How to get started with an airbrush

Winter is coming For those who paint miniatures (or Gunpla, or other types of models), that means one thing. It’s a good idea to do all the priming for the next few months. Spray paint cans do not work well in the cold. Especially in northern climates like here in Illinois, it can be a serious problem for enthusiasts. This is just one of the reasons why many people choose to use an airbrush.

I’ve been drawing regular miniatures for the last few years, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I still have a lot to learn. I put a lot of energy into my studies, such as how to prime with a rattling can, how to block colors, and how to get the highlights of those nice and crispy edges. I’m still not very good at glazing. Wet blending? There are no dice. But even at my modest skill level, it was a wonderful, meditative pursuit — especially in these times of trials. That’s part of the reason I gave the airbrush a large sleeper.

Of course, the other issue is price. It’s easier to spend more on setting up an airbrush than next-generation consoles. It’s also very fragile and it’s a hassle to learn how to use it. Nevertheless, on the advice of my friend, I bought it anyway — really cheap. I’m amazed at how useful it was.

Simply priming your miniatures during the winter will save you time and money with an inexpensive airbrush. With a little more effort, the world of advanced technology will expand. Here’s a shopping list that includes what I’ve learned, what I want to work on next, and everything you need to get started.

Airbrush shopping list

This list is not very long. To get started, you’ll need an airbrush and compressor (less than $ 100 like this bundle of Master Airbrush) and some primers. Get Vallejo Black Primer, White Primer, Airbrush Thinner and Airbrush Cleaner. Also, replace the disposable pipette for moving the paint with the 0.3mm airbrush needle. We also recommend that you get a cleaning kit.

Breathing particulate matter, no matter what they are made of, is by no means a great idea. Therefore, you will also want to get a reusable mask. 3M will be a good one I have ever experienced. The filter is valid for 40 hours. Alternatively, you can always get a good disposable P95 mask (or 10).

Master Airbrush with compressor

Prices taken at time of publishing.

This dual-action, gravity-fed airbrush is a great place to start. It also comes with a compressor that you can put to good use once you outgrow the brush itself.

Finally, consider setting up a painting hood to protect, well, everything else that you own. I use a sturdy box that I got with a shipment for work. I cut a hole in one side, put a $1.00 furnace filter over it, and duct-taped the whole kludge to a box fan. The goal is to aim the airbrush toward the filter, that way any overspray finds its way onto the filter and not all over your walls and work surface. I also use junk mail and old printer paper to line the inside of the box. That provides me with good reflectivity and consistent color temperature for my lighting.

Things not to do

If you’re like me, disassembling and reassembling your new gadgets is always step one. Don’t take the airbrush apart until you’ve used it a few times. Like I mentioned above, it’s pretty cheaply made. Lots of pieces are friction fit, and the manual isn’t all that helpful when you try to get them back together. Also, there’s a few gaskets that you might accidentally inhale they’re so small.

Just leave it alone for the first few times that you use it. Once you get some repetitions in, identifying the bits you should be taking off for deeper cleaning or adjusting and putting them back together again will become self-evident.

Most importantly, be mindful of the tip of the airbrush — especially the needle point.

Whatever airbrush you get, it’s going to have a thin, six-inch-long needle locked inside. They’re very sharp, but also very delicate. The very tip of the needle extends forward, right out the nozzle on the front of an airbrush. It’s so small you can barely see it, and just touching it the wrong way with a cotton swab or getting it caught on a paper towel can bend or break it. Treat the business end like fine crystal or a fragile sculpture and leave it alone.

Quick tips

A thin silver needle rests on the business end of an airbrush.

The needle at the heart of an airbrush next to a smallish, 28mm miniature from the BattleTech: A Game of Armored Combat boxed set. It’s foot is maybe a quarter inch long.
Image: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Airbrushes work by feeding paint into a stream of air, and then focusing that stream on the surface that you want to paint. The Master-branded airbrush I recommend here is a gravity feed airbrush, meaning that all you need to do is put some paint in the jar and it will find its way down and into the stream of air on its own. Use a few drops of thinner to keep it flowing.

