If you’ve ever been to a festival and watched in wonder as an artist created a seamless airbrush masterpiece in mere minutes, then you know that just the idea of getting started with airbrushing can be intimidating!
Fortunately, with a little bit of knowledge and a few handy tips, airbrushing can be made accessible to anyone.
Airbrushes are small tools that use compressed air to create artwork. A variety of different media can be used with airbrushes, including paint, ink, dye, and foundation.
Airbrushes can be used for clothing graphics, model design, cake decorating, nail and makeup art, temporary tattoos, auto detailing, fine art, and a wide variety of other arts and crafts.
In this article, you will learn everything you need to know in order to get started airbrushing, including best practices for using Tamiya paints in order to create your very own airbrush pièce de résistance.
- Supply List
- Selecting Acrylics or Enamels
- Thinning the Paint
- How Far to Spray From
- Cleaning the Airbrush After Use
- Considerations When Airbrushing Tamiya Paints
- Wrapping It Up
Creating airbrush art requires a little bit more than just an airbrush! Airbrushes rely on pressurized air and properly thinned mediums to create maximal results.
To get started airbrushing, you will need the following supplies:
Airbrush (or Stylus)
The stylus is the actual airbrush gun or pen that is used to spray the paint and create your airbrush design.
Airbrushes come with a trigger, which you press to spray the paint and release to stop the flow.
They also have a button at one end that you can adjust to control the air and color.
By rotating the button you can create lines of varying widths, make your paint appear more opaque or transparent, or make the color of paint darker or lighter.
Airbrushes include a cup, usually made of metal or plastic, into which you put your airbrush-ready paint.
Airbrushes also come with a connector, which is used to attach the stylus to the compressor.
Airbrushes can come with a variety of nozzles with different size needles, fluid tips, and air caps that can be used to easily create specific line thicknesses.
You’ll find a ton of info about airbrushes, including a look at a few of my favorites, on my airbrushing page here.
The air source is what powers your airbrush and gives it the ability to spray.
If you go with an airbrush kit, like one of my personal favorites – the Master Airbrush Cool Runner II– you’ll receive a compressor, all the necessary components, and a quality airbrush.
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If you purchase or already have an airbrush, you’ll need some type of air source to power the unit.
There are a few different air sources that you can choose from, each suitable for different needs.
The most common air source for airbrushing is a compressor. Compressors come in many forms, including low, medium, and high pressure.
Some compressors come with a tank while others do not.
Painting larger areas or for longer periods of time generally requires using a higher pressure compressor that comes equipped with a tank.
Using a lower-pressure, silent compressor is a better choice for painting smaller items that only require a few minutes of airbrushing.
You’ll find thorough reviews for a few top-quality compressors in my article here.
Airbrush propellants are pressurized air canisters that are best used for smaller projects that require less than 15 minutes of painting time.
Airbrush propellants are inexpensive, much quieter than a loud compression tank, and are convenient for travel.
CO2 tanks are large tanks filled with compressed carbon dioxide, and function in a similar way to air propellant cans.
Some CO2 tanks will come with an air pressure regulator, which can help you to manage the amount of pressure delivered to the airbrush.
CO2 tanks last longer than air propellants and can be refilled as needed. They are also a quieter option than a noisy air compressor.
CO2 tanks can come with different size tanks; the larger the tank the more time you can spend airbrushing.
However, due to the size of the tanks, CO2 tanks are not always the most portable options.
There are many different paints you can use in an airbrush, such as water- or oil-based paints, inks, dyes, and even makeup.
Most paints are too thick to airbrush with, so it’s important to use a thinner to create the correct consistency before using them in an airbrush.
If you are using a higher viscosity paint, such as acrylic, you will want to mix it with a thinner.
The most compatible thinners will be ones made by the same manufacturer as the paint you are working with.
Depending on your paint, you may want to consider using a flow improver, like this one by Liquitex, as well.
I explain the different thinners and mediums for acrylic paint, one of the most-often-used paints when airbrushing, in this article.
You will need something to paint on! You can paint on a wide range of surfaces, including fabric, wood, metal, canvas, and even desserts.
The key to getting good results is to use the right type of paint for the material that you choose.
An airbrush hose connects your airbrush with your air source. You will want to be sure to purchase an airbrush hose that is compatible with your specific airbrush.
It is essential to the continued proper functioning of your airbrush that you keep it clean!
You can purchase an airbrush cleaning set (here is the one I use) or use individual cotton swabs or pipe cleaners along with a good quality cleaner to keep your airbrush in good shape.
Airbrush cleaner, water, and even window cleaner can be used to clean your airbrush components.
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An airbrush respirator can be used to keep harmful fumes out of your lungs.
It’s always best to work in a well-ventilated area when airbrushing, but even then a respirator is a good idea, especially if you are working with products that contain harsh chemicals.
Airbrush respirators can come in both disposable and reusable forms.
Reusable respirators will need to have their filters replaced on a consistent basis. This one is perfect – I use it myself.
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There are some optional supplies that you can use once you’ve gotten a little more acclimated with airbrushing.
These supplies include an air filter, a moisture trap, an air regulator, a quick disconnect, stencils (check out these awesome stencils), a utility knife, a cutting mat, and airbrush pipettes.
