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  • Airbrushing Basics

    Airbrushing Basics

    Hello, It’s me again, you resident crazed artist, Chrispy. So, obviously people have seen more and more vinyl figures and garage kits nowadays. Some might also think, “That’s impossible to do with a paint brush!” You’re right. It is. Because... it’s an Airbrush.

    Through this article, I’d like to go over some of the basics of airbrush selection, care and basics. Hopefully, this will make you want to go out and buy some large scale kits and try new and different things. (Before I get started, let me say that most of the graphics were made on the computer, so do not get discouraged if it doesn’t look 100% the same. I’d like to update this article later on, as well as add more in-depth tips and tricks...)

    Airbrush Selection

    So, if you want to paint with an airbrush, you are going to need an airbrush. You will also need to get a compressor, but those are so varied and there are so many adapters, almost anything will work. Any compressor can be found in a major hardware store.

    Single Action Airbrushes

    Single actions are usually cheaper than other airbrushes. Nowadays, hundreds of companies are putting out single action airbrushes it’s almost like the airbrush is a disposable item like a pen! Single action airbrushes as the name states, have one action; press the trigger down, you get paint. That’s it, no funny stuff. Of course, this isn’t really very good for airbrushing minis with, as you would have to physically move the brush away from the piece, and you want to get in close for detail work. Single action airbrushes sell for less than $50.

    Double Action Airbrushes

    Double action airbrushes are better for painting models, and they are the best all around airbrush for a beginner who whishes to make the most of their equipment, rather than buy a single action, then have to learn a double action. Double actions, unlike some single actions, require needles. The smaller the needle, the more detailed work you can do. Believe me, I’ve seen some needles on an automotive paint gun... the thing looked like a small pencil!

    The reason for the needle is simple, and it makes the double action, well, have two actions. If you press the trigger down, you get air running through the brush, if you pull back, paint flows. The farther you pull back, the darker the paint will come out, and the spray will also get wider. I’ll go over spray width and other things in the actual technique section. Double action airbrushes will be around $50-$100.

    Turbo Airbrushes

    Turbo airbrushes, as you can see look a little weird. However, turbo airbrushes also are known for a consistent, small line. This would be great for detail work, but not for basecoating. These things are hard to repair, and thus hard to take apart to keep clean. They are also expensive. Your best bet is to buy a Double Action, and if you feel you are going to be in the model painting business for a long time, save up and get one of these. Notice I said ONE, getting several double actions is a good idea, too but ONE Turbo will be good enough. Turbo airbrushes, as I said, are expensive, easily costing around $200 for a great model type.

    For a great guide on Airbrushes Buying, go to Airbrush Action Magazine if you like airbrushing in general, maybe you would like a subscription. I know every now and then, they have an article about some 3D piece as well as a catalog for reference materials on airbrushing.
    In this next Image we can see the basics of how an airbrush works: Paint is forced through the opening out through the nozzle to make a fine spray. It is how the paint is mixed and how it gets into the brush which is our next priority:


    Airbrush Types
    Now, within single and double action aribrushes, there are other types, too. This difference comes in how the air and paint get out of the brush and how it gets into the brush. There are two ways of the air/paint mix to come out:
    Internal Mix
    In an internal mix, the paint mixes with the air inside the brush. This will ensure an even spray. I would reccomend this type, even though it adds to the cost of the airbrush, because it is just one less thing that can be screwed up.

    Exernal mix
    An external mix obviously mixes the paint outside the brush... I know, I’m kinda confused too. These are then cheaper, but do not work quite as good an Internal Mix brush.

    Now that we have mixes down, let’s talk about how the paint is to get in the brush and out to make the spray.

    Gravity Fed Airbrushes

    In a gravity-fed cup, gravity is what makes the brush take in paint. The paint just goes down on it’s own accord. Gravity fed brushes are good if you do not like checking what the heck is wrong with the intake, because obviously gravity is not going to stop, so you know you have a clog if no paint comes out.

    Siphon Bottles and Cups

    Nows a good time as any for me to go over yet another facet of Airbrushes. You can see the bottle on the left with suck or “siphon” up paint into the brush from the bottle. This is good if you are going to be doing big surfaces for a long time. However, the cup on the right side can have paint mixed in it by an eyedropper, or even those Vallejo bottles (more in paint selection). If you get the bottle, you’ll have to clean it and the straw up, however a quick wash will clean the cup, and then you can just add more paint via dropper. As you can see in the gravity-fed example above, it is also a cup style.

