People who take up painting or modeling will need to buy an airbrush sooner or later. Learning airbrush basics is easy and fun with our article!
Most of the 3D prints or model craft projects that you find in magazines or online are painted with an airbrush because it is very professional looking.
Not just for crafting, airbrushes are used in baking, nail salons, special effects movie costumes, custom motorcycle and automotive paint jobs, and clothing customization!
Traditional paintbrushes fail to reach the edges, nooks and crevices on crafted models. They also are notorious for leaving grooved brush lines. Not a good look if you want a seamless professional finish!
This is where an airbrush can do a wonderful job with seamless transitions of paint color. In addition, airbrushes can lay down a complete streak-free opaque coverage of paint in one swipe.
An airbrush allows you to spray an even paint application across different surfaces very quickly.
Once you have made the purchase of an airbrush and compressor, you are well on your way to creating commercial-grade items.
In this article, we offer a detailed guide of airbrush basics and how you can use it for various painting projects.
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How Do Airbrushes Work?
Let us look at the working mechanism of airbrushes in more detail.
The basic principle behind most airbrushes is based on two functions. A suction mechanism and a compressed air flow.
The process starts when the airbrush creates a pressure difference in the gun. This is achieved by lowering the pressure in the airbrush below the surrounding atmospheric pressure.
When you lower the pressure and open the paint flow, physical forces try to equalize this pressure. The paint is sucked into the nozzle from the cup.
This is where the compressor opens up and pushes air into the gun. The paint quickly gets vaporized into tiny particles.
The compressed paint is then pushed out from the spray head. The whole process is completed in a fraction of a second!
The paint distance can be adjusted by changing the compressor setting. Higher pressure will make the paint travel farther while a lower setting will reduce the distance at which the paint spreads out.
You can read more about air compressors in our article 23 Best Airbrush Compressor Review
In addition, adjusting pressure on your air compressor recommendations and in-depth information about air pressure can be found in our article Airbrush Pressure.
Types of Airbrushes
There are many types of airbrushes available in the market. There are small differences in the design from one manufacturer to another. However, most of them work on the same mechanism described above.
There are four important features that differentiate one airbrush from another. They differ based on the following.
- The paint feeding system
- Where the atomization or mixing occurs
- The trigger/action type
- The quality of materials and engineering of manufacture
Understanding these differences will help you make the right decision on which type of airbrush you should buy.
Paint Feeding Mechanism
The paint feeding mechanism controls how paint is pulled into the airbrush. There are three common methods used to do this.
The gravity feed mechanism is fairly straightforward. The paint cup is attached at the top of the airbrush. The gravity causes the paint to flow down into the body of the brush which is then pushed out with the help of compressed air. The easier flow of the paint into the airbrush allows you to operate it at a much lower pressure.
The cup can easily hold 5-7ml of paint. However, this type of airbrush works perfectly even if you only put in 2 drops of paint because all the paint flows down into the airbrush.
The gravity feed airbrush is perfect for detailed painting where you only need a little bit of paint and want to make very fine and precise patterns.
But don’t get the wrong idea with this airbrush. A gravity feed airbrush is also capable of painting big areas too. Just make sure to have a full cup of paint.
Overall, this type of airbrush offers the most versatile painting option.
This type of feeding mechanism is also called siphon-feed. The paint jar is attached under the airbrush and paint is pulled in with a siphoning mechanism. Since the paint needs to be pulled up against gravity, this type of airbrush requires a high air pressure compressor to operate smoothly.
Bottom-feed airbrushes allow you to attach a big paint jar to the gun which can be replaced with ease. This makes it convenient for spraying large areas. It makes changing paint colors a snap, as you merely take off the bottom paint bottle and trade it out for a new one. Then run enough sample sprays to clear out the old paint or spray it into a brush cleaner container.
It falls short when you are looking to do fine, detailed painting or when you need just a little bit of paint.
You can use similar, fine needles and nozzles with this airbrush as a gravity feed brush. However, as the pressure is going to be higher with this gun, you may find it more difficult to work up close to the model.
Side feed or hybrid airbrushes are not very common. They use a rotating cup that is attached to the side at an angle. The cup can be rotated allowing it to be used straight up or straight down.