Selecting Acrylics or Enamels
Acrylic and enamel paints are both used for airbrushing, but there are some important differences between the two.
Acrylics are fast drying, where enamels have a longer curing time.
Enamels are more durable and less prone to dripping than acrylics, while cleanup is much simpler and quicker with acrylics.
Thinning the Paint
There are many different ways to thin paint so that it is appropriate for airbrush use. The ideal consistency of airbrush paint will be dependent on the nozzle size you are using.
Even paint marketed specifically as “airbrush paint” may need to be thinned before use.
If you neglect to thin your paint, it can lead to an inconsistent spray pattern and a clogged airbrush.
Choosing the Best Thinners
In general, you want to choose thinners that are made by the same company as the paint you are using. This guarantees that their chemical composites are compatible.
You can also use a 1:1 ratio of water to paint to thin acrylic paint. You can stir the paint and water with a stirring stick or whisk or shake it in a jar with a lid.
You can also use rubbing alcohol or window cleaner to thin acrylic paint, again at a 1:1 ratio.
Another option is making your own paint thinner.
Simple DIY paint thinner recipes can be found online, and typically include a combination of water, all-purpose cleaner, isopropyl alcohol, and glycerin.
How Far to Spray From
How far you spray your airbrush from depends on the type of airbrush you are using and the material you are spraying on.
In general, you want to spray from around 6-8 inches from whatever you are painting.
If you are painting something tiny and detailed, like a temporary tattoo, you will want to be much closer, as in a few centimeters away.
If you are holding the airbrush too far from the material, you will notice a dusty, light colored spray. If you are holding it too close, the paint will be thick and drippy.
Cleaning the Airbrush After Use
In order to keep your airbrush functioning properly and painting smoothly, it’s essential to always clean and flush your airbrush after every use.
The most important parts of the airbrush to keep clean are the tip of the needle and the head assembly, as that is where the paint flows.
You will want to do a paint flush every time you change colors, as well as when you are finished painting.
A paint flush involves emptying the paint from the airbrush cup and attaching a bottle of airbrush cleaner or water to the airbrush.
Spray the airbrush until the spray is clear.
You will also want to clean the needle. Start by disconnecting the airbrush from its air source.
Then remove the needle and wipe it clean with airbrush cleaner. (I recommend Iwata-Medea.)
To clean the nozzle and caps, you can remove the nozzle, and soak the nozzle, nozzle cap, needle cap, and nozzle head cap in airbrush cleaner for 10 minutes.
Then use a small cleaning brush to remove any leftover paint. You can also use a small cleaning brush or pipe cleaner to clean the paint passage.
Considerations When Airbrushing Tamiya Paints
Tamiya paints are a great paint choice for airbrushing as they are very forgiving, helping you to avoid the appearance of large paint splatters.
They are also an excellent choice for creating very fine lines and special effects.
When thinning Tamiya paints, you want to use at least a 50/50 mixture of acrylics and thinners.
Use Tamiya brand thinners for best results, although you can also use 91% isopropyl alcohol as a thinner with Tamiya paints.
Tamiya paints dry very quickly, so you’ll want to work fast when you are using them to airbrush with.
When thinned properly, Tamiya paints won’t clog your airbrush, and will spray cleanly for long periods of time.
Make sure to wear a mask or respirator, and spray in a well-ventilated area, as Tamiya paints do contain carcinogenic chemicals.
Bubbling in the cup or suction bottle can be caused by air pressure in the paint reservoir.
Bubbling is most likely due to air leaks, a dry tip or blocked nozzle, a loose air cap, or a broken nozzle.
Tighten the air cap, clean the nozzle and tip, and replace the nozzle if broken.
Inconsistent Spray Pattern
If your spray pattern is off-center, it’s most likely due to a needle tip that is bent.
Straighten or replace the needle tip.
Airbrush Not Spraying
If the airbrush isn’t spraying, it means that the needle isn’t correctly screwed in.
Unscrew the needle, take it out, and refit it. Make sure that the needle locking nut is screwed on tightly.
Air Pressure Won’t Stop
If air pressure continues to flow even after you have released the trigger, it could be a sign that the air valve seals are corrupted.
Remove the air valve components and apply a lubrication to each part. If any air valve parts are corroded, replace them.
Make sure that the air valve closure is completely tightened.
If your airbrush paint is splattering, then it may mean that your paint consistency needs to be adjusted.
It could also be a sign that your air pressure is too low, that your needle is damaged, that the tip is dry, or the nozzle is clogged.
If the paint is too thick, use thinner to create a lower viscosity consistency.
If thinning the paint doesn’t work, try increasing air pressure, and cleaning or replacing the tip and nozzle.
Wrapping It Up
Learning how to create the outcome you desire with an airbrush can take time, but if you put in the effort, the results can be very rewarding!
A good airbrush painting will have a smooth, even application, with subtly blended color combinations.
You want the finished product to be clean: no drips or chunks, and no random spray patterns where they don’t belong.
Depending on the size of the item that you are painting and the type of air source that you are using, a quality airbrush painting might take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
The important thing to remember when learning to airbrush is that anything worth doing is worth doing well, anything worth doing well takes time to learn, and making mistakes is a crucial part of any learning process!
Keep experimenting and trying new techniques, and you will become an airbrush pro in no time.