Airbrushing — Any surface that can be painted with a
paintbrush can also be painted with an airbrush. Success is not
dependent upon the tool used but on the compatibility of the surface
with the paint that’s applied. The most common material used in
airbrush technique is paper, the surface you will likely use when
learning the technique.
There are some considerations when selecting paper. Because moisture
is sprayed onto the surface, you should work on a sheet that is
thick enough so that buckling does not occur. Two-ply paper such as
Bristol or paper of at least 145 lb. weight or heavier is
recommended. Also consider the picking (lifting) quality of the
paper surface. When using self-adhering frisket film, stencils or
tape, be sure that the paper will not tear upon removal. Test the
durability of the surface by applying and then peeling a piece of
masking tape. If the surface lifts, the paper cannot be used with
The rag content of the paper is also important; the more rag, the
stronger the paper. Therefore, a 50% rag content or higher is
recommended. Hot press (smooth) and cold press (slight tooth) are
commonly used. Heavier textured papers, such as watercolor or
pastel, are less suitable because the texture will be evident in the
artwork and this may not be desirable. Two-ply Bristol is well
suited for student work; and for advanced artwork that is to be
exhibited or sold, 100% rag paper is recommended. Similar to
watercolor technique, an airbrush artist utilizes the white of the
paper for highlights. Therefore, the whitest paper is best.
Noisy Compressor/Quiet Work Space – Many people who
become involved with airbrush technique already own an air source.
In many instances, this is a compressor purchased from Sears or a
hardware store for purposes other than spray painting. Generally,
since these were not designed specifically for airbrush technique,
they can sometimes be too loud when operating in the work
environment. To eliminate the noise problem, some airbrushers
enclose the compressor in an insulated box, which must have an
opening that allows the compressor to breathe and possibly a fan to
cool the compressor, as necessary.
An easier way to solve this noise problem is to locate the
compressor at a good distance and run an air line into the work
area, where an air regulator is attached to the end of the hose. The
regulator, some of which come with a built-in moisture trap and
airbrush holder, should be placed as close as possible to the
airbrush station. The airbrush hose is connected to the regulator
and the other end is connected to the airbrush. Because the
regulator is close at hand, you can quickly and easily manipulate
the air pressure.
A tip would be to let the compressor run full-blast and do all air
regulation at the work station. You can also T-off the air at the
compressor, thus allowing you to work with the power tools of
original intent, i.e., nail gun, sander, etc. See your retailer and
for an extensive line of Silentaire Technology compressors.
MAC Valves – The new Hi-Line Airbrushes from Iwata
look very similar to the older HP Series except for one unique
feature: There’s a knob situated at the bottom front of the airbrush
just below the color cup. This is the micro air control or MAC
A breakthrough in technology from IWATA, this valve allows infinite
control of the air flow at the head assembly of the airbrush. This
is quite different from regulating the air pressure at the
compressor. For one thing, it allows you to adjust the airbrush to
spray a coarse stippling effect by cutting down the air flow.
Conversely, by opening the air flow you will get full atomization
without ever having to touch the regulator. To achieve an extremely
fine line for detail work, adjust the air valve to give maximum
control of the paint output. Also, by fully opening the MAC valve,
the airbrush can be quickly cleaned during color changes. To paint a
broad background, fully open the valve to spray a large amount of
Some airbrushers find it handy to hold onto the MAC while painting,
giving added stability and being able to instantly twist it open or
closed at will. See your retailer and visit
"Airbrush Quick Tips Archives"
Realer Than Real—Abstract
painting was in the spotlight in the 1960’s when along came
sharp focus realism. Paintings in this style were more
realistic than a photograph and usually much larger in size.
(This was before giclee printing was available.) Among photo
realists the airbrush was a preferred tool with which to
render. Painters such as Don Eddy, Audrey Flack and Chuck
Close painted subject matter from gigantic portraits to still
lifes to landscapes in acrylics as well as oils using the
airbrush with its innate ability to spray in a manner that
mimics a photograph.
Galleries that championed
this art form sprung up on both coasts. OK Harris, Lewis K.
Meisel and the Nancy Hoffman Gallery still exist in SoHo, New
York City, within a few blocks of each other. On the West
Coast, exhibits were held at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
and at San Jose State, both in CA, as early as 1971. This
sharp focus look in painting was also utilized by abstract
painters such as George Green, Michael Gallagher and Paul
Sarkisian and was called abstract illusionism. These works are
collected by major museums throughout the country and can be
seen on a regular basis in Manhattan galleries.
Drain Your Tank—Most
piston-operated compressors have a storage tank in which the
air is held before it’s consumed. This tank tends to collect
condensation and/or oil, so it must be drained periodically.
