Conrad Amrhein never gave me straightforward advice to improve drawing, sculpting or design skills. Instead, he passed down to me the tools and historical landmarks from his career as a technical illustrator in America from the 1960’s to mid 1990’s. These combined, and with the occasional hand-scribbled notes from his teacher, Norman Rockwell, I pieced together my grandpa’s WWII G.I. Bill art education and made it my own. Of the tools he gave me, the most valuable has been his Thayer & Chandler double-action airbrush.
In the right hands, an airbrush can create renderings otherwise impossible or impractical to attempt. Connie’s career was built upon his mastery of, among other things, using the airbrush in an unprecedented way to illustrate things like engine cutaways and product renderings for the world’s largest manufacturers.
Given his airbrush and an envelope of his work, I brought them to my high school art teacher and celebrated professional illustrator, Frank Riley. As if they both conspired to never show me exactly how to do the work I drooled over in that envelope, Mr. Riley simply showed me how to operate, maintain, and clean the airbrush. The nickel plating was fading when I got it and parts were almost impossible to find to make it work. I knew it was considered an outdated, overrated tool, and I loved it.
With guidance from Mr. Riley’s convoluted analogies about life as an artist and late night calls about airbrush maintenance, I came to see this tool and process as what would differentiate me in my career.
Later, when I brought this airbrush and work to my 91 year-old Grandpa’s house in Wisconsin, something amazing happened: I knew, due to the state of his mental health, that he didn’t remember my name or much of what was going on in the world. But when I showed him the airbrush and his work I poured over throughout high school and college, he remembered. Excited and smiling, he dove into stories about late nights of renderings for clients and zero-hour airbrush maintenance.
Today, the airbrush he gave me represents my connection to two incredible mentors and to a way of working that is as challenging and rewarding as I could have imagined.