Airbrush tips n techniques


Using an airbrush

There’s no doubt about it: you can get fantastic results with an airbrush, especially painting with acrylics; soft, subtle shading that is almost impossible to achieve any other way. The downside is that they can be tricky and temperamental beasts to handle, you’re forever fiddling with them and stripping them down to clean them.

I own a selection of airbrushes, cheap and expensive, but I still can’t say my technique is that good. Mainly that’s because I don’t use them enough and that’s a matter of confidence. However my confidence has improved and I’m learning all the time; one day I hope to really get to grips with airbrush technique.

What type of airbrush

airbrush4As well as finding airbrushes intimidating when I first started, they were expensive; the major cost being the air compressor. My first experiences with one (an Aztek) also wasn’t too good; I just couldn’t seem to make it do what I wanted. It wasn’t until I bought an Iwata HPC that I had any success at all.

Iwata airbrushes are pretty expensive however and I still worry about stripping them down without damaging them or losing the tiny parts. That means I haven’t really had the practice I needed. I’m aware it’s all about an attitude of mind: you’ve got to persuade yourself to just ‘jump in’ and ‘have a go’ or you never improve.

Thankfully the cost of airbrushes has come down quite considerably since I started taking an interest. You can buy a Chinese made airbrush for a fraction of the cost of one of the ‘super brands,’ like Iwata, Paasche and Harder Steenbeck, and they are perfectly adequate for models. You also don’t need to worry so much about how you use them or what you put through them because your investment is less.

When to use an airbrush

As I said before, airbrushes come into their own when you want subtle gradations of colour but, until you’re really accomplished with one, it’s probably better to employ them for painting things like cloaks, draperies, nude bodies, and anything large, going back to an ordinary brush for finer work. Don’t feel you have to do it all with an airbrush.

Another good use for an airbrush is simply laying down a basecoat. You can do it very quickly and avoid brush marks. You can also apply the paint thinly, thus avoiding clogging up the detail. (I’ve recently switched to applying primer with an airbrush instead of a can and really appreciate the control it gives me).

Health and safety issues

Airbrushes are not nearly as nasty to use as cans although you can still get some ‘drift’ from them (an overspray or mist of small particles). I used to spray with a simple cardboard screen up in front of me but I’ve never invested in a spray booth – I simply don’t use the airbrush enough – or worn a  face mask, although I probably should.

However it’s only common sense to be careful and work in a well ventilated area; especially if you are using any of the more toxic paints. (I mainly spray with acrylics or inks). The rule of thumb is that if you can smell the substance, paint or chemical you’re working with then it’s probably not doing you much good.

Masking techniques

A lot of the art of airbrushing is stopping the paint from going where it shouldn’t go or ‘masking’. You can create intricate masks to use like stencils but more often you just want to cover up areas to protect them.

There are a number of things you can use but the one thing you have to watch is that the mask doesn’t lift off paint when you remove it!  If that happens, it’s heartbreaking. For that reason I would suggest always protecting your paint work with some kind of varnish like Testor’s Dullcote before you attempt to mask it.

There are many different ways to mask or cover up your work. You can use loose masks (masks that wrap around your work but don’t seal it completely) or masks that will seal it, giving you a precise demarcation. The trade off is using something that adequately protects your work but comes off easily when its job is done.

Liquid masks will give you the most control. These masks are simply liquid latex, sometimes tinted for visibility, that you paint on and then peel off afterwards. You can buy this stuff commercially but you could equally use any type of liquid latex, including the stuff used for moulds. Liquid masks work brilliantly but need a lot of cleaning up and carry the highest risk of lifting the paint. I tend to use them for areas like a decolletage or I paint them along the edges of an area and use a tape mask for the centre of it.

Film or frisket is a low tack sticky-backed plastic film that you can cut with a scalpel. You peel off the backing and apply. This is used by graphic artists on illustration work but I’ve never found it that useful on a model unless you want to spray a design.

Masking tape is more commonly used. Buy a low-tack one or stick the tape down on a smooth surface and peel it off a few times to reduce its tackiness. You can buy specialised tape in very thin strips but its just as easy to cut up ordinary masking tape with a scalpel and a ruler.