At the bottom front of most storage tanks there is screw valve
that is unscrewed while there is pressure in the tank to allow
the moisture and excess oil to drain. Once the tank is
drained, the valve is closed so that it can again build up
pressure in the tank. If moisture is left in the storage tank
too long, rusting can take place; and excess moisture buildup
can lead to moisture in the air line, neither of which is
desirable. Periodic draining will prevent both.
is a small and inexpensive compressor of a moderate noise
level that is used in airbrush technique. Unlike a
piston-operated compressor, this produces air in a pulsating
manner that can be interpreted in the airbrush spray. This
can, however, be alleviated by attaching the compressor to a
storage tank. Normally the highest pressure available is
around 35 pounds per square inch (psi). A diaphragm compressor
is not especially suited for spraying high viscosity materials
such as artist acrylics, but it works really well when
spraying inks, dyes, watercolors and airbrush paints. It is
designed to propel one airbrush at a time and is not
compatible with larger spray guns. However, because of the
cost factor, diaphragm compressors are well suited for
beginners, students and hobbyists. See
Inks, Dyes and Liquefied Watercolors – The airbrush will spray
virtually any paint or color that exists, but in many instances, the
paint must be thinned for spraying. In the case of inks, dyes and
liquefied watercolors, they come naturally in a fluid consistency
compatible with spraying. However, the term liquefied watercolor is
a misnomer. These are not natural watercolors because there is no
pigment used; they are actually dyes similar to ink that are
normally fugitive and susceptible to ultraviolet rays and fading.
On the other hand, inks—although of the same liquid consistency—are
available colorfast and waterproof.
beginner, the easiest materials to use when learning techniques are
inks, dyes and liquefied watercolors. With these, the airbrusher
need not be concerned with thinning formulas or clogging the
airbrush, since these materials are the thinnest colors available
and rarely clog the airbrush.
Stiff, Flat Brush – A handy tool to have in the studio for
airbrush maintenance is a stiff, flat brush, e.g., a No. 4 flat
bristle. This inexpensive paintbrush is well suited for cleaning
the airbrush because it enables you to get into the nooks and
crannies of the color cup or the slot in which the needle gets dirty
or the air cap and tip to eliminate dried paint and clogs. A small
round brush is also handy when using a bottom feed airbrush where
paint may dry in the siphon intake or a side feed airbrush where
paint may need to be removed from the color cup intake.
that a paintbrush is a preferred tool for these cleaning purposes.
Some artists make the mistake of using a cotton swab to clean the
color cup, which can deposit cotton fibers during the cleaning
process that may contribute to clogging of the airbrush
Airbrushing in the Round—Frisket
film is used for stenciling on a flat surface, but when an artist
works on a three-dimensional surface, a different type of material
must be used—and STRETCHmask from Artool fills the bill.
Because it stretches, it’s ideal when airbrushing on curved surfaces
such as motorcycle tanks, sculpture, helmets, ceramics, models,
etc. This flexible and repositionable masking film is clear so that
you can see through it, it cuts easily with a stencil knife or razor
blade and can be reapplied after removal. STRETCHmask has a medium
tack and won’t lift paint when removed; it is solvent-proof and can
be used with either water- or oil-based paints; it doesn’t wrinkle;
paint does not bleed underneath; and it will not flutter from
airbrush spray. This material is excellent for use by the auto
graphics painter, sign painter, fine artist, ceramicist, hobbyist,
modeler, sculptor and more. STRETCHmask is available in rolls 18”
wide and 10 or 25 yards long. See
Ware: A Hot Collectible—Throughout the U.S. from the 1920s to the 60s,
pottery manufacturers produced thousands of different airbrushed plates,
cups, saucers, platters, etc., for diners and restaurants. This dinnerware
would sometimes incorporate the logos of the establishments or visual
images that denoted the diner or just plain decorations that were easy to
produce using the airbrush and stencils. These potteries included Syracuse
China, Chenango China, and Sterling, among others. This type of ware is
easy to identify because of its extremely distinctive airbrushed look of
designs such as ducks in flight, bounding deer, Western motifs,
leaves/flowers, and silhouettes or airplanes for such places as the Yankee
Clipper Diner or Steer Head Steakhouse. Keep an eye out for these at your
local flea market and swap sales; and there is always some for sale on
—Simplistic and New
for Its Time – The American Dadaist painter Man Ray developed a series
of paintings in the early 20th century between 1917 and 1919.
These were the first airbrushed fine art paintings to be shown in a
gallery and were called aerographs. In today’s standards, they would be
considered extremely simplistic, since they consisted of images developed
by airbrushing around found objects such as tools, paper clips, paper
cutouts, etc., that were used simply as stencils. When airbrushed around,
repeated images—both opaque and transparent—were created that lent
themselves to the look of cubism. It is said that Man Ray was primarily
interested in producing paintings with a high gloss, machine-like finish.
Because the paint was airbrushed onto the surface, there were no
brushstrokes in the artwork—which imparted an industrial appearance.
Man Ray was introduced to
the airbrush while working in an ad agency in New York City. An excellent
collection of his works is held by the Art Institute of Chicago and, even
when viewed today, their simplicity is astounding.
