🔫 Airbrushing

Updated at 2024-06-01 23:54

Airbrush Recommendation: Iwata Eclipse HP-CS. Peerless quality from the Japanese Iwata company. Will last for a lifetime if properly maintained as the replacement parts are readily available online. It costs about $190.

Iwata has multiple airbrush series; Eclipse is the "multipurpose" series that can handle both light and heavy paints in both fine line and wide applications with the 0.35 mm needle and nozzle. Eclipse comes in HP-BCS, HP-SBS, HP-CS and HP-BS models, where CS and BS are the ones that have a gravity feed (paint cup on the top so requires less pressure) and CS having the larger cup with a lid. Thus, I like the HP-CS the best. All of these are dual action so the air and paint flows are controlled separately.

Compressor Recommendations: AS186 / Fengda FD-186 / Timbertech ABPST08 / Badger TC910 / PointZero 1/5 HP. All of these are more or less the same Chinese hardware with different accessories, labels and quality control on top. Any of them should fulfill all of your miniature painting needs. These cost something between $50 and $100.

Cheap compressors will work, but consider your options first:

  • Does the compressor have a tank? If there is no tank, it means that compressor must be running constantly to output pressurized air. Models with a tank allow filling the tank and then using its contents, reducing heating.
  • How much pressure does it output? Usually reported in bars or PSI (pounds per square inch). 15 PSI is doable for some light airbrushing, but you should aim to get up to at least 30 PSI out of your compressor. The heavier paints you are using, the more pressure you will need. If unsure, set PSI to 25 when you first get your setup running.
  • Does it have a cooling system? Air cooled means that they will build up heat faster, so you might have to take more breaks when airbrushing. It usually takes around 20 minutes for a compressor to cool down enough to continue usage.
  • Does it have a moisture trap? If not, you must buy one separately; the kind that you attach under your airbrush.

Pressure e.g. PSI is the pressure inside the tank. Airbrushes work on around 70% efficiency but there is variance. Equipment, setup and environmental conditions all affect the numbers. This is why getting pressure values from others might not be totally accurate.

Simply having a longer hose will affect the pressure.

Get a quick connector. It goes between the compressor hose and the airbrush. Not a necessity but makes life a bit nicer.

Use airbrush thinner e.g. Vallejo Airbrush Thinner. You do not need to use it with thinner paints! You use this to thin your regular paints to be used with an airbrush only if they are too thick. A drop or two should do the trick.

Use flow-aid to make stuff dry slower e.g. Liquitex Flow-aid. Required if your paint dries too fast, this will result in "lemon skin-like" texture. Optional for blending and more advanced usage.

Precision requires low pressure, a thin paint and a short distance. If you are coating the whole model, you can go at higher pressure, thicker paint and further away, up to like 30 cm away.

Look out for spider-webbing. It is the pattern what happens you brush too close with too much pressure. You will notice when it happens.

You can airbrush any varnishes, just use low pressure. Varnishes are usually a bit thicker, but you can thin them too, at least a bit.

Learn backflow mixing. To mix paint in the airbrush cup; block the nozzle using your finger (rubber glove) and apply pressure. Usually you still have to stir it a bit with an old brush.

Airbrush Maintenance

Maintain your airbrush. Briefly clean your airbrush after each session. Airbrushes require a full cleaning around once a month. It is advisable to lubricate the trigger and other hinges once a year. Good quality airbrushes will last for a lifetime if properly maintained.

How to clean your airbrush between colors:

  1. Mount your airbrush to an airbrush cleaning pot.
  2. Pour a dash of water to your airbrush cup.
  3. Mix with a brush while you spray it out.
  4. Pour a dash of airbrush cleaner to the airbrush cup.
  5. Mix with a brush while you spray it out.
  6. Now you are ready to use another color.

How to clean your airbrush after a session:

  1. Do the above "between-colors" cleaning.
  2. Add a dash of airbrush cleaner and backflow mix it.
  3. Use a q-tip to clean the cup while spray out excess paint.
  4. Add another dash of airbrush cleaner to the cup.
  5. Remove the nozzle guard protecting the needle, should be the foremost part of the airbrush if it's in place.
  6. Use the other side of the q-tip to take some of the cleaner from the cup and use that to gently clean around the needle (no pressing, just swipes).
  7. Pull the lever to pull the needle back (pull the lever, but don't press it) and use q-tip to clean the nozzle.
  8. Let out a dash of air to get residue cleaner out.

How to clean your airbrush once a month:

  1. Do the above "after-session" cleaning.
  2. Take the airbrush apart, always pull the needle back, don't push it.
  3. Pour some airbrush cleaner on a paper towel and clean the needle from back to front.
  4. Use airbrush cleaning brushes for the insides, avoid scratching the insides.

Or find a YouTube video for that, for example:

Learn to troubleshoot your airbrush. When your airbrush starts to splatter or give inconsistent airflow, try the following.

  • Spray water through the airbrush:
    • if visible steady and conical stream, airbrush is good
    • if erratic pattern, most likely paint has dried to the tip
      • you may use airbrush cleaner, q-tips and your nail to chip it away
    • if streaming is leaning to left or right, the needle is bent
      • buy a new needle, meanwhile you might try to bend it a bit yourself but this might make it worse
  • Make sure your paint is good:
    • did you stir it properly?
    • have you been spraying the same paint for a while? maybe pigment has settled in the airbrush cup
    • you might be using too thin or too thick paint
  • Make sure you have good air pressure:
    • generally you should use around 20–30 PSI for most of your brushing
    • thinner paints require less air pressure, too low pressure causes splatter drops
    • thicker paints require more air pressure, too high pressure causes spider webbing where paint continues flowing after hitting the surface

Painting with an Airbrush

How to apply paint through an airbrush:

  1. Make sure the airbrush cup is relatively clean.
  2. If not using a pre-thinned paint, add a squirt of airbrush thinner to the cup.
  3. Add a squirt of paint to the cup; thick paints require thinner.
  4. Mix with an old brush.
  5. Spread it to the sides to see if it's like skimmed milk; tune consistency.
  6. Do a backflow mix: block the nozzle with your finger (rubber glove!) and shoot.
  7. Finally, test your mix on paper.

Airbrushing takes a bit of practice. How I generally go about it is that I have my air flowing almost all the time while the airbrush is in my hand, and pull the paint release valve on-off in short bursts. This way you get fewer splatters and less dry paint in the nozzle.

Learn airbrush blending. You have a transition of 2 colors X and Y. Mix 1:1 of X and Y in your airbrush cup. Use small bursts to apply it on the transition line for a smooth blend.

Learn airbrush pre-shading. Doing a zenithal highlight using an airbrush, but you can use other colors than dark and light.

Learn airbrush post-shading. More volume after glazes, shades and highlights. Like a global highlight using translucent inks or high pigment acrylics that have a satin finish. Usually you are applying a slight shadow.

Learn airbrush glazing. Like post-shading, but you are applying a splash of color to a certain area. For example, a hint of red to elbow to make it seem slightly bruised or apply a stripe of shine on metal.

Don't leave masking materials on the models for more than 1 hour. They can rip the underlying paint away.