Hobby Tips: The 'Magic Art' of Airbrushing

02 July 2021
Byron Orde, former commission painter and co-owner of Element Games, provides a beginner’s guide to painting with an airbrush and dispels some myths along the way.

My day job often involves being asked about the secret cult of airbrushing as it is an area that a lot of hobbyists from a traditional painting background have been misinformed about, don’t fully understand, or are just afraid to jump into. Rob asked me if I could write an article to shed some light on an area that, in my opinion, isn’t generally explained very well, especially on the internet.

So, why should you listen to what I have to say about airbrushing? Before I started Element Games, I spent years commission painting and built up a reputation for producing primarily Warhammer Fantasy/40k armies with strong themes to a high standard with a quick turnaround. I don’t get as much time to paint as I would like these days (who does?), so when I do I try to make it count. Efficiency of time and effort is probably more important to me than it ever has been. My airbrush is an integral part of producing high quality miniatures at a good speed, and an irreplaceable tool in my painting arsenal. Putting down custom colour basecoats, and achieving smooth blends are essential to the way that I paint.


Airbrushing, the basics, and what you should, and shouldn’t believe from the internet. 

Before buying my airbrush I trawled forums for advice, watched videos from popular Youtubers, and generally did as much research as I possibly could. Unfortunately a lot of what you read, especially on forums, can be off putting. In many cases, advice about airbrushes is coming from people who do not even own one, or own an airbrush so different from what you should be using that their advice is pretty much irrelevant. After reading a lot of scaremongering about cleaning times and how difficult they are to use I put off my purchase for a good six months. Two key themes seemed to emerge from my searches:

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Myth #1: ‘airbrushing is cheating’

Airbrushing is just another technique to be added to your skillset, like drybrushing, using washes, or pre-shading. This old fashioned view has no place in an industry where the largest paint manufacturers in the range produce airbush ready paints. Brands such as Infinity also showcase the work of artists pioneering styles using the airbrush as a key tool (Angel Giraldez beautifully paints every single mini that Corvus Belli produces for Infinity with an airbrush beautifully).

Myth #2: airbrushing is easy, but maintaining an airbrush is difficult 

This is a big one given that it is a painting technique that, like any other, can be as easy or difficult as you make it. However cleaning and maintenance is definitively easy. A 30 second wash between strong colours, and a quick five minute strip-down every so often is more than enough to maintain your airbrush in good working order. This is the same amount of time as washing out a normal brush between paints and uses.

What type of airbrush should you buy for painting miniatures?

There is a fixed answer to this that comes in three parts: firstly, and most importantly, you want an airbrush that is “gravity-fed” and “dual action”. Gravity-fed means a paint cup is located on top of the brush so the paint is pulled through by suction and aided by gravity which makes it far easier to clean out and switch between colours. Dual action means the trigger to spray the paint will let you modulate how much paint is being released, rather than being a simple on-off switch. These two features are indispensable for painting tabletop miniatures.

The older types of ‘classic looking’ airbrush look more like this (above) and will only give you issues. You may as well be using a spray-gun and for me they are not even worth considering. The second part of the answer is that, like anything, you get what you pay for. A cheap knock-off from eBay and a £500 specialist monster are going to act very differently. In fact spending too much can be just as unhelpful as spending too little! A solid, simple, well-built brush will cover the vast majority of work and is all you need as a beginner. You can always buy a specialist piece in the future and keep your ‘starter’ brush for basecoating, varnishing, preshading etc. Many people are obsessed with nozzle-size when it comes to airbrushing, specifically that a smaller nozzle equates to better miniature painting. This is patently untrue and really very unhelpful when buying your first brush. A 0.5mm nozzle is, in my opinion, just about perfect, and will likely make your learning curve far more forgiving. For reference all of the pictures in this article were done using a 0.5mm brush. Buying a 0.2mm nozzle brush will not instantly guarantee that you can paint the Mona Lisa on a Space Marine’s shoulder pad!

Finally less moving parts, options, and adjustability will make your painting experience and maintenance a lot easier. To synthesize all of this, for your first airbrush I recommend a gravity fed, dual action brush with a 0.5mm nozzle that is very straightforward with few bells and whistles. Even if you want to go with a more specialized brush in the future, this initial purchase will always stay relevant to your painting.


What Compressor? 