To mix the thinner and the paint, put them both into a dish or a shallow jar with the pipettes and swirl ‘em around. You could also mix them in the pot right on the airbrush, but that risks bending the needle.

This Master airbrush is a dual-action airbrush, meaning the trigger has two functions. Press down on the trigger to get the air flowing, and pull back on the trigger to increase the flow of paint. Pull back far enough and you’ll rip the trigger right out of the airbrush, so please be gentle.

To avoid getting paint stuck to the nozzle — which can lead to paint splatters and jams — begin and end every press of the brush with air. The pattern should go like this:

  • Press the trigger to begin blowing air
  • Pull the trigger back to introduce a flow of paint
  • Paint your miniature
  • Push the trigger forward to stop the paint from flowing
  • Let the air flow for just a moment longer once the paint stops flying
  • And, finally, release the trigger to stop blowing air

A disassembled airbrush showing the major components.

To remove the needle of your airbrush for cleaning, you’ll need to unscrew the back cap and the tiny nut that locks it in place.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Start with black primer, and go slow. It will take some time to get the feel for how much paint is going onto the model. Keep your air pressure around 20 PSI, and thin your paints 50/50 or more with thinner — even if they’re paints specifically designed for an airbrush. You won’t need higher pressures at first, unless you’re doing large models or bits of terrain. Remember to hit the model from all angles — including from underneath.

What you should be left with is a fine coat of black primer. It will have much less “tooth” than if you used a rattle can, meaning that the finish will be much smoother. Stick with that black primer for as long as you like, and prime a good half-dozen or so minis before your pot runs out of paint.

Congratulations. You just saved yourself a good $6 in spray paint, saved a nasty can of paint from heading to the landfill, and got a cleaner finish on your miniature to boot. The miniature is also dry and ready for additional layering much more quickly. Also, since you’re inside, you didn’t have to worry about temperature or humidity — a big deal if you live in a northern climate.

Cleaning your airbrush

Cleaning the airbrush is really painful. That’s why I like to paint large batches of miniatures one color at a time. However, proper cleaning is required after each use of the airbrush. Otherwise, the airbrush will be ruined.

One of the best guides I’ve found is from the Cult of Paint. Not only is he thorough, but he is also economical by using a cleaner, which is one of the nasty chemicals used throughout the painting process.

Advanced technology

A smooth, quick-drying primer coat is just the beginning. There are many more advanced techniques for which an airbrush is suitable.

Zenith highlighting is another great technique, but it uses a slightly more special material. Basically, start with a dark color and apply a light color from the top. It’s as if the miniature was lit by the sun at the zenith. I used black and white to improve the effect. You can also slide a gray coat in between to give a gentler transition.

The problem is that this high contrast layer needs to show through when applying the basecoat. The Citadel Air paint used for the base coat is too opaque to show the undercoat below. A good option I happened to find recently is to use Citadel Contrast Paint. The opacity is much lower. This means that you need to apply it to multiple coats to create a dark solid color on top of the primer. However, even one or two coats are bright in color, and you can easily see the highlights of the zenith below.

Three pre-shaded black and white miniatures.

Highlighted miniatures of the three zeniths.
Image: Charlie Hall / Polygon

Other painters use ink instead of zenith highlights to circumvent the limitations of commercial acrylic paints. The Miniac YouTube channel does a great job of covering the basics of that technique and also has some good ink recommendations.

Airbrushes are also good for small tasks, but they also require special parts that I haven’t experienced yet (small nozzles, various needles, etc.). Feel free to explore these methods yourself.

Next step

As your skills increase, you may exceed the capabilities of this particular master airbrush. It’s fine as it comes with a fully maintainable air compressor. When ready, it’s fully compatible with high-end airbrushes from companies such as Badger and Iwata.

If you’re lucky, this guide has helped reduce the time it takes to meet miniatures to table-ready standards, and helped paint more miniatures overall during the winter.

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