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Beginning Airbrushing Tips - Volume II "Spraying, Drying & Masking"

This Information Sheet was developed to offer airbrushers suggestions to avoid potential problems. Other tips are offered to increase the quality and productivity of airbrushed work.

Golden Artist Colors, Inc.
188 Bell Road
New Berlin, NY 13411-9527 USA
Toll Free: 800-959-6543
Fax: 607-847-6767


Modifying Acrylic Paints
Each project demands using paints that meet all the requirements to insure a long life. Textile work needs a paint system that will remain soft and flexible so it won’t crack when worn and laundered. Harder, less pliable paints have better adhesion and resist peeling for non-porous, rigid supports such as metal. Before beginning a project, it is critical to understand factors that will effect the artwork after it leaves the artist studio.

Most of the GOLDEN paint lines have very similar acrylic resins. They are flexible, but not so soft that it remain tacky when dry. This is ideal for artwork applications on canvas and some textile work, but they need to be modified for more demanding applications on other supports.

Making Acrylics Harder
GOLDEN Airbrush Transparent Extender (see GOLDEN Airbrush Transparent Extender Information Sheet for mixing instructions) is essentially a "colorless" airbrush color that can be mixed with or sprayed over the Fluid Acrylics as a top coat. The hard acrylic resins in the Extender resist pull-up when masking is peeled off of its surface. GOLDEN Airbrush Colors have the same hard acrylic polymer. This is one of the reasons they work well with "loose" masks or low-adhesive masking films.

GOLDEN Airbrush Medium is used to blend into the acrylic paints to make them sprayable. Also having hard resins, it is designed to most effectively work with the Fluid Acrylics at a 1:1 ratio. Thicker paints will require more Airbrush Medium. Refer to the GOLDEN Airbrush Medium Information Sheet for suggested starting ratios with other paint lines.

Generally speaking, the majority of an airbrusher’s needs can be met with GOLDEN Airbrush Colors and/or the Fluid Acrylics (modified with Airbrush Extender and/or Medium).

Thinning Acrylics Properly for Spraying
GOLDEN Artist Colors produces several lines of acrylic paints that can be modified to be sprayed. GOLDEN Heavy Body Acrylics, Fluids Acrylics, Iridescent/Interference Colors, High Load Acrylics and Matte Acrylics can be adjusted for spraying. Only Airbrush Colors are ready to spray. Rather than an inconvenience, mixing paints offers absolute control of the paints. The key is to know the pros and cons of each paint line and medium. Refer to the GOLDEN Products for Airbrushing Chart (Figure 1) for a quick reference of which product line(s) is suited for a particular use.

Figure 1

Airbrush Applications

Suggested GOLDEN Paint Lines

Suggested GOLDEN Mediums

Air Pressure (P.S.I.)

Illustration (hot- press board)

Airbrush Colors, Fluids

Airbrush Transparent Extender

20 - 40 p.s.i.

Fine Art (canvas, sign board, etc.)

Airbrush Colors, Fluids, High Loads, Heavy Bodies

Airbrush Medium or Transparent Extender

25 - 50 p.s.i.

Automotive (helmets, gas tanks)

Airbrush Colors, Fluids

Airbrush Transparent Extender

25 - 50 p.s.i.

Textile (tee-shirts, leather, etc.)


Airbrush Medium

40 - 70 p.s.i.

Utilizing All Tools & Techniques
The professional artist typically employs several application methods to create an artwork. While there are many "freehand" airbrushers that only use only an airbrush (without any other tools or masking), the majority of airbrushers use all available tools and methods to render an artwork. The preliminary sketching is just as important in airbrushing as it is in other painting techniques. Proper masking techniques are also a necessity.

Perhaps the most misunderstood concept about using an airbrush is when to lay the airbrush down and use the other tools and techniques to compliment the sprayed areas. Commercial illustrators will use subtractive techniques and utilize the whiteness of their illustration board. Scratching, erasing, and ammonia-based cleaning products are used to remove certain areas of paint.

The effectiveness of hand-painting should also not be disregarded when airbrushing. It is much easier to detail with a paint brush than with an airbrush. When used together, they will increase the overall realism.


Pre-Spraying Preparation
An important step in preparing for airbrushing involves making sure that the paints are properly mixed. GOLDEN Acrylics are made with lightfast pigments. When these dense particles are put in a thin medium, they have a tendency to settle to the bottom of the container. This "soft settling" is the result of phase separation. Phase separation means that the materials in the paint physically separate: the most dense (heaviest) materials go to the bottom, and the rest form layers on top. In color blends, denser pigments like Titanium White commonly form the bottom layer.

