Join 3,415 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How in the hell did the gorgeous cover for ELO's Out of the Blue get designed, created and printed? HOW!?
April 6, 2011 1:59 PM   Subscribe

How in the hell did the gorgeous cover for ELO's Out of the Blue get designed, created and printed? HOW!?

Outside Cover
Inside cover

OK, obviously the artist (Shusei Nagaoka ) is an airbrush warlock of some sort. I get that part.

What I dont understand is how its all so incredibly smooth and detailed. The fades and gradients are perfect. Some of the lines are razor thin. Its just so damn perfect.

Questions then:

• Was this created at like 9x size to fit in all that detail? If so, how did they manage to make the mechanicals and seps for it to print? If they shot it as a physical object Id expect to see distortion somewhere.

• Was there a kind of Layering Process for airbrush art, allowing him to work on different elements and combine them without having to paint over them in the event of a mistake?

• Does anyone still create airbrush art of this quality? Why the hell not?

• Arent ELO a pretty incredible musical act?
posted by Senor Cardgage to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Based on my experiences with comic art (I interned at marvel for a bit), I'd have to guess it was done at at least 2x size and then shrunk. You'd be amazed at what that'll cover up.
posted by Oktober at 2:13 PM on April 6, 2011


Aren't ELO a pretty incredible musical act?

You're kicking a hornet's nest with this one - personally, anything involving Jeff Lynne gives me hives.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:19 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


• Arent ELO a pretty incredible musical act?

Very weird I was looking at this today and listening to this album today. It is airbrush work. Not sure of the size though.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:24 PM on April 6, 2011


Well - the space ship comes from the ELO logo. And the ELO logo came from John Kosh and here he is telling us about where that came from. Short answer: Wurlitzer jukeboxes for the original idea and then stickers with the resulting logo attached to a frisbee for the Out of the Blue cover.

So my guess is that the real answer is a combination of a very skilled air-brusher working with somebody who had many years of experience in giving clear visual briefs.
posted by rongorongo at 2:35 PM on April 6, 2011


Why don't you ask the artist?

You're kicking a hornet's nest with this one - personally, anything involving Jeff Lynne gives me hives.

I see what you did there.

posted by zippy at 2:37 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


You left out the best part of the album- it came with a make your own UFO kit. It was a long triangle (think TransAmerica pyramid) that was a stand, and it bisected two circles that made a UFO.

Thanks for bringing back that memory. I'll never forget hearing "Mr. Blue Sky" for the first time. Hey I was 12, give me a break.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 4:03 PM on April 6, 2011


I majored in illustration in college and graduated the year before the first Macintosh was released. Airbrushing was a skill taught at my uni (seriously, we had a giant airbrush studio which was the most lung-choking place ever) and a requirement for the degree. Though I was pretty good at it back then, I haven't done physical airbrushing since my first copy of Photoshop (2.5, yay! I got it in 1993 and never looked back) so I don't know if all of the below materials still exist or are in use.

We worked big, at least 2x the final print size, on 100% rag illustration board. You could also use paper but you'd run the risk of the paper getting over saturated and sagging/warping, so most of us used boards which were a much more forgiving surface. The board had to be 'strippable,' meaning the stiff cardboard backing had to be pulled off so the painted side was flexible enough to wrap around a drum scanner. The drum scanner is the reason there isn't any distortion in the photo image as their resolution top even the best flatbed scanners today. The boards came in a max size of 30"x40" so anything too big was done on more than one board and composited together in camera.

Some of my peers were skilled/confident enough to sketch right on the board, others (like me!) would draw the design on tracing paper and transfer the design onto the board with graphite paper. You'd draw/transfer the big stuff that had to be painted first and the detail stuff later as various layers of paint were sprayed down. Of course, before you started, you had to have planned out which stuff was going down first (big to little, light to dark and inside to out, top to bottom, left to right or some variation of the same). Areas within the section being painted were masked off with foto-frisket, a semi-transparent adhesive film that was laid down over your penciled tracing on the board and trimmed to the pencil lines with a #11 Xacto blade.

Depending on the look you wanted, we used acrylics or inks—Dr. Ph Martin inks were a popular brand to use because it was so thin (and thus didn't often clog the brushes), super bright and pre-mixed but the colors were terribly fugitive (fading, color shifts) over relatively short periods of time so it was a tradeoff. Acrylics were stable but you simply couldn't thin them down enough to shove them through the finer grain airbrushes, like the Paasche AB that had a little turbine inside of it, without risking a catastrophic clog & spit incident.

