Before making a purchase,
an artist must first decide why he or she is buying an airbrush,
and what applications this new art tool will be needed to perform.
These are questions only the artist can answer. For beginning
airbrushers, the best choice is to buy an airbrush for one main
function, and worry about other functions later (see Airbrush
Types below to help select the kind of airbrush needed for different
Be sure to give these questions
careful consideration. The time spent researching will be well
worth it. Many airbrushes now sitting in closets or on shelves
aren't used simply because they were not exactly what the artist
needed. The researching process can save the artist many dollars
in the long run.
Purchasing an Airbrush
Once the artist has decided
the primary uses for the new airbrush, the quest for one that
meets the artist's requirements begins. There are over a dozen
airbrush manufacturers, each with several airbrushes for the most
exacting applications. Some manufacturers have in excess of 40
models from which to choose.
As overwhelming as this may be,
keeping focused on one's individual criteria narrows the choices.
The two trade magazines available to the American market, Airbrush
Action® and The Airbrush Magazine®, have frequent
product reviews and buyer's guides that can aid in making a decision.
Prices range from approximately $50 to $500: this may also play
an important role in buying an airbrush. We suggest getting art
catalogs and comparing prices and available models to those of
local art stores.
Seek Professional Advice
The best source for a
beginning airbrusher can be to ask artists who currently do airbrushing
professionally. They can offer insight on how to get started and
what equipment they prefer. After all, they too were beginners
at one time, and know exactly what one goes through making these
decisions. Personal acquaintances, art teachers, and local professionals
will usually give free advice and may even know of local classes
that offer beginning airbrush lessons. Airbrushing magazines have
many articles and artist reviews that cite what equipment they
prefer. Keep in mind that these professionals have very exacting
requirements and typically use several airbrushes to meet all
of their spraying needs.
Single-Action vs. Double-Action
and "double-action" refer to the way the air and paint
flow of the airbrush is controlled. Single-action means
that it sprays much like an aerosol can: just push down the trigger
to get it to spray. The amount of paint that comes out is controlled
by twisting a knob or screw located near the tip. This type of
airbrush is also referred to as an "external-mix," because
the air and paint actually mix in front of the needle. There are
fewer moving parts that need cleaning, therefore it is an easy
airbrush to maintain. The single-action airbrush does not have
the precise control offered by a double-action; however, a single
action is a great beginner's brush that will always have uses
no matter how advanced an artist becomes. Smooth gradations are
easily accomplished, and for many artists, this will be the only
airbrush they will ever need.
A double-action airbrush
offers much greater control and is essential when producing fine
lines and thick-thin strokes (the classic "dagger stroke").
These are also known as "internal-mix" airbrushes because
the air and paint mix inside the nozzle. The double-action airbrush
has two trigger movements. As with the single-action, airflow
is controlled by pressing the trigger down; however, the amount
of paint can also be controlled by pulling the trigger back. The
farther the trigger is pulled back, the more paint comes out.
T-shirt lettering is much easier with this type of airbrush. Experienced,
"freehand" (painting without the aid of masking materials)
airbrushers can control a double-action to produce photo-realistic
Siphon-feed Vs. Gravity-feed
These terms refer to
how paint is supplied to an airbrush. Although this feature does
not directly influence how an airbrush performs, it does indicate
the paint capacity allowed before refilling.
Siphon-feed means that the
color-cup attaches from underneath the body of the airbrush. Air
suction pulls the paint from the cup to the nozzle area, where
it comes in contact with the air. This type of airbrush is useful
when spraying for extended periods of time because the color-cup
(typically 1/4 ounce capacity) can be taken off and a bottle can
be attached, normally with a capacity of 3 fluid ounces or less.
means that the color-cup is on top of the airbrush body. Most
models have an immovable color-cup. Although larger models can
have paint reservoirs of 2 ounces, gravity-fed airbrushes are
made for detail, where small amounts of paint are applied at one
time. Because the paint is in an open color-cup, some models offer
a separate cap to keep paint from drying out in the color-cup.
They have a tiny hole in the center of the cap to prevent a vacuum
from developing. It is essential that this hole be open to maintain
proper paint flow. Siphon-feed bottles also have this hole on
the cap for the same purpose.
NEEDLES AND NOZZLES
The Airbrush Needle and Nozzle
All airbrushes work on
the same principle; air and paint meet at an exact point in space.
At that point in space there is a tapered "needle" that
projects the combined air and paint forward. This simple concept
was used by Neolithic man on the walls of his cave. He would orally
grind up the "pigments" (anything from charcoal to berry
juice) in his mouth, using saliva as the "binder". His
lungs were the air source, his mouth was the nozzle and his tongue
was the needle. Fortunately, the airbrush was invented around
1900 A.D., making the modern airbrusher's life much easier.
Obviously, a human tongue is a
very blunt, tapered needle that will not allow an artist to spray
fine lines. Fine line spraying requires very delicate needles
tapered to a delicate point. The finest detail airbrushes have
a nozzle size of .18mm. Large commercial spray guns, such as those
used for automotive painting, have blunt needles that do not have
much of a taper. However, they are made to fit into large nozzles
that are meant to deliver much greater amounts of paint.
