The Artist as Entrepreneur

Gabe McCubbin’s Passion for Airbrushing Sparks The Creation of Artool, One of The Industry’s Fastest Growing Companies

By Dave Waite

Many great ideas start on a bar napkin. Gabe McCubbin’s begins with a doily.

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Made of decorative lace, doilies were intended to be placed under cake or party plates to make food look inviting. But in Gabe’s hands, they invited invention. For a young airbrush artist craving new patterns for his T-shirt canvases in the early 70s, old, handmade doilies acquired at collectible shops, garage sales and thrift stores became his first templates.

“I would scour the thrift stores for them. They made great images with their intricate, textural patterns which were great for textural backgrounds and gradated looks,” Gabe said. “They were perfect for outer space or underwater scenes. I used some of the doilies so much they would get stopped up and had to be tossed out.”

But the supply of doilies was drying up. Which gave Gabe an idea…

Devilish Details

Growing up in his father’s workshop in Sacramento, Gabe drew cartoons while honing his tool skills, and watched his dad create and patent carpentry tools for woodworking.

“I became obsessive when I bought anything,” Gabe said. “If the product packaging was made to hang on a peg, I would routinely pick out best one, and look for any manufacturing anomalies in the others, noting the slightest differences. I was intrigued by the details of how everything was manufactured and put together.”

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Academically, he wasn’t much of a high school student, but Gabe would always ace his shop classes, where he learned everything he could on metal, wood and automotive projects.

Surf’s Up At The Circus

Following a three-year stint in the Navy, Gabe gravitated to the sunny climes of Southern California with only a suitcase and a guitar. He loved the sunny weather and the beach scene. His first job was painting and refurbishing broken-down teletype cabinets for resale.

For Gabe, Southern California indeed became La-La Land for a time, as the singing waiter served celebrities in a famed hip-and-happening Santa Monica restaurant called The Great American Food & Beverage Company. He worked alongside Katy Segal, an exceptional blues singer who went on to star in the TV show Married With Children, and Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter.

A girlfriend introduced him to a “wild new scene” with an arty crowd situated in Topanga Canyon that was unlike anything he’d seen before. Airbrushing was surging in popularity there, with a Rainbow Family wearing outfits that were airbrushed from head to toe in colorful patterns.

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In 1973, Gabe used his first airbrush at Lady Rain Productions, a studio where he would paint anything and everything, creating custom T-shirts, spraying surf boards, experimenting with early body art and decorating custom costumes for rock stars like Elton John.

“It was a circus ride,” Gabe said. “It was where Hollywood and the art community came together.”

He mixed his own acrylic tube paints that were squeezed in empty juice bottles with various mediums, and strained through a cheesecloth to get out the heavier pigments.

“This was where I learned my skills in airbrushing, and eventually started making and cutting my own templates,” said Gabe, who spent nearly eight months working in the studio.

Birth In Venice

Gabe’s undeniable passion for airbrushing led him to set up his own shop in sunny Venice, where he spent two years airbrushing tons of tees, custom-painted dolls and women’s wear for boutiques. Many of his creations were sold on the beach and local boutiques.

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Venice was where he would design his first templates, made out of oiled stencil board. They would last for a while, but then paint would eventually build up and a new template would need to be made.

After perfecting how to make acrylics stay on a shirt, Gabe needed a new challenge.

Flying Solo

Back in the 70s, the airlines would retread old tires to save money. Gabe took a job managing a tire service conveniently located in a huge warehouse with full plumbing. Little did the airlines know that Gabe spent his evenings their as well.

“I delivered those recapped tires to the airport, working a few hours a day, and then spent the rest of my day and night painting and playing music. They had no idea I lived there,” said Gabe, who was often the only soul still stirring in the industrial area of the city, except when his avant-garde jazz group would jam and rehearse late into the night.