How finicky your brushes & type of pigment were also determined what kind of board you used: you could use hotpress for its wonderfully smooth and relatively non-absorbent surface that allowed you to scrape off mistakes but the downside was you could accidently tear off a painted section with frisket that was put down too hard or have your ink bleed under the frisket if you larded it on too fast/heavy. If you went with cold press, you largely lost the ability to scrape spit blobs but you didn't have to worry so much about the Frisket or paint runs if you had mixed your paint too thin.

Thin line work was often done over the finished airbrushed piece using colored pencils or paint & brush. You sort of needed it to hide the cut lines on the illustration board from where you trimmed your masks, although the better you were, the less cutlines showed. Nagoaka looks like he's using colored pencil for his lines. It was nerve-wracking work because if you fucked up the surface, it totally showed on camera and busting out an eraser often meant destroying the velvety-soft nap of the pigment particles (and that totally showed too).

There were other considerations: we all coveted air pumps with pressurized tanks. See, the cheap student quality pumps just putted air from the diaphragm right up the brush hose, which meant you'd get a inconsistency in how the paint was flowing out of the nozzle. It wasn't noticeable if you have your airbrush wide open but it could really screw you on low flow detail work. An alternative to an expensive pump was a pressurized tank of CO2, which gave you a constant flow but would slowly freeze your hose if you worked steadily and tended to run out at inconvenient times. Every time you worked you had to clear your brush between colors and throughly clean them (disassemble/rinse/dry/reassemble) at the end of every session plus clean up your mixing palette and cap your inks and blah and on and on.

Why the hell not still do all this? Because other than a dearth of Chevy van conversions, as commercial illustrators we get paid by the project. If it takes me 85 hours of penciling, blading, airbrushing and yet more penciling to airbrush a job vs 16 hours doing the exact same effects with Photoshop, I'm going with the method that gets me more $/hour. Also, not having to worry about the effing Iwata choking and spitting a dime-sized paintblot into the middle of an illustration two days before the deadline. Or blowing Technicolor boogers even though you diligently wore an uncomfortable mask (that gave you a ring of contact acne around your nose and mouth) every moment your brush was on.

I hate ELO, I'm sorry. And I was there when that album came out.
posted by jamaro at 4:41 PM on April 6, 2011 [153 favorites]


This is one of the best answers I have ever received to any question Ive ever asked.
Thanks for that jamaro!

Were they using drum scanners in 1977 tho? Seems like it would be before that time.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 4:49 PM on April 6, 2011


Drum scanners were all we had back then :D
posted by jamaro at 4:52 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Were they digital like computer scanners?
Im kind of amazed they had that tech in 77
posted by Senor Cardgage at 5:15 PM on April 6, 2011


"John Crosfield formed Crosfield Electronics in 1947 to design and manufacture press control equipment. The first colour scanner, the Scanatron, which used CRT technology, was introduced in 1958. This took up nearly a whole room! The first of many Magnascan drum scanners, the 450, was launched in 1969."
posted by unliteral at 5:40 PM on April 6, 2011


Im kind of amazed they had that tech in 77

Drum scanners go way back. Here's description of a fax machine that used one in 1848.
posted by zippy at 5:41 PM on April 6, 2011


I didn't know much about the prepress side back then beyond what I needed to do to my illustrations to make sure they looked their best in print but apparently drum scanners went digital starting in the very early 80s. My uni's press lab had an older drum scanner that sent analog signals via telephone line (heh) that I don't recall seeing anyone actually using* but had the awesome name of Hell.

*To be fair I was in that lab twice, sent on an errand by a professor so for all I know they used it all the time. Prepress wasn't a required course of study for illustration majors back then because our time was taken up getting alizarin crimson lung disease in the airbrush studio.
posted by jamaro at 5:48 PM on April 6, 2011


Note: Kenneth Anger used this as a soundtrack for Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
posted by ovvl at 6:00 PM on April 6, 2011


Back in the mid-90s we used to get the film house (that was luckily next door to us) to scan our transparencies on their Hell scanner and then they'd sneakernet them to us on a SyQuest 44Mb cartridge.
posted by unliteral at 7:03 PM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mr. Blue Sky is used to great effect in Girl Talk's Let It Out (sample starts around 1:35).
posted by norm at 9:41 AM on April 7, 2011


" airbrush warlock" is a great phrase and one I hope someday to have occasion to use.
posted by grimmelm at 9:45 AM on April 7, 2011


For most of my lifetime, prepress used either drum scanners or traditional analog color separation, depending in part what had to be done, who was doing it, and the client's budget.

jamaro predates me a little, but part of my own design training back in the day (I was also in art school when the Macintosh was first sold) and work involved knowing how to shoot, screen and strip photos for print, analog style. This involved huge flatbed cameras (either horizontal -- which were beasts -- or vertical -- which were smaller and more ergonomic, at least if you're as tall as me).