—Rough Paper = Texture
– There are many textured papers available today. The two used most
often in airbrushing are smooth or hot press paper and slightly toothed
cold press paper. But airbrush artists can work on any type of paper, from
crepe to heavily textured watercolor paper and from pastel to tracing
paper. Keep in mind that airbrush spray mimics the texture of the paper in
the appearance of the artwork; and the heavier the texture, the more
apparent that texture is in the end product. Therefore, when selecting a
heavily textured paper such as 300 lb. watercolor paper, be sure you wish
to incorporate the resultant appearance as part of the rendering.
Interesting effects can
be achieved on heavily textured paper by spraying the paint at various
angles so that the color hits only certain parts, e.g., the high parts and
not the valleys. Experiment with different papers and see how you can
manipulate the surface to add to the uniqueness of your artwork.
Stippling Technique: Large Dot, Small Dot—Stippling
is a term that refers to the spraying of visible dots that are
utilized to create specific effects. Both external and internal
mix airbrushes can spray a stipple. The external mix brush does
it almost innately because of the method in which it sprays the
paint, while the internal mix brush produces a stipple when the
air pressure is lowered to 1 or 2 pounds pressure (psi) and/or
when the air cap is removed. Both work at a low air pressure
for stippling. This incomplete atomization produces unusually
large specks of paint that can be controlled with the airbrush.
The spray is used to
develop various textures, e.g., the rough surface of a metal
casting, rust, and fabric as well as background areas or color
field painting, etc. As opposed to the soft, delicate spray
usually achieved with the airbrush, artists find the ability to
stipple the spray extremely handy.
– It’s quite obvious that you can’t just set the airbrush down
on the work table when it contains paint or the fluid will flow
onto the work surface. It’s necessary to have an airbrush
holder in which to support the airbrush upright. Different
types of holders are available ranging from the simple, flat
metal holders that come with some airbrushes to the more
elaborate double-holders that have regulators and moisture traps
attached. Most types consist of two hooks between which the
Applications – At a recent basic airbrush workshop program
held in Milwaukee (see
www.arttalk.com/workshop/workshop.htm for the next dates), a
survey was taken to see in what applications the students
intended to apply their new airbrush skills. The diversity of
the students was amazing, and following are some of the many
responses: illustration, fine art acrylic on canvas,
fabric/T-shirt painting, wall murals, sign painting, working on
vinyl, makeup for hi-definition TV, kustom auto/motorcycle
painting, wood carvings, furniture decoration, plastic models,
miniature figures, model railroads/dioramas, doll restoration,
glazing ceramics, china restoration, wall stenciling,
photographic retouching, painting on fur/feathers, face masks,
fingernails and preliminary renderings of designs for tattoo
The airbrush is
constantly being adapted to new and unique applications. Key to
many of these is the ability to apply paint without touching the
surface with a brush.
– When spraying with the airbrush, point it directly at the work surface;
and move your entire arm when making a spray pass. Beginning artists are
sometimes inclined to move only the wrist when directing spray, and this
prevents them from getting even coverage with the paint. Another problem
can arise when spraying at an angle if the spray lifts the edge of the
stencil/frisket material. Paint will drift underneath the stencil and a
hard edge will not be achieved.
– The new Hi-Line Airbrushes from Iwata look very similar to
the older HP Series except for one unique feature: There’s a knob
situated at the bottom front of the airbrush just below the color cup.
This is the micro air control or MAC valve.
A breakthrough in technology from IWATA, this valve allows infinite
control of the air flow at the head assembly of the airbrush. This is
quite different from regulating the air pressure at the compressor. For
one thing, it allows you to adjust the airbrush to spray a coarse
stippling effect by cutting down the air flow. Conversely, by opening the
air flow you will get full atomization without ever having to touch the
regulator. To achieve an extremely fine line for detail work, adjust the
air valve to give maximum control of the paint output. Also, by fully
opening the MAC valve, the airbrush can be quickly cleaned during color
changes. To paint a broad background, fully open the valve to spray a
large amount of paint.
Some airbrushers find it handy to hold onto the MAC while painting, giving
added stability and being able to instantly twist it open or closed at
will. See your retailer and visit
Your Airbrush Trigger Fell Out!--All
airbrushers will experience having the trigger fall from the airbrush when
they remove the needle for cleaning. The needle runs through the trigger
and holds it in place. When the trigger falls out, the spring-loaded
return lever that pushes the trigger back into a shut-off position will
sometimes fall forward and drop into the housing of the airbrush. You
must pull back on the needle holder, relieving the spring pressure against
the return lever, in order to replace the trigger, which seats itself on
the air plunger. You’ll know that it’s in place when you can press down
on the trigger and air comes out. Once it’s back in place, gently slide
in the clean needle and hold it in place by tightening the needle chuck
screw. Refer to the instructional booklet that comes with your airbrush,
usually accompanied with a cutaway rendering of the internal parts.
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