Wet tissues and paper towels make good ‘loose’ masks when you dont need to be precise. The water soaks up the paint helps the tissue conform to the shape – just make sure it’s thick enough, use a few layers. Jordu Schell wraps paper towels around his figures and then wets them down with a spray bottle.

Cling film (Sanwrap)  is a great standby when you just want to mask off a large area. Always use this to avoid dreaded ‘paint freckles’ from overspray.

Blu-tack and silly putty work very well for masking along rims and in difficult areas. You can roll it into thin sausages and press it down quite precisely and it also helps to hold loose masks on place. There is a special masking putty also available for AFV modellers that is low tack and reusable.

Finally, a recent discovery of mine: cut the fingers off a disposable rubber glove and use it like a rubber ‘sock’ on heads and limbs. Works great!

Use a combination of these techniques, where appropriate, and you should always be able to get the results you want.

Pre-shading – the Zenithal Technique

A way of using an airbrush that is becoming more and more popular is to create a monochrome version of the desired shading of your figure before you begin putting on colour. Sometimes this is done at the priming stage and it can be done just as effectively – though perhaps with less finesse – using paint from an aerosol can.

Instead of applying a prime coat in one colour – grey, black or white being usual choices – you can create basic shadows and highlights to help you at later painting stages or even provide shading for overlaying washes of thin colour. To achieve this is simply a matter of spraying at an angle, illustrated here in this article from Figure Painter Magazine:



Airbrush painting techniques

This is a selection of tutorials I found online that I have found particulatly interesting or helpful. Some are simply linked to other pages on the web, others are so useful I have transcribed their basic content.

With all these tutorials, you can click on the link embedded in each title to go to the original source material – or, if you wish, in some cases, download a PDF backup of the page they are on.

(I created these backups as an insurance because I have been disappointed to find in the past that some of my favourite tutorials suddenly disappeared from the web. Also a few of the backups have been translated – with varying degrees of success – into English from their original language, saving you the trouble of doing it).

Using a Fabric Mask (Material Girl)

by Chris Clayton, Model Works

fabMaskIn this tutorial, a mesh fabric is used to spray a pattern onto a model for an interesting and subtle effect

(Backup PDF version)

Noz tip

Don’s Airbrush Tips – Drawing Fine Lines

Some excellent advice on drawing fine lines from a veteran painter

(PDF backup)

Don’s Airbrush Tips – Troubleshooting

A good collection of tips on general problems

Cleaning an airbrush nozzle – Skotty

You take an old tooth brush and a torch. You heat the handle up so that you can bend it in the middle back onto itself. What you should end up with is a “U” shaped tooth brush with the bristles facing outwards. You can then slip this over your left hand (if you hold your airbrush in your right hand) so that the bristles sit in the middle of your palm facing up.

As you are brushing, every 10 to 20 seconds you just take the tip of the brush and run it up and down on the bristles, and go back to painting. You don’t have to reach over to pick up another brush, it is literally quite handy to you. Just pass the tip over the bristles a couple of times and any build up is removed.

I find that no matter what paint you use, you will eventually get a clog or hardening on the tip. Just using the brush every few shots helps keep that from happening. You can wet the bristles with alcohol or airbrush cleaner to make it even more effective.

Getting a stipple effect – creating grain


To stipple with the Iwata HP-C, remove the needle cap and nozzle cap (the two front-most pieces) from the airbrush.

A Gritty Angle on Stipple by Michael Cacy from the Iwata site.

Probably every airbrush artist knows how to stipple…that is, how to
produce “dots” with an airbrush instead of the smooth, atomized spray
for which the airbrush is best known. Just about every airbrush will
stipple to some degree by simply adjusting the air pressure lower than

Aiming the airbrush directly at the surface produces tiny round dots. This type of stipple might be ideal for textural effects in painting sand, stone, brick, concrete, rust, a galaxy of stars in a night sky, or any number of other subjects.

If you aim the airbrush at an angle across the surface instead the stippled pattern will be “slashes” instead of dots. This angled stipple has various applications: wood grain, blades of grass in a lawn, the variegated hide of a deer, and others.

T-shirt artists often use the technique of spraying at an angle across a clothespin or popsicle stick, but this method is really more of a “splatter” technique.

(Download PDF Backup)

Make your own thinner for airbrushing

Tutorial on making home brew acrylic thinner