An introduction to Airbrushing
Airbrushing miniatures has been on the rise lately in the Warmachine and Hordes communities. With the appearance of the Colossals and battle engines, there comes a need to paint larger areas with greater speed and precision. To turn these amazing models into beautiful center pieces in one’s army on the table top, an airbrush is the perfect tool. Although there is a large group out there interested in learning to use an airbrush, many however are just overwhelmed with where to begin. This is a guide to understanding what options are available to painters, and what is needed when getting started in airbrushing. At the end of this article you as a painter will know how to get your foot in the door of the airbrushing hobby.
The most important concept to understand when embracing airbrushing is that it will not replace a regular brush. You will find that nearly every tutorial website relates that a regular paintbrush is still the most important tool at the end of the day for a painter. I have had an airbrush myself now for a little under a year, and every model I paint still requires the use of a normal brush to finish the project. An airbrush’s primary role to a miniatures painter is to save you time and effort. It is still absolutely crucial for great looking models to learn techniques on how to dry brush, blend, wash, and glaze a model correctly.
Although airbrushing is a great tool, it is also vital to understand that airbrushing has one of the steepest learning curves, as far technique is concerned. Without a doubt it takes time and effort to learn a new skill no matter what the skill may be, airbrushing is no different. If you decide to make the investment into an airbrush, try your best to keep your chin up and keep practicing. Great looking tabletop quality miniatures are possible, but may be down the road a little ways instead of right out of the gate like many anticipate. With practice miniatures such as these are possible within hours instead of days. (The image below of a Cryx battle box was painted in just over seven hours.)
What kind of airbrush should I get for my first airbrush?
The above being taken into consideration, it’s time to take a look and simplify the world of airbrushes to make it easier to break into this great technique. There are two main components to all airbrushes. The first is the brush itself and the second is the air compressor that feeds the air to the brush. Let’s start by looking at the first component, the brush. There are two terms associated with describing an airbrush, action and paint reservoir or paint cup. The most important term needed, when looking for an airbrush for miniatures is the “ACTION” term.
With many different types of airbrush companies out there, airbrushes come in many different formats and styles. The action of an airbrush is in reference to the trigger mechanism. A single action airbrush you pull back on the trigger mechanism and a single flow of paint and air come from the brush. This creates a problem for the painter as it will not allow you to control paint flow or airflow from the brush to the model. A single action airbrush would be similar to say a can of spray paint or primer. A newer action that has appeared more recently in the airbrush market is known as a 1.5 action. This action increases air flow and paint delivered to the brush the more you pull back on the triggering method. This also creates the problem of not letting the painter regulate proper control over airflow and paint delivery to a model. Although it does allow some control, I would still not recommend either a single action or a 1.5 action airbrush. The action that I highly recommend for all level of hobbyists looking into airbrushing miniatures is known as dual action airbrush.
A dual action airbrush uses a trigger system of two active mechanisms. By pushing down on the top of the airbrush trigger you control how much air is delivered through the brush. The second action is done by pulling back on the trigger mechanism. This action regulates the flow of paint from the reservoir to the brush. This style of brush however comes with some difficulties. Learning to control the trigger of a dual action airbrush is difficult at first, but gets easier over time. Essentially one could compare it to learning how to hold a pen or pencil back in grade school. It’s difficult at the earlier stages, but over time you develop the muscle memory and skill needed to effectively control the trigger system. In addition to the action of a brush it is important to understand the differences in paint reservoirs otherwise known as the paint cup.
A paint reservoir is the housing area that holds your paint. There are three main types of reservoir systems. The three images below showcase the various forms of paint cup locations.
The first style of airbrush is the bottom-feed style:
The second type of airbrush is the side-feed airbrush:
The third type of airbrush is the gravity-feed airbrush:
These three types of paint cup housings will make a world of difference when using your airbrush. I cannot stress how important it is to avoid the first type, the bottom-feed. This is a trap! Many hobby stores such as Michael’s and Hobby Lobby offer beginner airbrush kits with this style of paint cup. Avoid them at all costs. Yes that style of airbrush is usually cheaper, the trade off is the amount of paint that you will waste using it. The best way to elaborate on the drawbacks of this style would be like a near empty bottle of Windex. As the fluid enters into the bottom portion of the paint cup, it has trouble drawing up the paint into the brush. This usually leaves the paint in the bottom of the bottle that never gets used. This style of paint cup also proves to be the hardest to clean and maintain. Choosing either of the other two paint cup housings however will work equally as well, but the simple non-pivoting gravity-feed will cost significantly less.
The last two remaining brushes both draw paint by being gravity fed. This means that the paint cup is above the needle and the painter pulls the trigger mechanism backwards to allow paint into the airflow and then out to the model. The side-feed style allows the painter to rotate the paint cup to different angles giving the painter an advantage normally when working at awkward angles and positions. However in the modeling world models can be moved and angled to allow for easier access to normally harder to reach areas. My suggestion to all painters looking to get into painting would be to find a standard dual action gravity-feed airbrush.
