Saturday, 1 March 2014

A few thoughts on the "Airbrush"

Dear folks and gals it is time for a first: this I like to call "Personal Insights Grotto" (or PIG). Articles in this section will accumulate with the questions and answers that I have given to various people at various points in times gone by. None of these opinions have the stamp of absolute Truth; they are merely my own thoughts and experiences on the topics dealt with that I share with you gladly!

So let's kick off!

Recently I was asked for details about a specific piece of equipment that more and more painters swear by : I mean the Airbrush. (If I’m honest I have been answering questions on this subject for the best part of the last four years, however a recent conversation prompted me to write this article.)

I do, occasionally, use an airbrush but very rarely. I do enjoy the very gentle and supple effects that you can create with this tool, at least once you have understood how to control the various parameters this tool offers. As I hardly ever work on particularly big pieces, or even a series of similar pieces, the time / efficiency ratio is too weak really. I really only fire it up when I want to speedily create my light sources or lay down a perfectly unified base coat in a fraction of the time required by a paintbrush.

Of course the major issue to start with, even before considering the technical aspects of it’s’ use, is the cost of the setup. A decent airbrush will set you back about £95 (110€). To that you have to add an air compressor with a “pressure reserve tank” (this means that you will have a continual flow of air at a constant pressure). I’m not quite sure how much these cost as mine was a Christmas present but I do know that they are not cheap. This is your basic setup; and it is good for custom jobs on car/bike bodywork. For miniatures you will have to add a range of smaller nozzles, caps and needles. These things tend to wear out and are extremely fragile, it is more than likely that you will bend at least one needle as you master the basics of airbrush control. Take into account sets of new washers, cleaning and maintenance fluids and you have a pretty costly operation if you want to set up a good airbrush station in your workshop. Also it takes up space: my compressor is the size of an average toolbox to give you an idea.

Maintenance can also be a pain, especially if you use your airbrush for a low yield production. For large quantities, or chain painting, then it is fine to rinse it out at the end of the day and return to it the next day. However as soon as you are going to put it away for an indefinite period of time you have to take it apart, clean every piece and lubricate all the moving parts. My own airbrushes each have about fifteen parts and take me a good hour and a half to clean fully, and that is using an ultra-sound machine to speed up the process. This is one of the most common activities where needles get imperceptibly bent, and become therefore utterly useless. While working you must clean out the paint cup thoroughly between each colour (unless you are going for some weird effect, that’s up to you).

When it comes to actually mastering the contraption do not be fooled : it is in no way comparable to what you do with a paintbrush. All you know about the behaviour of paints, washes etc. have to be “re-learned” in effect. A good airbrush, in fact the only decent for miniature painting, is a « dual-action » airbrush. This mean that with the trigger you control two factors: the air pressure running through the instrument, and the volume of paint flowing into the chamber and being projected onto your work. And because you have that many more parameters to master there are that many more things that can go wrong while working with this tool. Single action airbrushes only control air pressure, and should be banned from miniature painting in my opinion: if you want to add an airbrush to your painting tools, then buy a dual action straight away. It might be harder and longer to master but the rewards are worth the trouble. Like all new tools, it takes time to master, but it is quite an enjoyable process if you don’t ask too much of it to start with.

Most acrylic paint ranges are adaptable for airbrush use. Some are specifically made for airbrushes, others require some preparation using specifically designed fluidifiers or other additives. This is one of those situations where you really should read the labels and the instruction manual. There is one exception that I was taught when I was looking to buy an airbrush and it is this: NEVER EVER EVER put metallic paints into an airbrush unless you want to destroy it. I do not know of this is true, but I am not willing to risk ruining one of my tools for the benefit of painting science.

The airbrush does have some serious advantages to it’s’ credit:

- vehicles can be rendered faster and more realistically, I met a player who had created some armoured battle force (so 95% tanks) of close to twenty tanks of various types and painted them to a superb standard in a day.

- light sources can be placed very quickly and quite accurately, this is as useful for Zenithal Lighting as it is for Object Source Lighting.

- when painting armies, I am reliably informed that it can halve the time necessary to get a decent table top army finished.

- it allows for a host of weird and wonderful effects, from the simplest to the most complex either for showcase pieces, armies, terrain, dioramas etc. These would be too long to list, but maybe one day I might be able to show you a few step by step examples.

But be WARNED:

I have seen painters, believing that the airbrush is like a magic wand, run out and buy one and then wail pitifully and uncomprehendingly when their beautiful project ended up coated by a single gloopy badly prepared paint mixture. It is not a magic wand, it is more like a precision rifle with the potential of a tactical air strike. It should be used as a precision rifle – where your shot has to be perfect or is totally useless – if however you fail to make it a precision rifle it will turn into an air strike and destroy everything in its path.

That is not to say that you should abandon the idea of airbrushing, far from it. However please bear in mind that in the sciences and the arts, the best progression is from the simple to the complex. Master the basics with your paintbrush, then improve on that and carry on improving and pushing yourself. Then one day maybe the airbrush will seem indispensable to you, then you’ll go and buy one – and all the extra bits you need – and you will love it even above the frustration of the beginning of a new apprenticeship. This will only happen when you have understood what makes a good paintjob, how to treat your light sources, your shadings and highlights, your colour choices and coordination etc. And all that can only be achieved with a paintbrush in your hand and a faint taste of paint on your tongue.


I hope that I have not put you off airbrushing, and that this small essay will be of some help to you in your reflexions.

 Feel free to e-mail me with questions at:
and who knows?: Maybe they will become one of these PIG articles!

(Wether or not they become an article I will do my very best to answer any queries via e-mail at least)

Always enjoy yourself! 

(Whatever your tools are in the end!)