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His “art studio” proved to be the ideal location over the next five years for making enormous fine-art canvases that he would stretch himself, and then paint abstracts of random shapes or colors. He was still captivated by the airbrushing medium.

“It was amazing the way you could gradate colors so quickly and seamlessly, one to the next, blending them, covering all this area in a short space of time,” Gabe said. “The act of atomizing paint on a surface…there was just something really magical about it.”

Gabe also became a serious student, getting a degree in the theater arts, which he used to perform at the Venice Living Theater, and taking nearly every art class he could at Santa Monica College, where the only real costs were art supplies.

Flat Broke

The retread tire business eventually went under and suddenly Gabe had to find some place to not only work, but live as well. He would continue to paint on the side, but spent his days now working for Columbia Pictures Distribution, promoting new films to exhibitors in the mid-70s.

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“I would have to watch many films, but only a small percentage of these movies was even worth watching,” Gabe said. “In the end, I realized that selling films wasn’t in the cards for me. I could have stayed and been very successful and secure there, but I didn’t have the passion. It was too regimented. I had to create.”

Wandering Into Fate

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Gabe next managed a music repair store. Still filled with a passion for painting, he wandered into Zora’s Art Supply in West Hollywood, one of the only stores that carried airbrush supplies and replacement parts. Zora Pinney was known for traveling the world with her husband to visit paint manufactures so they could find paint no one else had. At that time in LA, many specialty fine art materials were hard to come by.

“Zora, who was legendary in the art supply business, said to me, ‘I’m kind of shorthanded, could you help me out?'” Gabe recalls. “I ended up staying in the art supply business for 10 years.”

Gabe would manage different stores, including Graphaids, Inc., in the West LA area for eight years, selling supplies to artists and celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and David Hockney.

By this point, Gabe was exceptionally knowledgeable about art supplies, and was well connected within the community. In 1992, entrepreneurial ideas would come to him that had been simmering all along.

Vision Leads To Action

Gabe saw a need. There was still no company making templates. He thought his invention, the Multirail, today known as an Artist’s Bridge, would be a tremendous aid to artists for working closely over surfaces with soft and wet mediums without smudging or smearing, but didn’t know enough about manufacturing to start his own business.

“I would spend all day and night trying to fine-tune this new product,” said Gabe, who didn’t realize his efforts were about to become a company called Gabe McCubbin Design, which he quickly changed to Artool Products Company.

He sent his first invention, an 18″ Clear Multirail, to Airbrush Action magazine. It garnered a full-page review written by John Thies, and Cliff Steiglitz called to see if he wanted to take out an ad in the magazine, which Gabe didn’t need to think about twice.

The product review changed everything. The Multirail was being sold in modest amounts by some Southern California art and airbrush stores, but now requests started pouring in from around the country.

He was helped by good friends Gig Sims in Redondo Beach and Karen Heidrick in Santa Monica, who both worked tirelessly to help turn his ideas into reality. And Gabe’s parents both supported and lent advice to get Artool off the ground.

Inventing

“I didn’t know how to fill orders that large,” Gabe said. He wasn’t sure about quitting his day job, but he soon had to cut back his hours at the store.

During his breaks, he’d call customers, who thought they were talking to the president of a company, not an art store employee calling from a pay phone.

“I was literally flying by the seat of my pants to get Artool started,” Gabe said.

He started by taking an afternoon a week off from the store, which was incredibly supportive of his entrepreneurial efforts, but soon had to work just on Saturdays. Even that became too much as Artool was taking off in a big way.

“I was that swamped,” Gabe said. He was focused and on a mission, now knowing his idea for the company was more than promising.

He sought to make each Artool product as perfect as could be. There was no detail too small. He discovered manufacturers in the US who could meet his exacting standards in producing each piece. His company’s slogan was “Quality Crafted Innovation,” which remains Artool’s mantra.