The nozzle is the part of
the airbrush head assembly in which the needle rests. It is tapered
exactly the same as the needle it holds. On a single-action airbrush,
when the screw is twisted, it widens the space between the needle
and nozzle by moving the nozzle. In a double-action airbrush,
when the trigger is pulled back, it moves the needle back as well.
The farther back the needle moves, the larger the space between
the needle and nozzle.
Atomization refers to
how finely the particles being sprayed are broken apart. In a
garden hose, when there is a light mist of water sprayed, the
nozzle is finely atomizing the water. Higher water pressure will
allow for finer atomization. In an airbrush, instead of water
pressure dictating the atomization, it is accomplished with air.
Airbrush nozzle head assemblies have amazing baffling systems
that funnel the air around the needle so that the air can atomize
the paint evenly. This action gives the airbrush precision.
While there is nothing
that one can do to alter the baffling of a given airbrush, the
air pressure and paint thickness (or viscosity) can be adjusted
to suit a particular need.
In the United States of America, air pressure is measured in pounds
per square inch (commonly referred to as P.S.I.). As mentioned
above, pressure influences atomization. In an airbrush equipped
with a fine needle, less pressure is required to produce good
atomization. This important aspect needs to be addressed before
one can decide what the proper paint viscosity should be.
Not enough pressure can result
in a stipple paint effect; too much pressure can cause "overspray,"
which appears as a soft halo of color surrounding the area intended
to be sprayed. Other cause and effect issues will be addressed
further in this document.
Paint Thickness Differences
The viscosity of the
paint to be sprayed is also equally important. Viscosity is measured
in Centipoise (cPs). One (1) Centipoise is the resistance of water,
hence water has a viscosity of 1 cPs. Golden's ready to spray
Airbrush Colors have a viscosity range of 40 - 60 cPs, making
them ideal for illustration and fine art. Most textile airbrush
colors range from 100 to 400 cPs. A typical house paint is 3000
- 6000 cPs.
If the airbrush is set to an adequate
pressure and spattering still occurs, the paint is too thick to
be properly atomized. Sometimes raising the P.S.I. can eliminate
the spattering, but the correct procedure is to thin the paint.
Overthinning can also have adverse effects, therefore switching
to a larger needle/nozzle airbrush is also an option the artist
Matching an Airbrush to the
Proper Pressure & Paint System
By understanding all
of the above information, an artist can choose the type of airbrush
needed for each specific task. For example, when excellent atomization
and precision spraying is required (such as with commercial illustration),
an airbrush needs to have a fine needle that will work with low
air pressure (15 - 40 P.S.I.) and low-viscosity paints. Conversely,
t-shirt artists prefer a thicker paint because it will have less
overspray and better coverage. They tend to spray at 60 - 100
P.S.I. and require an airbrush that will accommodate the higher
pressure and thicker paint. To properly spray housepaint, the
spray equipment has a large nozzle and a different baffling system
that will allow it to spray at 40 - 60 P.S.I. but atomize like
it was at a higher pressure.
What is an "Air Source"?
An airbrushs air
source is where the pressurized air (that propels the paint) comes
from. Aerosol cans, CO2 tanks, air regulators,
air compressors, air tanks, even tire innertubes can be considered
to be air sources.
Often, an air source can be a bigger
investment than all of the needed airbrush equipment. If an artist
is just exploring the possibilities of an airbrush with the least
amount of investment, renting the air source may be a better initial
Selecting the Proper Air Source
The type of needed
air source is dictated by three factors:
- the type of spray equipment
- the type of airbrushing being
- the volume of airbrushing.
The type of spray equipment one
is using has a great impact on what air source to obtain. If an
artist's airbrushing consists of an occasional decorative spraying
of food coloring onto a birthday cake, then the aerosol cans of
compressed air found in many art stores would suffice. If an artist
plans on airbrushing tee-shirts in the local mall, he or she will
require a source that can deliver a constant 100 P.S.I. all day
long, and probably a very quiet one to prevent the personnel at
the next door clothes store from issuing a formal complaint.
Below is a Quick Reference Chart
showing the pros and Cons of the more popular air
Air Source Type
Compressed Aerosol Can
low cost, constant air pressure,
silent, very portable
low pressure, runs out fast!