    Optional Color Switcher
    One thing I want to spend a secod on is color changers. These things allow you to hook multiple bottles of paint to your brush so you cna switch them almost instantly. That’s right, no cleaning for blending colors, just flip the switch. These, however, are expensive, and professionals use them just because it saves them time. You may want to get one of these if you are really getting into the Airbrush field. (I have a strange feeling anyone who buys one of these will buy the Turbo airbrush...)

    Airbrush Parts

    1A Nozzle Gaurd

    10 Needle Stop Cap

    1B Needle Cap

    11 Cap

    2 Nozzle Cap

    12 Valve Stop

    3A Nozzle

    13 Valve

    3B Nozzle Stop

    14 Valve Washer

    4B Packing Push

    15 Valve Push

    5 Main Lever

    16 Valve Spring

    6 Lever Push

    17 Valve Nut

    7 Needle Stop

    20 Needle

    8 Needle Spring

    22 Neo-HOHMI Cup

    9 Spring Stop

    Now, all of this looks a little techincal, but you’re going to have to know the airbrush inside and out for cleaning and other things. I have already adressed the needle. Remember: needle is key. needle is mother, needle is father. OBEY THE NEEDLE! (Whack!) Thanks, Dad.. I needed that. So as I was saying, the needle is the basis of a Double Action airbrush (from here on, I’m assuming you took my advice and got one instead of a single action). If the needle is dirty, the spray will not come out evenly. If the needle is crooked, the spray and handling of the airbrush is wierded up.

    As you can see, the parts 13-17 are what connects the compressor’s hose the the airbrush. If the hose doesn’t fit, got get some adaptors and everything should be fine. Parts 1B and 2 are the nozzles that keep the brush from overspraying, they also decide how big your spray can get, So a smaller nozzle makes for a smaller spray, which is what we mini artists want. When cleaning the nozzle, it’s a good idea to only remove the bigger nozzle cap, as the smaller one does not get too dirty, and it is a pain to find if you accidently drop it (which you will, with more than one part).

    The trigger (#5) is THE most hard part to get back in agian, so try not to remove it if you can help it, besides it doesn’t have a thing to do with the flow, because all it does is it controls the needle (see? Needle=Key). Like I said before, on double action brushes, the further back you go, the more paint comes out. On some airbrushes, the lever push can be adjusted so that the range of the trigger is limited, making for wider or tighter sprays.

    Paint Selection

    Now that you found yourself a good airbrush and compressor, you need some good paint. Again, Airbrush Action Magazine is a good resource for this. Almost anything can go through an airbrush, Acrylics, Oils, Enamel, Lacquer, Tempera, but remember, you have to be consistent, with no graininess in the paint. You also have to clean oils out with paint thinner, and Lacquer can have dangerous fumes, so wear a mask and keep well ventilated.
    As I said, anything can go through an airbrush with the right consistency. I know you’d like to take your fave paint and immediately run it through that sucka, but WAIT! The consistency for any paint for an airbrush should be that of milk. Not skim milk, which is too runny, nor of heavy cream, which is too thick. Milk is just right. I believe with regular acrylics, you must have a 50/50 mix. Just add whatever the paint is based on, so if it’s oil, add mineral spirits or paint thinner. If you want a semi-gloss paint that is the correct consistency already, a href =" Colors is great. But check out Airbrush Action for more paint brands such as Testors and House of Kolor.

    Getting Started

    Now that you have your brush and paints, you’ll need these readily available supplies:
    A well ventilated room or back porch
    Airbrush Cleaner

    A Bucket of Water, shallow enough so that the airbrush can be submerged
    Practice Paper
    A Table, preferrable one that has been covered
    Good Lighting
    Now, to start out, you hook the airbrush onto the compressor BEFORE you turn it on. Otherwise, it might start spewing air out already, then you have to deal with that and get the airbrush on at the same time. Next, the compressor needs a pressure value. Do NOT turn it on 100%, the airbrush will kick back like you wouldn’t believe! I tend to go with 20-40%, as you will want go over the surface more than once. Put some black in whatever orifice your airbrush needs for paint, and practice making a thin, even streak. If you are using a double action, pull all the way back and push the down, then as you are making the streak, push the trigger forward to make a streak to see how light you can get it :