Paint is fed through the airbrush’s side. The way this brush works is based on where the paint level is in relation to the airbrush’s nozzle.
If you rotate the cup straight up, the paint level gets above the nozzle’s tip and paint is fed through the gravity feeding mechanism. If you rotate it down, the paint level goes below the nozzle’s tip and it uses the siphon method to feed paint into the airbrush.
Side feed airbrushes are built to be adjustable based on your needs. You can use different kinds of cups or bottles for attachment with these airbrushes.
Paint Mixing Mechanism
Paint mixing determines how the paint is atomized inside the airbrush chamber. It differs from one model to the next but there are two main ways to do this, more or less.
The internal mix is a common but complicated process for atomizing paint. It is quite thorough and produces a uniform output that is both superior and popular with users.
The main distinguishing feature of an internal mix airbrush is a long and extremely sharp needle that is built inside the airbrush. The brush has a similar-sized nozzle that is installed at the front.
As compressed air is pushed into the nozzle and out, it siphons the paint along the needle as well. The air and paint are mixed and the paint gets atomized into spray form as it comes out of the airbrush. The amount of paint sprayed out depends on the size of the opening between the needle and nozzle tip.
The internal mix construction is superior as it allows much better atomization and far more control over the spraying than the external mix. But it also has one major drawback.
The internal needle has a fine point that is quite fragile and bends easily. This is more likely to occur when you pull the needle out for cleaning.
If the needle is damaged, it becomes nearly impossible to spray consistently and the needle will have to be replaced. Eventually, this can happens to the most careful of painters. Professional modelers go through at least a few needles each year.
The major difference between the internal and external mix airbrush is that the external brush mixes air and paint outside the device. The internal mechanism of the airbrush consists of a simple air blower. There is an additional, separate nozzle with a paint jar that is attached under the airbrush.
As the air exits the airbrush, it connects with this secondary nozzle and atomizes the paint into smaller particles, propelling it forward in a jet spray.
Overall, external mix airbrushes are the cheapest, and simplest choices for airbrushing. They are relatively easy to clean and operate. However, they do not perform as well as an internal mixing system.
The result is a denser or coarser spray pattern that leaves bigger dots of paint. This airbrush also does not offer anywhere near as much control as an internal mixing airbrush.
External mix airbrushes were the norm once but they have become a minority nowadays. Some brands, such as Badger and Paasche, still produce them. Most of the cheaper, made-in-China airbrushes that you find at online stores for less than ten bucks also use the external mixing mechanism.
Trigger Action Mechanism
Airbrushes can also be distinguished based on how they trigger action. Most of them are single-action or double-action airbrushes.
In single-action airbrushes, the trigger can only be pressed down to control the airflow. The user will have to manually adjust the paint screw to change the amount of paint that comes out of the spray. You can consider single-action airbrushes as finely tuned spray cans that work by pressing the spray nozzle.
Single-action mechanism is usually found in external mix airbrushes and less common in internal mix airbrushes. However, there are a few exceptions like the Badger’s series 200 which is a single action internal mix airbrush.
In double-action airbrushes, the trigger performs multiple functions to control the flow of air and paint out of the airbrush.
Similar to the single-action brush, it can be pressed down to control air pressure. Furthermore, you can also pull it back to adjust the needle. This allows more paint to pass through the nozzle. The further back you pull the trigger, the more paint you can spray through the airbrush.
This type of construction is found exclusively on internal mix airbrushes. Some double-action airbrushes also have a small screw in the handle that can control the maximum needle movement inside the airbrush.
The airbrush apparatus consists of different components that work together to allow airbrushing. The major components include the following.
The airbrush itself is obviously the most important piece you will need for airbrushing. The airbrush will be used to spray the paint on craft surfaces. Make sure your airbrush has the correct connectors to whatever air compressor setup you own. You may have to purchase hose adapters if you have an unusual model of either.
When I first got into airbrushing, I purchased a kit with an airbrush, hoses and compressor so that I was sure they would work together right out of the box. You can read my recommendations for the best kids in the link at the end of this article.
Compressor, Tubing and Connectors
The compressor is used to provide the needed air pressure that makes the airbrush work. A compressor can generate constant air pressure for your work. It relies on power from a power outlet to work.
