Random thoughts about Airbrushing

Hello fellow wargamers

Airbrushing is a big topic, full of opinions and there is simply no way I can cover all the aspects of airbrushing in this post.  I’ve owned 3 airbrushes since March 2012 and I’ve learned a bucket load in that time, but still have plenty left to learn.

Airbrushing the early days

I started airbrushing by purchasing one of those cheap Chinese kits you can get from eBay.  Now most airbrush artists will tell you not to get one.  My opinion, this is a great place to start and I’m very glad I did.  First off you may find you don’t like airbrushing, that it isn’t for you.  It’s a steep learning curve and this can put people off.  Please don’t think you can pick up an airbrush and start knocking out awesome looking freehand camo stripes because you’ve seen some youtube videos and it looks easy.  Back to the Chinese copy…I spent about £80.  I got a compressor, it lasted about 2 years and  I ended up donating to my FLGS along with the hose and of course I got a gravity fed, dual action airbrush which suffered a tonne of abuse at my hands for about a year.
Since then I’ve learned a thing or two, I now know that I should have gone for a kit which had a compressor piggy backing a tank and have gone for a single 0.3mm needle and nozzle.  This experience was put to good use when Adam’s wonderful wife asked for my help in buying him his first airbrush as a present.  As far as I know, Adam’s put that thing through its paces and it’s still going strong.  I’ve just had a quick look on eBay and you’re looking at £65 for similar setup, that my friends is a bargin.

Size matters!

In case you don’t know, needles, nozzles and nozzle caps need to match up in size.  The problem with my first get up was that there was no way to tell the different sizes apart.  I supposedly had a 0.2mm and 0.3mm setups.  I didn’t know that the nozzle was meant to work with a specific nozzle cap and it wasn’t long before I’d mixed it all up…so be warned, if you’re buying your first kit then prefer a a single size setup.

My first Pro Airbrush

My first step up to a more professional setup was to buy the Harder and Steenbeck Evolution Solo.  I could instantly tell the difference in the quality of the brush, but I wasn’t about to make the same mistakes I made with the original…or was I?  Mine came with a 0.2mm nozzle and needle kit  I had a terrible time trying to get acrylic paint to flow through my airbrush smoothly.  My big break came, when I discovered Tamiya paints and their specific thinner.  Suddenly I could airbrush and paint would flow so easily it was genuinely a ground breaking moment for me.  Looking back, I’m surprised I persisted so long with airbrushing in general, I got so frustrated with it all.

My next big break came when I bought the 0.4mm needle and nozzle kit.  I found the bigger size meant I could use Vallejo paints that I’d thinned well.

The beauty of the H&S get up, is that they make it obvious what size is what.  So my 0.4mm needle has a notch at the rear, the nozzle has an indented ring around it and the nozzle cap…erm I’m not sure about that, but there’s probably something.

Nowdays I never use the 0.2mm needle and nozzle in my H&S.  It’s just a bit crap…sorry H&S, I’d love to say its awesome, but I can’t.

My two babies
My compressor is so awesome

Paint

Okay, I’ve already started talking about paint, but lets explore that subject further.  As an airbrush user, I had to become great at thinning paint.  For a while, nothing in life was more important than learning to thin paint correctly.  Fortunately, I quickly learned that it’s not all that hard.  Tamiya paints were a revelation I can’t state that strongly enough.  However, their paint range is small.  The pots don’t hold much paint and the thinner is expensive and smelly.  Also, I found adding white to a colour would alter its properties too much and I couldn’t achieve a good finish.  (See T70s for example)

I had to go back to Vallejo, I needed the choice of colour and also whenever you google the colour for X.  You nearly always get the vallejo colour and then have to work put what the nearest tamiya equivalent is.

I don’t like Vallejo’s model air range and I have no idea why…I simply don’t get good results with them.  In my opinion they still need thinning, so I might as well buy regular model colour and just use a bit more water.  I find I get better results this way.

Where possible I buy Ammo by Mig paints for use in my airbrush.  Relatively new, but I love the way you can buy different tones of the same colour.  For example shadow/dark base/base/light base/highlight/shine all to make modulation easier and I find it works.  You can use them straight from the bottle.  The only downside is the amount of mixing/shaking required…these bad boys really freakin separate.  To help with this issue, I add a fishing shot to every pot, this is a trick I borrowed from Les Bursley at Awesome Paintjob on youtube.  However I believe Mig has taken this feedback on board and newer paint lines come with an agitator installed…sweet.

A little bit of research, lead me to discover about pigment sizes.  Seemingly a bigger pigment results in a tougher finish, but that also makes it harder to squeeze the pigment between the tiny gap created between the needle and nozzle.  I believe Vallejo Game Colour, uses a thicker pigment than Model Colour and this is the principle difference between the two.  Therefore I no longer buy Game Colour and stick to Model Colour.  I like to imagine I can tell the difference when I use them in the airbrush…but in all honesty…I can’t.

There are other paints out there.  I’ve tried Badgers Minitaire line…bit weird and not great for realistic colours. I’ve still to try lifecolor, but the mis-spelling of colour puts me off 🙂

IMHO, buy Mig’s Ammo range…it rocks

I use these when modulating
These fishing weights make good agitators, but buy a slightly bigger size

Camo

Let’s talk camo.  It’s the reason a lot people buy an airbrush in the first place and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I had some half decent results with my first attempts, but the lines were thick and I could have made an equally good job if not better with a regular brush.  Mistakes are so easy to make with an airbrush and worse than that, they are unforgiving.  When attempting to do camo stripes for the first time, I highly recommend you create a mask with blu-tack or liquid mask or something (hard edge camo).  I think you need to be a competent air-brusher before you can free hand camo well.
It’s not all doom and gloom though…camo stripes I would use a mask almost every time, however the kind of camo that a load of irregular blotches I find are actually not too hard to create and produce a very satisfying result.  A real sweetener to this technique is to re-apply the base colour as it adds further softness to the blotches.