Tire Inner Tube
low cost, refillable, constant
air pressure, silent, portable
low pressure, runs out fast,
pressure quickly lowers
low cost, refillable, very
portable, various sizes, pressure regulator
medium pressure, runs out
fast, pressure quickly lowers
(without Air Holding Tank)
inexpensive, long life, small
constantly runs, gets hot,
low pressure, pressure drops of while spraying, noisy, uses
electricity, pulsating air flow
Oil Lube Air Compressor
moderate pricing, reservoir
tank, higher pressures, automatic shut-off, built in regulator,
noisy, needs frequent oiling,
oil can get into airline, uses electricity, tank needs frequent
"bleeding" of moisture
Oil - less Air Compressor
moderate pricing, reservoir
tank, higher pressures, automatic shut-off, constant air,
built in regulator
noisy, uses electricity,
tank needs frequent "bleeding" of moisture
shut-off, constant air, built in regulator, compact size
expensive, uses electricity,
needs frequent "bleeding" of moisture
truly silent, built in regulator,
moderate pricing and/or rentable, no electricity needed,
portable, long lasting, moisture-less air source
needs refilling, all connections
must be secure to avoid freezing up, moderate danger of
compressed inert gas
The Cheap & Easy Way Out
Most beginning airbrush artists are not sure how much they
are willing to invest because they don't even know if they are
going to like it. This is certainly a valid point to consider,
but buying equipment simply because it is cheaper may hurt the
artist initially by making airbrushing that much more difficult
to do. The idea is to buy an airbrush that is inexpensive but
not cheaply made. The air source may already be in the garage,
or at the neighbor's. If the application does not require a lot
of pressure, the aerosol cans may be the way to go. A local welding
supply house (or local welder) may be able to rent a CO2 tank
for a weekend or two. Equipment rental places should have compressors
to rent as well. Although they will have them set up for building
contractors, an artist can use them as well.
The point is one does not have to invest hundreds of dollars
in order to try airbrushing. If there is a good local art store,
ask them to demonstrate the models of airbrushes they have. Be
wary of the cheap $99 compressors that seem like a good deal in
the store, but couldn't spray water evenly. Most art applications
of airbrushes require steady air pressure, which means that the
air should be stored in a tank first. If a model does not have
an air tank, the artist will most likely be fighting to maintain
adequate pressure. Airbrushing is hard enough to get a handle
on without having an air source complicate the matter further.
How to Know Which Type of Paint
Golden Artist Colors
produces several lines of acrylic paints that can be sprayed.
However, with the exception of GOLDEN Airbrush Colors, they all
must be thinned down with a medium and/or water to adjust them
to the proper viscosity. Rather than looking at this as an inconvenience,
artists should realize that this will allow them absolute control
of their paints. The key is to know the pros and cons of each
paint line and medium, and use this knowledge to one's advantage.
The main paint lines of interest
to the artist are GOLDEN Heavy Body, Iridescent/Interference Acrylics,
Fluid Acrylics and the Airbrush Colors. Understanding each line's
properties allows artists to decide which is best for a particular
project. For example, the Airbrush Colors are designed for commercial
illustration and fine art applications: they are ready to spray,
very intense and dry quickly for excellent masking (Friskit) techniques
(refer to the Airbrush Case Study for more information).
Mixing Paints for a Specific
Each airbrushing project
demands using a paint that will meet all of the requirements if
a long life is to be insured. Textile work needs a paint system
that will remain soft and flexible so that it will not crack when
worn and laundered. Harder, less pliable paints have better adhesion
and resist peeling off of non-porous, rigid supports such as metal.
GOLDEN Heavy Body Acrylics, Fluids, Iridescent & Interference
Colors, and Matte Acrylics all have very similar acrylic resins.
They are flexible, but not so soft that they remain tacky when
dry. This makes them perfect for artwork applications on canvas
and most textile work, but they need to be modified with a hard
acrylic for more demanding applications such as masking techniques.
GOLDEN Airbrush Transparent Extender
(See GOLDEN Airbrush Transparent Extender Information Sheet for
more mixing instructions) is essentially a "colorless"
airbrush color that can be used over the Fluid Acrylics as a topcoat.
Because it has hard acrylic resins, it resists pull-up when the
masking is peeled off of the paint. GOLDEN Airbrush Colors are
made with this hard acrylic because many artists who use them
work with "loose" masks or adhesive masking films.
GOLDEN Airbrush Medium can be blended
with thicker acrylic paints to make them sprayable. It is designed
to most effectively work with the Fluid Acrylics at a 1:1 ratio,
while thicker paints will require greater additions of Airbrush
Medium (Refer to the Airbrush Medium Information Sheet for suggested
starting ratios of other paint lines).
Generally, most beginning airbrusher's needs can be met with GOLDEN
Airbrush Colors and/or the Fluid Acrylics (when modified with
Airbrush Medium). As an artist's skills develop, he or she may
begin to modify other lines of paints for more specific needs.
main focus of this sheet is to show that although airbrushing
can take years to master, it doesn't take much time or money to
get started. Almost any difficulty that develops when airbrushing
can be overcome with the proper information. The effects that
the airbrush can produce make it invaluable to those who know
how to use it and what the limitations of the tool are. It has
its place next to the pencil, paint brush, and palette knife:
each of these tools has its own invaluable attributes.
Everything the beginning airbrush
artist needs to know cannot possibly be put into one information
sheet. GOLDEN has additional information sheets that should be
used in conjunction with this one, such as GOLDEN Airbrushing
Tips Vol. 2, GOLDEN Airbrush Medium, Airbrush Transparent Extender,
and the Airbrush Case Study. Airbrushing books, magazines,
and other literature on this subject are available to the artist.
The last thing we can suggest, and perhaps the most important
one as well, is not to give up. Valuable artistic techniques rarely