Compressors come in variable sizes from a small 2×2 foot compressor to large ones that are almost 6 feet high. The type of compressor you need will depend on the size of your airbrush and/or how many airbrushes you need to supply simultaneously with compressed air. To work with multiple airbrushes, there has to be a correspondingly large air compressor with a large air cell.
However, for hobby craft uses, a small tabletop compressor may fit your needs well.
If you work on small individual projects, you can use small cans with compressed air instead of a large compressor. However, these cans empty out quickly and are only suitable for 5 to 10 minutes. You can also use gas bottles with compressed air that can be refilled with air.
Quality of Materials and Engineering of Manufacture
You can find really cheap airbrushes available on the internet and in stores. With some applications, cheap may suffice. For example, using it for a kid’s school project where you just need to cover a couple of sheets of presentation board or spray paint a hundred wedding favors the same color of paint.
But for fine details or frequent uses, you’ll really notice a difference in quality when you start climbing up the price points. The old saying “you get what you pay for,” really applies to airbrushes, even with the basics. I don’t like wasting money, especially on tools. Here’s my best advice: gauge your intentions.
A good gauge is what level of professional finish you will be targeting for your project. For example, if you are painting miniatures for a gaming competition, you’re going to want at least a mid-priced airbrush.
Another good gauge is the number of hours you will intend to use your airbrush. For instance, if you enjoy airbrushing often, you are going to crave an airbrush that gives great, reliable performance and is easy to clean.
If you decide to go with a very economical airbrush, be sure to read all the reviews online that you can find first!
Next to your airbrush and compressor, the kind of paint you choose is super important. Poor quality paint will separate in its bottle or spray unevenly because cheap pigments and suspensions are used. As a general rule, if the paint is one dollar a bottle or thereabouts, it probably isn’t going to give a stellar performance.
Acrylic hobby paints are generally inexpensive, though, and readily available in a variety of configurations.
For instance, paints for models and miniatures are available by individual manufactures. Some paints are thin and semi-transparent so you can spray on a glaze to age the miniature or make it look battle-worn.
In contrast, some paints are created for fast, opaque coverage.
Most importantly, paints are created by how glossy or matte they will be when dry.
For specific uses, it is common to own many small bottles of paint to achieve many different end results.
I own a bunch of paint. In my kit I have paints for achieving effects of: shiny and new, old and dented, opaque or washed out, bright colors for impact and dull colors for realism. I keep them all organized with the same purpose, regardless of manufacturer.
That way I don’t accidentally grab a glossy paint when I intended a grubby green for painting shrubbery.
Also, I do own cheap paint as well as quality paints. Let’s face it, if I need the smallest dab of a color, I don’t need to spring for an entire bottle of premium paint. You’ll soon figure out the color and type of paint that you will use the most often and when and where you want the good stuff.
The bottom line is: decide how you want your finished paint job to look, then purchase the paint that will give you those results. Check out some great YouTube tutorials for the finish you are hoping for before you invest a lot of money in paints that won’t do the job.
Paints have very specific uses. For example, textile paints, body painting paints, edible ‘paint’ for cakes and food, paints for nail design, model paints, enamel, and crafting paints are all used with airbrushes.
In all cases, the trick is to dilute the paint to the correct inky consistency for great flow, and remember to clean your brush after each session!
Painting Ground / Project
The last main ingredient is the painting surface or craft itself. Airbrushes can be used for almost every surface and material like paper, metal (car), textiles, fingernails, wood, walls, 3D prints, clay crafts and more.
For wood and paper airbrushing, make sure that you use an airbrush that works with low pressure. This will ensure that the craft is not damaged when you remove the masking material later.
Painting clay crafts and 3D prints are easier with airbrushes as they are solid and sturdy enough to handle moderate air pressure.
Masking Material and Templates
Stencils and masks are optional but handy components in airbrushing. Generally made from non-porous plastic or acetate, stencils are easy to make. You can find premade stencils online that mimic textures, flame threads, animal spots, brick walls and a plethora of other things.
Simply hold a stencil over the target area and spray to obtain sharp edges and lines.
Even using an edge of cardstock will give you a hard edge spray.
The masking materials also allow you to obtain a certain contour, which would be very difficult to achieve without a template.