Without having used them all personally there are two companies that I would highly recommend. The first is the most commonly seen airbrush company, Iwata. I personally recommend Iwata, as it is the airbrush brand I prefer. Hobby Lobby usually sells a great Iwata, the HP-CS Eclipse; it’s a dual action and gravity-feed brush that is perfect for beginners. This company prides itself on quality and performance from its products. However, you are paying a premium for the name with Iwata. The other company that comes highly recommended is Badger. Several of the local game store guys have Badger airbrushes and although they don’t carry a well known name, their product is very good to say the least. The big difference between the two companies is price, Iwata being the more expensive of the two with a good quality brushes running around the $200.00 amount. Badgers top of line brushes run around $200.00. Just by the price alone airbrushes can be kind of discouraging. Fear not though after discussing the types of air compressors I’ll give a few tips for cutting the cost of an airbrush.
The last piece info in understanding what to look for in an airbrush is the nozzle size. Airbrushes have nozzle sizes that range from as small as 0.12mm to .5mm and higher. The way airbrush nozzles are sized is by the spray pattern size. The larger a number, such as .5mm, the bigger the spray is. For airbrushing models and miniatures, I personally recommend that you start no bigger than a .25mm spray. This is really great for base coats and with some practice a layer or two of highlights. If you want to do greater levels of highlights and transitions then you need to look at probably two needle sizes. A .25 mm nozzle for basecoats and primary highlights and then a .12 or .15mm sized nozzle for detail work. The smaller nozzle sizes when used to cover large surface areas will leave uneven areas that will look unnatural and tacky.
Wholly crap so many compressors to choose from!
There is a very wide selection of companies out there with compressors of all kinds. I am the farthest from a person with mechanical know how, so if anything in here is wrong I do apologize in advance for it. Please feel free to leave a note in the comments section. However this is the information I used when researching to find my compressor. For an airbrush it’s not that difficult to find a good compressor. There are two types, the first are electrical compressors with a diaphragm and the second are oil compressors. The more affordable of the two is the electrical compressor with a diaphragm. As many hobbyists enter into airbrushing they will most likely want to start off with one of the electrical compressors to save on initial investment.
Electrical compressors run the cost scale from around $100 all the way up to $900.00 plus. They are usually single piston compressors without an air tank. These are usually super light in weight when compared to those with air tanks. I would strongly suggest this as a great place to start. These compressors are at the lower cost of the spectrum and will run around $100 -$150. The only upgrade I would probably suggest is finding one with an air tank attached to the compressor.
(Image of single piston compressor for beginners by iwata)
An air compressor with an air tank will cost a little more, usually about an additional $50, but the cost is completely worth it. Compressors with no air tank work continuously while using your airbrush, and have a high tendency to overheat while doing so. When air compressors overheat condensation can build up in the air line. When this happens, additional liquid makes it to the brush, it will thin paint and the model suffers from this. So it is absolutely crucial that if you are using a compressor you have a vapor trap. Many air brushes from come with these, however if they don’t they are really cheap and can be picked up from any Hobby Lobby. Using a compressor that has an attached air tank will prevent this wear and tear.
(Image of Vapor catcher for airbrush)
A compressor with an air tank will store air in the tank and then shut the compressor off. The brush uses air only from the tank. This means that your compressor will only run when the tank is low on air. This will exponentially expand the life of your compressor. This allows for longer continuous use of the airbrush and it also usually ends up being quieter in the long run. The compressor will automatically shut off once the air tank is full removing the noise of the compressor. The important thing to remember is that the longer and harder you run your compressors the shorter the life of the compressor. Most compressors have a life span of approximately two years. If you want to go all in on a compressor an oil compressor is where to go.
(Image of single compressor with attached air tank)
Oil compressors are exactly as they sound a compressor that uses pistons lubricated by oil to function. Oil compressors are on the highest end of the cost spectrum and will run you right around $600. The advantages of an oil compressor are worth the investment, if you can squeeze one into your budget. The most commonly talked about advantage is that of the noise level. Although I have not used an oil compressor, many websites say that the noise level of an oil compressor is near that of a home aquarium or even quieter. The financial side of investing into an oil compressor discourages many, but knowing that you don’t have to replace them every two or so years is what usually draws many to spend the extra money. Oil compressors don’t suffer the normal wear and tear that a diaphragm compressor does. If you properly maintain oil levels and change the oil at least once a year, an oil compressors life span is pretty much limitless. There are however a few drawbacks to an oil compressor.
Oil compressors are heavy. The next time you are out at a Lowes, Menards, or Home Depot, go hunt down one try and pick it up. Even the small ones are extremely heavy. Oil compressors are also not meant to be moved around a lot. Keeping them level to prevent oil from getting into the air line is vital to its operation. That being said if you want to hang out with the guys and have a paint night, they are going to need to come to you. I recommend that if you are interested in airbrushing start with the single piston compressors, save the money for an oil compressor down the road.
