer. When the client tires of the art, she can remove it with non-acetone polish remover.
Market the service the same way you do your nails — wear your art on your glasses. If you don’t wear glasses, offer free designs to friends and co-workers in exchange for referrals. You can also market the service through local optometrists.
“Sometimes we need to be juggled out of our daily pattern,” Manor- Arnold says. “I airbrushed one client’s fingernails and toenails, eyeglasses and tennis shoes, and I gave her several airbrushed tattoos — all in the same visit. There are so many avenues you can explore with your airbrush to grow your income and your creativity.”
Japan: Redefining Nail Artist
The owner of a private school in Japan, Poppo (his artistic name) first discovered airbrushing when he went to purchase a picture for his home. Shocked at the price, the 30-year-old teacher decided to create and display his own artwork after a friend introduced him to airbrushing.
In the ensuing years, Poppo has continued refining his skills and experimenting with new mediums. Two years ago, he says he found a book on airbrushing nails and decided to try his hand. The self-taught airbrush artist’s designs soon gained attention for both skill and originality He says he created designs for a nail art company for awhile, but he soon became bored ‘ I want to make my original artwork for women, and to let my artwork be like an accessory or jewel,” he explains.
Poppo prefers working on nail tips rather than on clients so that he can take- his time. He then sells the tips to women, with clients as far away as Australia.
U.K.: A Self-Made Success
What pleases Katherine Rae most about her first-place win in the mixed media competition this past June at the Nail Olympics is not the win at all but that everything came together — it was just one of the “good” days, she says, where artistry overcame the stresses of three back- to-back competitions, poor lighting and the pressure of timed competition.
Now an airbrushing educator; Rae initially taught herself to airbrush. Without a formal background in art, Rae says she lacks some technical skills but not passion for her art Nor does she mind the financial rewards.
“I earn more doing airbrushing than I do rebalancing, and I get a lot of enjoyment from it,” she says. At least 75% of her clients get airbrushing as opposed to polish, even if it’s just nail color One of the hottest airbrush services this past December was what she calls the Snow White French manicure.
“We use a crystal base coat over the entire nail, then spray Mute on the tip in whatever pattern the client wants — Chevron or moon or any other. Then we cover the entire nail with the crystal base coat again, which results in a silvery nail bed with a silvery-white tip” A simple spray of green holly leaves or red holly berry rhinestones in the comer of the nail add just a touch of color to the elegantly simple nail art
Outside the salon, Rae likes to experiment with airbrushing furniture and walls “In my kitchen I did a color blend and patterns on the walls,’“ she says “Working on a larger scale lets you be far more creative with things like color blends But you do need artistic skills to work on a larger scale. If you’re interested in taking airbrushing beyond the nails, just play with it and practice.”
Nails to Dye for
There’s no feeling quite like the satisfaction of experimentation gone night. This past spring Julie Kellos wanted a tie-dye background for an airbrushing competition design, but traditional techniques just weren’t giving her the results she sought— so she created her own.
“I first did a base coat of crystal white, then put two or three drops of color on the nail and blew them around with ain” she says “Then I did the same with another color, and another; and so on. Some of the colors I used were transparent, so they changed color when they overlapped others”
Six colors later she had a design to “dye” for—tie-the nails that resembled a watercolor painting. Her best advice to other nail techs is to experiment with the technique, though she does offer this advice “If you use transparent colors, make sure that where they overlap other colors you don’t get colors you don’t want.”
Bubbling over with ideas, Kellos offers this tip for creating clouds on the nails;’ Tear off a corner of a paper towel, then lay the ripped edge across the nail. Lightly spray white onto the paper towel, and the overspray will give you more of a wispy; realistic cloud effect."
Sweden: Dare to Be Different
With a formal background in art and experience in most mediums, including oils, acrylics and watercolours, Swedish artist Emilio, owner of Emilio’s Airbrush Studio in Gothenburg, enjoys airbrushing best because of its versatility.
“I began painting with fine art and then saw the possibilities the airbrush offers in terms of having the ability to paint over any surface available — canvas, skin, nails, cars, textiles, etc It never gets boring1” he exclaims.
The larger the surface, the less need you have for masking and stencils, Emilio explains He offers a two-day course in airbrushing, and believes that beginning airbrush artists need no artistic background to use stencils creating original artwork, though, is an entirely different matter.
“The designs that I do are different,” he says. “Because want them to be original, first I sketch the design and then I use my own masking to get the results I want’ Most of his original designs, he adds, are a blend of airbrushing and handpainting, which allows him to add details and highlights for added dimension.
Emilio first began experimenting with UV airbrush paints on canvas, then got the urge to try the method on nails and skin. In the photo shown, he used a mix of UV paints and thin, self-adhesive UV tape on the nails, complemented by UV body paints on the face and nails “The final design developed over time,” he explains, “Usually; when I get a design idea I have it on my mind and try to add and subtract different elements to make it as original and eye-pleasing as possible “Translating the design from his mind to model took four hours—three of which he spent just on the nails.
“You have to have a passion for what you’re doing because it’s a lot of hard work and requires many hours of practice.” he says of his artwork “You also have to have a lot of imagination to come up with original designs and the know-how to adapt them to the client’s needs.”