    The one on the left is what you’re going for. A nice, even streak of paint going from black to white. Again, this is computer rendered, so you might not get such a nice blend. Whenever you push the trigger down, the pent up pressure releases the paint faster, so you have to find how much bigger the beginning shot is as it is compared to the rest of the spray. In the middle, I have a common mistake: moving too close and too far away from the paper while spraying. You will need to learn to stay in one place, and try to resist the natural human motions of arcs, and try to paint as equally distance throughout the stroke. The right hand streak shows another mistake, spidering. This is caused by coming too close to the area of painting. You’ll need to back away and use a little less pressure if at all possible.
    This is because if you keep your airbrush far away from what you are painting, you will get a bigger spray that is less opaque than at a closer distance. The spray can be thought of as an imaginary “cone” as it comes out of the airbrush. The image below shows what this should ideally look like. Again, close=darke and small stroke, far=lighter and bigger stroke. Like so many things, you will have to keep practicing to get used to the differences of you airbrush and it’s cone of spray.



    Masking areas is important, because if an area is not masked, paint will get on it and make it look sloppy. Masking some areas can be done by using stencils. These stencils do not have to be your ordinary stencils that have an area cut out in the middle for a shape (what we artists call negative space), instead the stencil can be something put over the area and then sprayed, giving a glow effect. Here we see that effet on my signature:

    If I had wanted to airbrush my name so it looked like the top image, I would have cut the area I wanted out of something and sprayed through it, Like spray painting numbers onto driveways, or whatever.

    You are not limited to making and area have a sharp definition between the masked area and the spray. The image below shows what a corner of a piece of paper would look like if it were sprayed over. Notice, the left image as a more sharp defenition. That’s because it was probably very close to the area that was sprayed, on the other hand, the right image has been sprayed with the edge at a distance from the sprayed area. This makes for a less harsh definition, but remember if you try to do this with your own stencils, they must be firm so they do now move because of the air pressure coming out of the airbrush.

    This is kinda like the cone of spray, too, the further the sencil is, the less it will be seen. This could be great if you want the image slightly blurry when you’re blending (next page, I promise) or if it woud just not look right with really sharp edges. Example: you’re painting a giant snake, and you want a cobra symbol on the back, how many cobra’s have really shaply defined patterns on thier backs?You can also use liquid mask or rubber cement to keep one area masked, though it will come out with these hard edges..


    Blending with the Airbrush

    When blending with the airbrush, you must remember to ease up on the paint when going to another color or blending into the basecolor. Remember, too, airbrushes are wonder machines but they do not work miriacles. You must do your part in blending by changing the colors a bit. One good example is white on black or any dark background for that matter:

    The problem with doing with on black can be seen on the right: a thick coat of white must be used, which is not really possible, as you must keep your paint consistent. How to solve this? The right image shows (in Photoshop anyways) that to make a smooth transition, you need to start out with a gray, and work your way up to white, remembering to let each coat dry. One good tip is to move the tigger back and forth, as this helps keep the brush clean and it also ensures the paint will dry quicker. Just remember to keep your distance, or spidering will ensue.

    For an exercise, I think I will have you do an orb. Take a cicle stencil, or cut one out of cardboard or tape. Now, you can either work backwards, addind black to the darkest area or you can paint the whole thing black and paint with the white. Since I’m trying to get you to use different colors, I chose to show you the white on a black basecoat approach:

    Pretty straight forward, right? Remember, this was obtained (yes, even in Photoshop) with grays. You can see the progression of grays, first a dark gray, then lighter and lighter until you are finally using white. The same would go for any color, say a yellow still looks too green on a blue background, use a little green before using pure yellow. Also, you might want to do several coats, which might work fine, too. Just do not be in such a hurry, it’s better to take your time than to have to go back and fix something you screwed up in a hurry.

    Lightsource and Three Dimensions

    Now, all of this practicing on 2D surfaces is important, so you know what you’re doing when you get to you $50 Predator Vinyls Kit. If you’re going to paint big kits, and if you’re a member of CMON, then I’ll assume that you know how to hihlight a model. You need to imagine a lightsource. Usually this is up in the sky, however sometimes a big kit might be holding a flashlight, they might be standing on lava, or is about to be run over by a car. Well, making a lightsource is simple: just spray your highlight from the angle you want with light pressure. The inner recesses of the model will keep it from getting too much paint. If you do this, remember to spray at an angle, as spraying head on will totally ignore the heights and depths of the model, and make a straight color. Practice, practice, practice, though. You’ll get it sooner if you practice. A good way of practicing this technique is to get a piece of paper, crumple it up, then fold it out again. Then, taking your color, spray near one of the edges of the paper, but not directly on top. If it works, you should have a crumpled pattern, if it didn’t work you have a straight color.