These were approximately the steps for adapting a photo for black and white reproduction: Put the source object (a photo) on the target bed, lay a halftoning screen on the glass and a sheet of specialty high-contrast photo paper over that, and expose it.

The halftoning sheet was a grid of blurry grey dots printed on transparent plastic, and it worked as a filter; if the photo was, say, a light grey, then the high-contrast paper would have a fine matrix of tiny black dots, and if the photo was a dark grey, then the high-contrast paper would have a fine matrix of black dots so huge that it looked more like a fine matrix of tiny white dots. You get the idea.

The exposure time and processing were calculated based on the whitepoint and blackpoint of the source photo - if the photo was washed out you could make it seem more contrasty by making the darks darker, or the lights whiter, or both.

This was all a pain in the butt, to be honest. You worked in a real darkroom with real darkroom lights for hours at a time. Unless you had a good eye and hand, you were going to waste a lot of time making useless prints; if you didn't keep the camera room immaculate there was going to be dust on the halftoning screen or, worse, it would get scratched. You had to maintain the chemicals in the processors and keep the scrupulously clean. The processors tended to be large mechanical roller devices feeding the prints and negatives through in a relatively precise matter - but the rollers could jam, or the machinery would wear and jam, or the paper would crease up and jam, or some asshat on the other shift didn't change the chemicals on schedule or clean the machine thoroughly, making your output progressively worse up until you had to halt work and fix the machinery just before presstime. Ah, nostalgia.

So how does this relate to color pics? Well, you'd use color filters to isolate the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, and you'd have the dot pattern on your halftone screen rotated by fifteen degrees for each color to prevent moire. There are a whole lot of additional complexities in producing the finished product, such as the processes necessary to make sure every color's accurately aligned from statting through printing -- the guys who did this professionally have my unending respect.

tl;dr? How to get a color photo separated for printing plates without a computer: Big honkin' camera, lots of photo media and chemicals, additional acetates to filter for color and texture.
posted by ardgedee at 10:08 AM on April 7, 2011 [16 favorites]


I love these answers! Most of the graphic design work I do takes place in programs like Photoshop, so it is so enlightening to actually see a comment like ardgedee's that explains where a lot of these tools, filters and names in the various Adobe programs and others come from.

I was just creating a halftone illustration the other day, and I was so confused what the rotate option was used for with the halftone dots. I love seeing where these things actually come from (like the icons for dodge and burn tools I just learned about from a photographer friend).
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 12:18 PM on April 7, 2011


• Does anyone still create airbrush art of this quality? Why the hell not?

Because it's really a pain. You need to cut a perfect mask for every color. You need to have that mask line up and adhere perfectly so that there's no bleed or overspray or slivers. You have to mess around with frisket, which is not something you can really be sloppy with, and it was expensive, IIRC. You need the paint to be the perfect consistency, and you often have to filter it, unless you are using inks, which have a different effect. You need a good compressor with a filter in the line. You need to keep your airbrush immaculately clean, so tiny particles don't clog the needle or nozzle, ruining the spray pattern. You need a spray booth of some sort if you don't want to have paint settling on everything around you. You need to wear a mask of good quality if you don't want to breathe paint. You have to time each layer of color carefully for the right dry-wet effect, or you will make mud or oversaturate the paper.

You use space and power and time and resources to make something that can be done so much more easily now. I say this as someone who hand drafts a lot of my landscape projects because I like the look. Airbrush was made to be superseded by graphics programs.

I still have an airbrush somewhere. I suppose if I wanted to start making model railroads I might use it again someday.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:10 PM on April 7, 2011


Huh! My company just got rid of its old drum scanner; I had to ask the production manager what it was. I kept the two glass drums, 'cause I thought they might make neat lamp parts at some point... Nice to know what they were used for!
posted by limeonaire at 5:42 PM on April 7, 2011


I majored in illustration in college and graduated the year before the first Macintosh was released. Airbrushing was a skill taught at my uni ... and a requirement for the degree.