Care

Airbrushes need a lot of care and attention, they are unforgiving if you don’t treat them well. Not only that but they are sensitive, give the needle or nozzle a knock and you’re looking at  potentially expensive replacement parts.  They don’t react well to rough treatment, which is another good reason to start with a cheapo airbrush.  Acrylic is plastic, when it dries, you have a plastic coating on whatever surface you applied it to.  That will include the innards of the airbrush and it’s  a nightmare to get it out…sometimes I have to get physical with it, chemicals won’t cut it.

A recent purchase, lube every screw, spring, the needle, the nozzle…
Tamiya swabs help me clean the needle when in use
Don’t forget to look after yourself as well 🙂

Highlighting & Shadows

So highlighting…for me this is the very best use of an airbrush.  You can create some very realistic shadows and highlights, so simply. You can pretty much fire a lighter tone of your chosen colour from a fixed point and achieve a highlight.  You can also ramp it up and use trickier techniques such as modulation.  
What ever you do, once you’ve figured out your technique, air pressure, thinning etc etc, please use your airbrush for shading and highlighting.  Put that nasty bottle of brown acrylic ink in the bin and save the camo striping for another day.

Masking

Masking comes in many forms, there’s tape, there’s liquid mask and there’s random bits of paper/sponge/scouring pads/anything you can find.  Masking simply covers the areas you don’t want to paint.  When I started out airbrushing I went a bit masking tape mad, now I use less and less masking, are rely on my ability to control the spray.  If you want that hard delineation though, then a mask it is.
I’ve only recently discovered humbrol’s maskol…it’s very very good.  You paint it on the area you wish to mask and once dry you can paint the area you wish.  Once finished you can use something like a cocktail stick or pencil rubber to start to peel it off.  Once you’ve got a bit of the mask to hang onto then you should find the whole mask with come away in one piece…beautiful.  It works best if you’re not shy when you paint it on…so be generous.  One issue I have had, is where I had a join between two pieces.  The maskol got into the join and I ended up wrecking the paint job getting it out.  A combination of tape over the join and maskol to finish it off would have been the ideal solution.

Technique

I’m nearly done rambling, but this is a potentially big section.  When you buy an airbrush for the first time, you have zero muscle memory for how to use your brush.  This is something you need, you also need to know what to do when (not if) issues occur and better yet, when to anticipate the inevitable issues.

There’s not a lot you can do about this other than practice, practice practice.

First up, understand paint will dry on the end of your needle.  Generally speaking we use water based acrylics, which have a fast drying time.  You will need to learn to be able to clear that dried paint off the needle in double quick time.  When I airbrush I do so without the guard, my needle and nozzle is exposed…this is dangerous, you will stab yourself and you will eventually do something stupid which results in a bent needle…however you also need to be able to access the needle tip so you use your fingers to remove that dried gak away.  Depending on the pressure you are spraying at, the type of paint and how thin the paint is, you’ll find you develop drytip at different speeds.

When I’m doing detailed work, my pressure is usually low, i’m very close to the model and I’m spraying tiny amounts of paint…like this schh…schh…schh as opposed to a base coat which goes schhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.  This means I’m going to develop dry tip really quickly and so I’m wiping and cleaning the needle ever 30 seconds or so.  Once you develop a rhythm this become second nature.

With regards to the actual technique, it’s air on, paint on, paint off, air off.  Or down, back, forward, up if you prefer.  Again if i’m doing detail work, then it’s more like.  Air on, paint on, paint off, paint on, paint off, paint on paint off, paint on, paint off…..air off.  To spell that out, the air stayed on and that’s why you want a compressor with a tank.  Also, you want a clear second, between air on, paint on and paint off, air off.  This is good technique, learn it early.  Symptoms of not doing this are, dried paint flecks appearing in your spray pattern.  A block nozzle. A splatter at the start of spraying (I suffered with this for so long.)

My last piece of advice, is always spray some water a the start of a session.  Then always spray paint onto a a piece of paper before you start applying to the model…making sure your pattern is good and flow feels right.

Sorry, this is so long…if you would like me to go into detail on any aspect then I’m happy to, I really want to try my hand at making youtube videos, so please give me an excuse.

I’ve been winnerdave, you’ve been awesome…happy airbrushing…

Category: Painting Guide

5 comments

  1. Wow, that is quite the article! I totally agree with almost everything you wrote. I went through the same stages and steps.

    My only addition might be some discussion of acrylic thinners. I use some testors acrylic thinner in a bottle with a clear label and it is great for thinning vallejo model air and other water based acrylic paints.

    I've been meaning to write a similar article but I might just link over to you here. Great job!

    1. Thanks Cameron, you should write an article, there's still so much about airbrushing to say. Thinning is a big topic on its own, have you seen that new product Vallejo released "Airbrush Flow Improver"…could be worth a look.

    2. Thinners work much better than water – put a dab of paint on a pallet, then add a drop of water to it. The water stays separate. Do the same with a thinner, and it'll flow and start to mix itself, which translates to a much better flow.

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Article by: Mark Goddard