Masking materials must be pasted on the painting surface before you start spraying. You can use tape, glue or clips to attach them firmly. Get a good bond with the surface in order to get a crisp edge. If the stencil lifts, spray will sneak under and give a softer edge effect.
Cutter and Knife
Craft knives are used to cut the film or to make templates. In addition, if you are fortunate enough to own a digital cutter machine, they can be cut for you automatically.
Airbrush Basic Techniques
Good airbrushing technique starts by getting the basics right. Here is how to do it in four simple steps.
- Air On
- Paint On
- Paint Off
- Air Off
Only turn your paint on to flow while the air pressure is already working. Turn the paint off at the airbrush before you cut off the air pressure at the compressor. This basic rule will help you overcome several problems with the airbrush.
In most cases of airbrush basic painting, problems happen when the air pressure changes suddenly. This tends to occur when you turn your air pressure on or off. It is the most likely time for your airbrush to spit, or sputter bursts of air. If the paint is on, it can leave sputters on your project as well.
Make sure to turn the paint on while the airbrush is pointed at a test sheet. This helps to save your work from splats of paint and miss fires.
I always do a test spray before I move onto my project. It saves me every time!
You should try to paint in short motions as it avoids leaving dots at the beginning of your lines or dagger strokes.
Airbrush Basic Patterns To Master
Here are some beginner airbrush patterns to learn before you move on to something more complex.
The dot is the most basic shape to learn. Simple spurt some paint on a surface while holding your airbrush steady. This should give you a dot.
Now try practicing a bigger and smaller dot size. You will need to hold the airbrush close to the painting surface or away from it to achieve this effect.
Do note that it takes longer to make a bigger dot that is fully colored compared to a smaller dot.
Now try drawing a line. In essence, it is the same as making a dot. The difference is that you will need to move your airbrush in a line across the canvas to draw the line.
In the beginning, you will notice that you leave a solid, noticeable dot at the starting point of your line. This is because you spend a split second more on this point before you started moving your hand. To overcome this, start moving your hand before you start spraying.
This will help you learn how to draw a smooth line without dots.
When you are good with lines, try drawing a circle with a circumference that has a uniform width. You can do this by holding the airbrush perpendicular to the surface being sprayed. That means you should spray straight onto the surface instead of spraying at an angle. This will take a bit of practice. Chances are, you will need to be aware of how close or far away your hand goes during a spray action.
Cone is a combination pattern to learn that is somewhat easier. You start by spraying a thinner jet with less paint and gradually increase the volume of paint in a straight line to form a cone.
The size of the cone’s bottom also depends on how far you hold the airbrush from the painting surface. As you move to the wider end, slowly pull the airbrush away to make the cone thicker on the top end.
Crucial Step in Airbrush Basics
Nothing will ruin your airbrush faster than dried or gunked-up paint inside your airbrush. If I could emphasize ONE thing in this introductory article, it would be to clean your airbrush thoroughly after each painting session. You can find more details on how to clean your airbrush in my article here: How To Clean An Airbrush in Just A Few Easy Steps.
I highly recommend getting an airbrush cleaner jar like this one.
You can rest the airbrush in the holder when not using it, and you can spray a burst into the jar to get the last bit of paint out of the chambers for easy cleaning.
One thing I didn’t cover is safety. Airbrush uses vaporized paint. This is not-so-good for your lungs. You probably know someone who has lung damage from a variety of illnesses or sources. To keep your lungs the safest, use a spray booth that will expel the tiniest particles away from your lungs. You can buy one for around $100 or even make one from scratch.
If you are going to use enamel paint or oil-based paints, please, please use a respirator mask. People who paint cars use full-body suits and masks. This stuff is toxic.
At the very least, wear a facemask and use a cardboard box to absorb and collect the overspray as you airbrush, similar to the one up by our title of this article.
In this article, I considered airbrush basics and how they can be used for painting your 3D prints or crafts.
Working with an airbrush is easy but takes time to get used to it.
The type of airbrush and components that you buy will depend on how you intend to use the brush and your goals for painting. For more helpful tips, be sure to follow our articles and let us know your experiences with airbrushing.
Lastly, if you are shopping for an airbrush and you’d like to discover the differences between all the brands to see if springing for a mid-price range or high price range airbrush is worth it. You can find my informative article on airbrush brands at Best Airbrush Reviews.