GOLDEN Artist Colors puts a ceramic mixing ball (technically known as a "barundum") in every bottle of Airbrush Color. Paint can be mixed easily by simply shaking the container. Begin each day of painting by shaking all of the bottles of Airbrush Colors intended for use that day. This vigorous mixing will make the paints quite homogeneous. Pre-mixing well in advance of spraying allows time for air bubbles to dissipate. Bubbles can affect how well the paint will spray. Sticking to this daily ritual will assure that the paints never are allowed to develop the phase separation, which means less shaking in the long run.

To mix paints that need to be thinned with medium, reuse old Airbrush Colors containers or add a mixing ball to a new container. Try to do the majority of mixing before spraying. This is important when storing blends, as many pigments will "crash" harder than the pigments used in the Airbrush Colors. "Crashing" refers to a hard settling of pigment that is difficult (and sometimes impossible) to re-stir into suspension. Be sure to mix even the pre-made Airbrush Colors thoroughly. This leads to a more consistent color, less clogging, and better film formation. Many spraying problems can be attributed to improper mixing and thinning.

Thinning with GOLDEN Mediums
Ideally, the Fluids should be thinned with GOLDEN Airbrush Medium to reach the proper viscosity for spraying. Airbrush Medium is a blend of acrylic polymers, retarders, levelers, and flow enhancers. When blended with an acrylic paint, it produces paints with excellent spray characteristics (refer to the GOLDEN Information Sheet on Airbrush Medium for addition amounts and other information). There is a limit to how much Airbrush Medium should be added to a paint, mainly because too much retarder can result in color pull-up when masking.

If additions of GOLDEN Airbrush Medium begin to exceed 2 parts medium to 1 part paint, then the artist should consider either adding GOLDEN Airbrush Transparent Extender for further thinning, or for more dramatic thinning, add water. By mixing 2-10 parts of Extender to 1 part Fluid Acrylic, the palette of the airbrush artist is increased to over 40 colors. Similarly, the GOLDEN Iridescent & Interference Colors, High Load Acrylics, and Heavy Body Acrylics can be reduced to be spray-applied. These mixture should be used within a week or so, as many of the pigments may crash hard or cause slow thickening over time.

Thinning Paints with Water
Water can be added for minor viscosity adjustments. For example, if GOLDEN Opaque Airbrush Color Napthol Red Light seems to be slightly thick for a particular application, a 10-15% addition of water will bring it closer to the required viscosity range. Water additions of this level should not result in a weak film or alter spray performance.

GOLDEN Fluids (400-700 cPs) are typically too thick to spray, and need to be thinned to a more proper viscosity range. They could be thinned with water alone, but doing so first produces a paint that can quickly clog an airbrush, and eventually a weak film. It would also have a high tendency to sag or run, as there would be a very low level of many important paint additives. The better approach is to add a medium instead of water.

Adjusting GOLDEN Airbrush Colors
Just because GOLDEN Opaque and Transparent Airbrush Colors are ready-to-spray does not mean that they cannot be adjusted for individual needs. Opaque Airbrush Colors have an incredible amount of pigment, as do most GOLDEN paint lines. With intense colors like Dioxazine Purple or one of the Phthalo colors, adding GOLDEN Airbrush Transparent Extender will bring out the brilliancy of the pigment.

Transparent Colors, approximately 1/10th of the strength of the Opaque Line, may also be adjusted. Adding the Extender will increase transparency of a color, while adding Opaque Colors will intensify them. Additions of Transparent Extender also make the paint physically stronger. Because of the high level of pigment in the Opaque Colors, there are times when a thin film may lift when masking is burnished over them. Adding 10 - 20% GOLDEN Transparent Extender should alleviate the problem without significantly decreasing the pigment level.


Adjusting Air Pressure for Each Application
Many airbrushers get comfortable with one air pressure and don't adjust for each application. "Atomization" can be altered from a stipple pattern to an extremely fine spray. GOLDEN Airbrush Colors can be sprayed as low as 5-7 p.s.i. for a stipple pattern, and up to 60 p.s.i. for absolute atomization. Of course, adjusting the air pressure also affects other attributes. Low pressures produce thicker paint films that take longer to dry before friskiting1, and can increase the chance of paint drying in the nozzle and on the needle. High pressures can inadvertently lift masks, cause overspray, and can result in an uneven film that may feel "powdery" or rough, which may lessen masking adhesion.