This has a very simple answer: a good, solidly built, adjustable compressor will do everything you need for airbrushing for decades. The more solidly built the compressor the longer it can run before needing some time for the little engine to cool down. Broadly speaking you need something that will work comfortably from about 12-35 PSI. For reference I do 90% of work at about 18, and the rest between 15-25. Airbrushes don’t come in a one size fits all format and the more specialist brushes with finer nozzles and adjustability are less appropriate for mass production, i.e. producing armies. This is not the case with a compressor as you are buying the engine to power the tool, so get a good one and you’re set for life. 


However, here are some features you probably do want:

1. Moisture trap - these can be bought separately as a bolt on accessory if it doesn’t come as standard with your compressor. They dehumidify the air sucked in to the compressor which avoids any adverse affects on the paint coming from your brush.

2. Pressure gauge – simple stuff here. Different tasks require different pressures, so being able to see what pressure you are working at makes things easier.

3.  Noise and portability – there are some very compact, quiet, and more easily portable compressors out there, if noise and size is an issue. However they often come without the features above. Obviously, it isn’t the end of the world but it’s the price you pay for having a compressor the size of a regiment box!

How do I use an airbrush?

With the boring stuff done let us get to the basics of how you go about using your airbrush. The biggest change in using an airbrush verus traditional brush painting is the ease of basecoating. Suddenly you are able to put down a perfectly flat basecoat, in any colour you wish or can mix. If you never take airbrushing beyond this you will still significantly save time/improve your painting, and perhaps most importantly it allows you to get to the fun bits of painting faster!


How much should I thin my paint?

There is no fixed answer to this, although – if you aren’t using an airbrush-ready brand such as Vallejo Model Air there are two rough guidelines that are usually very close to the mark. Either 1:1 paint to thinner, or aiming for the consistency of skimmed milk will do you nicely. 

TOP TIP While mixing your paint, clean your mixing brush off on your pallet, this will do two things – firstly you will see if the paint is indeed mixed properly. Secondly you will get a better visual idea of how thinned paint looks, over time you’ll build up your visual knowledge base on how paints should look for certain tasks and applications.

I’ve bought an airbrush – where do I start?  

It’s back to basics time! Get out a sheet of paper and put some strong black paint and some thinner in your brush, then play around! This is a great way to get to grips with things and you will quickly get a feel for how to change the way your paint looks in different ways. You can change paint application by considering the following:

1. Dilution: add more thinner and your paint will be less opaque.

2. Distance: spraying further away from your model will result in a wider less opaque coverage, while spraying closer will result in a narrower but stronger application.

3. Angle: paint lands best when aimed at ninety degrees, choosing a more acute angle will result in less paint coverage. 

4. Trigger: pull it further back and you get more paint.

Top six airbrush tips:

1. Thinner first: while mixing in your airbrush cup, regardless of the paint, varnish, or product you’re putting in thinner always goes in first. This will ensure a layer of lubrication between paint and your brush, as well as speeding up/minimising cleaning.

2. ‘Gargling/backwashing’ between colours, and during cleaning/mixing: if you cover the end of your airbrush with a finger, creating an air-tight seal, you can press down your trigger to backwash your brush (press hard with the covering finger, or you’ll end up painty). Due to the air not being able to escape through the nozzle it will instead be forced out (through your cleaner/paint/thinner) in the cup. This not only helps agitate and mix paint and thinner/mixes, it also helps dislodge paint build up during cleaning.

3. There is always time for lubrication: after cleaning, a little lubrication on your trigger mechanism will work wonders for ensuring things feel smooth. Remember to let things dry full before applying.

4. Flush your brush: periodically while using your brush, pointing it somewhere safe and doing a quick burst of paint (trigger pulled all the way back, and pressed all the way down) will help keep your model painting smooth. If things don’t feel quite right, removing paint build up from the needle should be your first port of call before any disassembly. 

5. Your airbrush will not do everything: just because you have a fancy toy it doesn’t mean you should neglect your traditional brush. Knowing when to switch back to your Kolinsky for finer details is really important. Certain techniques like drybrushing and heavy washes simply can’t be replicated with an airbrush either!

6. Do not modulate your trigger with your thumb: this is a frequent beginner mistake. Use your index finger - nothing else will do. 

This article originally appeared in the third issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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