Cave of Hands is an underground location in Santa Cruz, Argentina. It is famous for the images of hands created by spraying paint on a cave wall forming silhouettes of hands. Pipes made of bone were used to facilitate the technique more than 10,000 years ago, thus starting a tradition of artists using sprayed paint to cover surfaces, tag walls and mark territories.

Although the technique is primitive, the original artists were probably impressed by how perfect the image of their hands were, as though they were photographic prints created by projecting light onto photosensitive paper. As the technique progressed, a number of devices were introduced, culminating with the airbrush, a high pressure spray tool used to retouch photography before the introduction of computer editing software.

What sets the spraying of paint apart from most other forms of brush painting or printmaking is the degree of fine gradation that can be achieved between light and dark, color and hue. The way light illuminates a surface is extremely nuanced, and it has always been a challenge to simulate that effect of light, especially over large areas.

During the 1950’s airbrush became very popular among car painters, mostly because the paint used was of very high quality and took a long time to dry. This made it perfect for use in an airbrush, where the drying of paint tends to be accelerated by the current of air flowing through the apparatus, thus clogging it. In addition, the surface of an automobile is very large and the spray technique was a great way to simulate flames and bursts, skies and clouds.

Flip forward to the street artists of today who are commissioned to paint murals on sides of buildings, or the sophisticated political activists such as Banksy, and a large market has evolved for spray paint in cans. It is portable, dependable, and requires no complicated apparatus or air compressor. Artists have used brands such as Krylon and Rust-o-leum for years.

During the 1990’s in Spain, the highly sophisticated local graffiti art became popular in Barcelona, and the Montana Colors line of spray paints was established. Following a series of experiments and setbacks, including a disastrous factory fire, an offshoot called Montana Cans appeared in Germany during the early 2000’s. With a good distribution channel and superior product, the Montana spray paints have become very popular and easily available today.

With a matte finish and low price, the Montana Black paints perform beautifully in combination with the low sheen dry surface of acrylic paints. The adhesion and drying times are fantastic, and of the 40 cans I’ve purchased not one of them has clogged. There is an enormous selection of colors and a variety of thin and wide nozzles are available.

Would I ever go back to traditional airbrush? If I could just pick up the airbrush, paint my stenciled area and then go ahead with my work, I would. But an airbrush requires constant cleaning, taking several minutes to change colors and inevitably clogging. An option is the use of slow drying enamels with the accompanying volatile solvents and thinners. In my opinion, we’ve gone back to the simplicity and joy of spray paint that originated in the Cave of Hands.

Chris Bird in his own “Cave of Hands.”

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Chris Bird is a designer for print and web specializing in the development of marketing materials for a varied spectrum of clients. He currently resides in Santa Rosa, California. His music website is at www.studio1057.com and his painting and fine arts website is located at cbird167.weebly.com