PRO TIP!!!! – Spending less money is better.
There are great ways to save lots of money when breaking into airbrushing. The most common is looking online for discount bundles. These are usually a bundle that includes an air compressor, airbrush, and the basics for getting started. There are websites that offer complete airbrush packages with airlines, compressor, and name brand brushes. A lot of these websites are pretty legit and can save some serious cash, but buyers beware! I have heard several horror stories when dealing with these online companies. Everything from extremely long shipping to not getting the right product they ordered and then having to pay to ship it back to the parent company. That being said you can save a couple hundred dollars when using them and are worth giving it shot. Before you buy though, do some research! While writing this article I was looking through one of these websites and I noticed some good and bad products put together. Top of the line, best rated compressor put together with the worst beginner’s airbrush. It is most easily related to back when Best Buy would try and rope-a-dope a buyer into those DVD bundle packs. You get one really sweet movie, and then you get the super bad movie…
If you are like me, super impatient and a complete impulse buyer, there are still ways to save money at your local hobby stores. Check to see if you local Hobby Lobby or Michael’s carry airbrushes. If either store does, simply Google the name of the company, and look for coupons that weekend. Almost always the major hobby stores run coupons for 40-50% off any one single regular priced item. They look like the following:
This pretty much cuts the cost of the airbrush and compressor in half. Get you and a friend to team up and each one buy a particular item. If you want to use this multiple times get something one day in the morning and then return later in the evening and usually they won’t care as you are still spending money in their store.
Okay so I have a brush and compressor now what?
There are still a few things needed to get you on the way to airbrushing. This section will give a quick overview for protective gear, cleaning tools, and painting tools that I use while operating an airbrush. Some of the following are interchangeable with other options out there, but these are the few that work best for me.
Get a Mask!
No not the movie! The most important thing outside of the brush and compressor is a protective respirator mask. Most people when getting into airbrushing will just avoid this, thinking well I’ll be safe. Don’t be dumb, be safe here, and get a mask to protect your airways. There are some paints out there that are toxic when ingested, and although you’re not powering them down like a Slurpee from a Kum and Go, don’t risk it. Get a protective mask even if it is the cheap one from Wal-Mart.
There are many websites with all kinds of formulas out there for thinning P3, GW, and Vallejo paints for use in an airbrush. Instead of making this process overly complicated with 2 parts this, 1 part that, I have found it to be easier just use regular name brand Windex. Each paint brand, and sometimes colors, will be different on how much to use, but simple name brand Windex when used to create paint thinner will allow for longer paint life than isopropyl alcohol. I have found that using alcohol, which is what most websites suggested when I started, the paint comes out powdery and chalky. Use Windex to thin the paint down to a milk-like texture, and your good to go. If you’re unsure of this method, or what is physical look that one needs, there are hundreds of people out there with videos and websites for thinning paint for your airbrush. My best results however have come from simple Windex.
*** Pro Tip***- Metallic paints cannot be thinned enough to spray them through an airbrush. All metallic paints contain small metal looking flakes of pigment. These flakes give that metal look to a model when painted on. Vallejo model air offers a metal line for airbrushes. The down side is that these paints don’t have that metal look that the paints with the flakes do. If you want that really good looking metal stick with painting your metallic paints on with a brush.
Supplies to clean your brush
Read through your manual that comes with your airbrush and follow your cleaning instructions every time you use your airbrush. This sounds rhetorical, but in the last few months I have known two people that forgot to clean their brush and have clogged up their needle and spent way too much fixing or repairing them. Properly maintain your brushes and extend their life. My suggestion is to find a nozzle cleaning set or to use dentistry tools to clean out your sprayer nozzle.
These brushes are $4.00 at Wal-Mart and are perfect for getting into the nozzle and paint cup to clean out the brush. In addition to brushes you are going to want to look at getting some isopropyl alcohol. These will be used to clean out the various cavities of a paintbrush that are hard to get into and the paint reservoir.
Manuals… Where were going we don’t need manuals…
Not true before we get into doing any actual airbrushing, get out the manual that comes with your airbrush and compressor and look at it. Read through and understand as many things about your airbrush and how it works as possible. The manual will usually give you specifics on what, where, and when to clean mechanical parts in your airbrush. In addition this guide will tell you what settings to put your compressor on for painting.
Nothing left to do but get to it!
That pretty much wraps up what is needed when getting started in airbrushing. The next installment will cover basics to airbrushing technique. Try airbrushing onto larger models at first to familiarize yourself with how your airbrush works and interacts with models. Try doing fades on note cards to learn control and how paints will react when going through an airbrush. As a closing thought remember to keep practicing and don’t get discouraged. Learning this skill will take a little bit of time, but with patience and practice it will come. Thank you for reading, and I hope this has been somewhat helpful.