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Beginning Airbrush Tips - Volume I "Getting Started"

The Airbrush is an incredibly versatile and useful tool. However, for an artist unfamiliar with airbrushing equipment and techniques, getting started can be a daunting task. Understanding the relationship between pressure, paint thickness and the type of spraying apparatus can take years to learn. This Information Sheet is designed to take some of the mystery out of the process for those artists just learning to airbrush.

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


Beginning Considerations
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 applications).

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 Airbrushes
"Single-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 artwork.

Siphon-feed Vs. Gravity-feed Airbrushes
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.

Gravity-feed essentially 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.


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.


What is "Atomization"?
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.

Controlling Atomization
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 must consider.

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 airbrush’s 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 investment.

Selecting the Proper Air Source
The type of needed air source is dictated by three factors:

  • the type of spray equipment being used.
  • the type of airbrushing being done.
  • 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 pro’s and Con’s of the more popular air sources

Air Source Type

Positive Attributes

Negative Attributes

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

Air Tank

low cost, refillable, very portable, various sizes, pressure regulator

medium pressure, runs out fast, pressure quickly lowers

Air Regulator/Compressor (without Air Holding Tank)

inexpensive, long life, small size

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, constant air

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

Silent "Pancake" Compressor

"silent", automatic shut-off, constant air, built in regulator, compact size

expensive, uses electricity, needs frequent "bleeding" of moisture

CO2 Tank

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 to Buy
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 Substrate
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.


The 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 come easily.

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.