So that would have been around 1983 or so? When I graduated from the illustration program in college, I was in the last class that was still required to take an airbrushing course. That was 2004.

Twenty years after jamaro, my experience with airbrushing was almost identical (we no longer used drum scanners). It was tedious, time-consuming, frustrating, unforgiving, and colored-snot inducing.

Subsequent to preparing rough pencil sketches, we were required by our instructor to create color comps in order to plan out, as jamaro described, where colors would go and in what order, areas of dark and light, etc. Our airbrush instructor blew a gasket when he saw that a number of students had whipped up their color comps using Photoshop. It was clear that the photoshop renderings were better quality than what we could achieve with our novice airbrushing skills. "What's the point?!" he yelled repeatedly in frustration.

What's the point, indeed.
posted by Kabanos at 12:01 PM on April 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'd just like to say this was a really interesting question that elicited some fascinating answers. Thanks to the OP and the fantastic answerers!
posted by kristi at 1:22 PM on April 8, 2011


Thanks for the fascinating answers. I'd forgotten all of this entirely
posted by mumimor at 2:03 PM on April 8, 2011


For current state of the art in airbrush art, see the magazine (sometimes even on newsstands!) Airbrush Action.
posted by artlung at 8:38 PM on April 9, 2011


I started out in art school back in the early 80's; started in a community college two year program, then went on to a BFA, before shifting to an entirely different area.

The Community College, Langara, had both a fine arts program and a graphic/commercial arts program. I did the studio arts program, a two year one designed to give us an introduction to a lot of different media: we did a bit of airbrushing in design class, and it was fussy and painful. After I finished at Langara I remember wondering if I should have done the commercial art program instead of the fine arts one, since it would have given me marketable skills. Answers like this let me know that I'd have done nothing but learn a set of skills that would have been obsolete a decade later.
posted by jrochest at 10:30 PM on April 16, 2011


"I love these answers! Most of the graphic design work I do takes place in programs like Photoshop, so it is so enlightening to actually see a comment like ardgedee's that explains where a lot of these tools, filters and names in the various Adobe programs and others come from."

Some years back, when I got my certs for Photoshop and Illustrator, I was extremely fortunate to have instructors who worked "old school" before going digital. It helped enormously to understand the arcane tool names like dodge, burn, etc.

Interestingly, the same transitions occurred in audio when it went digital. Newb engineers still wonder at terms like plate reverb, slap echo, etc.
posted by tonebarge at 10:06 AM on April 19, 2011


we all coveted air pumps with pressurized tanks.
In the old Art Institute of Pittsburgh building (I haven't been in the new one), they had airbrush rooms with air pipes hanging from the ceiling. I don't know where the compressor was; it could have been on the roof, or in a storage room, or in the basement for all I know.
But so there was a tap on the air line every, say, three or four feet or so, and you could just screw your airbrush's hose onto the fitting, and open the tap, and not have to lug your own compressor to school or buy canned air.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:50 PM on April 25, 2011


My school's airbrush room also had supplied air (can you imagine the racket of a classroom full of the kind of crappy little compressors art students could afford?) and the studios stayed open very late but a lot of students wanted to work on their projects at home and of course once we graduated we had to come up with our own air supply solutions. After a few classmates told stories of eviction threats over the incessant noise and vibration of their home-studio compressors, I went with the relatively silent compressed air tank route. I still have the air tank, used it just last weekend to blow clean a clogged windshield washer line. Makes me laugh whenever I look at the desperate paint splats all over the tank.

Answers like this let me know that I'd have done nothing but learn a set of skills that would have been obsolete a decade later.

It kind of depends on what the focus of the commercial art program was. I was fortunate in that where I went was design-theory heavy and relatively light on technique—the (hated) airbrush requirement was somewhat of an anomaly given that we didn't all also have to take courses in something like "Pasteup, 101." I haven't touched an airbrush (or paint, for that matter) in a couple of decades but I'm still employed using the design skills I learned there. Fundamentals don't change all that much, tools do.
posted by jamaro at 3:08 PM on April 26, 2011


Agreed, Jamero -- but I think this program was mostly technique and pretty light on theory.
posted by jrochest at 9:25 PM on May 2, 2011


« Older What machines/types of aromati...   |  What's this zombie movie?... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.