    Cleaning Your Airbrush
    So now, you’ve practiced the heck out of yourself, your tired, or maybe you want to continue, but the spray is not coming out but your paint is the right consistency. Well, your problem is a dirty airbrush. Even though the paint is thin, it will get built up over a long session. To ensure your investment lasts a long while, you’ll need to clean it. For steps one and two you’ll need to have pressure, so keep it connected, but by step 3 if you’re done, just unhook the airbrush and let the tank drain itself by making a snake out of the hose...
    Step 1: Spray Through
    Remember that airbrush cleaner I told you and the water? this is where it comes in. If you are simply switching colors, you will need to rinse the airbrush through. Put a little clean and some water in the brush and spray hard, preferrably into the bucket where the wet spray will not ruin your work. Repeat this until there is no more color visible.
    Step 2: Spray Back
    If you did step one and your spray came out inconsistent (it “clicked” in and out), the brush still has some dryed paint in it. To clean this, you’ll need to “Spray back”. This is done by placing your finger at the end of the nozzle, and forcing the cleaner out of where the paint should go. If placing your finger causes it to be poked, see the next step to take the needle back a bit. If you are using a removable cup or bottle, you must remove it before attempting this, and hold the hole for paint away from yourself, so as not to spatter your nice new Calvin Klien shirt. You can also spray backwards in the bucket of water. If the bubbles come regluarly, the brush it clean, if not procede on to......
    Step3: Cleaning the needle
    If your spray is still uneven or grainy, congradulations, you have used the wrong consistency or have let the paint set too long. In this case, you’ll need to screw the cap off the end (I usually work with mine off anyways, it’s mostly decoration if paint doesn’t touch it). Now you’ll need to turn the needle stop cap about a quarter turn, but some may require you to take it all the way off. If you HAVE to take it off, put it somewhere where you can find it, cause I’m not getting you a new one, crybaby... The needle should slide right out when you pull on it. It’ll probably have some paint on it, this is what is causing the paint spray to come out wierd. Wipe the paint off and put the needle back in carefully, and then tighten it with the needle stop cap. If you’re spray is still wierd, there is one more step:
    Step 4: Cleaning the Nozzle and Total Dismantlement
    Yes, the problem must be in the nozzle. This is another key area that gets gunked up with paint. The nozzle gaurd just comes off by screwing it off. If you have two nozzle gaurds, one small and one bigger, unscrew the bigger one which will take the smaller one with it. Pull the trigger (do not push, as you’ll get a black eye ..litterally) back and look at the nozzle. If it has a bit of paint around the hole where the needle enters, you’ll have to clean this. Usually, after a day of work, you do all these steps, but you do not put the needle or nozzle back. You do not have to clean the trigger, and remember they are a B!TCH to get in agian, so leave it. You only have to disassemble the nozzle gaurds, nozzle (if it is removable), needle and any extra cups or bottles. Put them in warm, soapy water if using water based colors, or paint thinner for oils, etc, etc....
    Closing Remarks

    All I am going to tell you is to KEEP PRACTICING!! Pactice makes all the difference. Don’t be afraid to try new things and ideas. There is no wrong way if you get a result you like. Again, lemme give you some links:
    Airbrush Action Magazine
    The source for a great buyer’s guide and brand names of paint. Also a great read as a mag.
    How to Airbrush.Com
    A good place with lots of how too’s. Not too keen on models yet, though...
    Curry’s Airbrush and Compressor Lines
    Another online guide, this manufacturer is for our Canadian friends....
    Hobby Link Japan
    Having trouble finding Sailor Moon in a Bikini? Then order direct from Japan, my friend!

    As Always, comments and suggestions are welcome and can be messaged to me. And remember, what comes first? Saftey! Then, after that: Practice! Then, the Needle!

    Goodnight Everybody!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Skandabcn's Avatar
      Skandabcn -
      Really useful...too late for me,but imprescindible for beginers!
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