Possessed By Obsession

“From start to finish I carefully scrutinized each step to ensure that the Artool Products were the very best they could be,” he said. “I’m totally obsessive about each process of my company’s products. Believe me, I’ve made more than a few people crazy with details, but through the years, the artists who use Artool Products have always been pleased with the results.”

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The article in Airbrush Action magazine wasn’t the only glowing review. Other artists were taking note.

Gabe’s first endorser was legendary master Charles White III, an illustrator who created the original Star Wars poster, Treasure Island in Las Vegas, countless film posters and huge environmental designs.

“He really liked the product. It was useful to him and made his life easier” Gabe said.

A Template To Grow

Buoyed by this early success, Gabe took his entrepreneurial imagination and aimed at another airbrushing improvement he’d long pondered – templates. No company had done an autographed airbrush template series before.

“When I would attend the Airbrush Getaways in the early 90’s, which Airbrush Action magazine sponsored, I noticed that the students were cutting out shapes similar to those described in Radu Vero’s The Complete Studio Handbook,” Gabe explains. “These shapes were a close resemblance of what Radu was describing, but students were hard-pressed to make the smooth cuts necessary to shape the template curves drawn by a master.”

When material was cut with an X-acto blade, making curves continuous and smooth proved exceptionally difficult. While some templates were better than others, the overall experience was time consuming and yielded mostly throwaway pieces of acetate – whatever you cut was what you got when applying paint with an airbrush.

“Around this time I had met and started working with Eddie Young, who was rendering animation illustrations for Walt Disney Studios,” Gabe said. “He had cut two French-curve templates shapes, which not only had smooth curves, but they were perfectly suited for airbrush illustration. So I set out to find the right manufacturer to create these small French-curve shapes.

“Once I did, airbrushers had a product they could use confidently again and again right out of the package – no more spending time cutting out a series of shapes that might achieve the desired results.”

Eddy’s now-recognizable original Freehand logo still adorns all Artool Freehand template products. And legendary airbrush illustrator Mark Frederickson provided the quote that would appear on Artool packaging, “Since getting my hands on the Artool templates, I can’t put them down.”

These two early templates led other artists to start approaching Gabe with ideas. And it grew from there.

The Masters Come Calling

After the seeing the success of the new Artool Freehand Airbrush Templates, Radu contacted Gabe to produce two of his favorite shapes, The Pharaoh and The Bird for the Master Series.

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“I was honored that ‘the man’ had so much faith in my little Artool Company,” Gabe said fondly. “He gave real legitimacy to the Artool line of Freehand Templates.”

Many artists still use Radu’s two shapes exclusively. Radu and Gabe became good friends, and the Artool Freehand Template line has grown into the larger line of creative and usable signature series shapes of the industry’s top artists and illustrators, a list that includes such notable artists as Craig Fraser, Michael Cacy, Andrea Mistretta, Mark “The Shark” Rush, Deborah Mahan, Edward Reed, Julian Braet, Mike Lavallee, Dennis Mathewson, Richard Montoya, Gary Padilla and Pamela Shanteau.

A Template To Grow

At a trade show in 1994 where his booth was located next to Iwata-Medea’s, Gabe quickly hit it off with Iwata’s president, Will Naemura and they stayed in touch. The airbrush industry’s top product company, Iwata became Artool’s master distributor, giving Artool products the outlet they needed for explosive growth.

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Gabe remains the owner and president of Artool, and business continues to boom.

During the last 13 years, Gabe hasn’t had to sing over dinner or deliver any re-treaded tires. He still finds time to play music, often sitting in on guitar with one of Northern California’s top rhythm-and-blues bands, Groove Drop, led by Eric Barton.

Today, Artool has over 150 products in its catalog, with plans to add at least 20 more this year alone while working with new artists.

“In many ways I feel like Artool is just getting started. It feels really good to be very busy with the career I love the most. This is the most rewarding thing I could do for a career,” Gabe said. “It wasn’t always a clear road. It’s been a real journey. But I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet.”