Paint Viscosity in Relation to Atomization
Paints made specifically for airbrush illustration usually have a viscosity (relative thickness) of 35-60 Centipoise. Viscosity is the measurement of resistance of a medium using a Viscometer. The unit of measure is a Centipoise, or cPs. 1 cPs is the resistance of water, so 40 cPs is forty times the resistance (or viscosity) of water. 35-60 cPs is ideal for excellent atomization in an airbrush with a .18mm nozzle size. Thinner paints act similar to water, causing runs and also have a tendency to "spiderweb" outward. If a thinner paint is used, adjust the air pressure accordingly. Similarly, thicker paints, such as pre-made fabric paints, or GOLDEN Fluid Acrylics would have to be sprayed at a much higher pressure. Fabric paints are commonly intended to be used in an airbrush with a nozzle of .25mm or larger.


Filling the Color Cup
As basic as this may seem, many artists have had spills ruin their artwork simply because the color cup was too full. Overfilling often results in wasted paint, so it is always better to put less than what is expected to be used into the color cup. If spilling is a recurring problem, consider an airbrush with a covered cup, or a larger capacity airbrush and/or cup.

Proper Spraying Techniques
The following suggestions are generally meant for even gradations of color. These application techniques can take many hours of practice to achieve satisfactory results. Learning the right way to spray does not come from reading, but experience. However, these main points should minimize the learning curve.

  • Build up paint films very slowly.
  • Avoid heavy "wet" films which take long periods of time to fully dry.
  • If a film is wet, use the airbrush (air only) to speed drying.
  • Add Airbrush Extender if the paint seems to always be too strong, especially colors like Carbon Black.
  • Always spray with the airbrush as perpendicular to the surface as possible. Spraying at an angle will result in over-spray.
  • Move the elbow, not the wrist, to keep the spray consistent.
  • Start spraying before a masked area, and continue past it to avoid paint buildup at either end.

Masking/Friskit Tips
Masking off areas can produce hard distinct edges when done properly. Learn the general rules of masking techniques on test pieces before using them on an actual artwork.

  • Before laying Friskit down, wipe the surface with a soft cotton cloth. This will remove eraser dirt, excess graphite, and body oils (fingerprints).
  • Proper drying is essential to avoid color pull-up (see next section).
  • Select the proper masking for each substrate. Masking tape can damage illustration board.
  • Don’t excessively rub the masking in order to get good adhesion. If they aren’t sticking to the paint surface, lightly spray a coat of Airbrush Transparent Extender over the film, allow to dry, and continue.
  • Weaker airbrush films may lift when water-based masking fluids are applied over them. Spray a light layer of Airbrush Transparent Extender over very thin films and let cure before using such masks.
  • If a paint film is grainy, masking may not adhere well. Apply a thin coating of Airbrush Transparent Extender over it, or mix Extender into the paint to even the film.


Figure 2 Proper drying of a film is critical when employing friskit techniques to an illustration. If the film is not fully dry, paint can lift off of the board as the mask is pulled up. Use tools like hair dryers, fans and heat lamps to speed drying, all of which should be used with caution. Airflow can lift pieces of Friskit. Heat sources can warp illustration board and wrinkle the Friskit. Additionally, the heat can increase the adhesion of the mask to the board. In extreme cases, this can cause paint pull-up, even if completely dry.

Below are some of the techniques used to increase productivity by lessening the amount of drying time. For more information about the drying process of acrylic paints, (refer to the GOLDEN Information Sheet "Technical Notes on Drying").

  • Create a drying area in the studio for speeding the curing time of paint films. Adjustable desk lamps with heat bulbs or high wattage bulbs can create a higher temperature/lower humidity environment, that will allow the paints to be nearly cured in the time it takes to flush out an airbrush (see figure 2).
  • Speed drying of paint films with hair dryers & heat lamps.
  • Be wary of excessive heat. Friskit can soften and cause pull-up, or be wrinkled. Illustration board can be warped.
  • Bubbles forming in the Friskit are an indication too much heat is being applied. Allow it to cool off before continuing.
  • After using heat to cure an artwork, allow it to cool before applying masking over it to avoid inadvertent adhesion from the heat.
  • Airflow is essential for faster drying.

Place a small fan alongside a wall to improve circulation. It is not necessary to point a fan directly towards the drying area, especially when using a hair dryer as well (See figure 3).







1Friskit® - a low adhesive clear masking used primarily in commercial illustration.

The above information is based on research and testing done by Golden Artist Colors, Inc., and is provided as a basis for understanding the potential uses of the products mentioned. Due to the numerous variables in methods, materials and conditions of producing art, Golden Artist Colors, Inc. cannot be sure the product will be right for you. Therefore, we urge product users to test each application to ensure all individual project requirements are met. While we believe the above information is accurate, WE MAKE NO EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, and we shall in no event be liable for any damages (indirect, consequential, or otherwise) that may occur as a result of a product application.

© Golden Artist Colors, Inc.