Guide to Using Airbrushes for Painting

When it comes to painting surfaces, the traditional brush and roller methods have always been around. But as time went by, people developed more convenient and faster ways to apply paint. These techniques have not only revolutionized different industries, but have also given rise to new ones. Among the efficient methods of using paint is airbrushing.

Despite being a niche art form, airbrushing has gained popularity, especially with technology and materials being more accessible. Many aspiring artists have explored innovative applications for this medium. This article will explore how to use an airbrush for painting.

What is Airbrush and Airbrush Painting?

In essence, an airbrush is a small handheld dispenser with an attached trigger. The trigger features a small button controlling a needle, which regulates the airflow within the device. When the trigger is pressed, the needle is lifted and it atomizes the paint into a fine mist that lands on the target surface.

As for paint storage, it’s typically housed in a small container directly attached to the airgun or in an auxiliary container connected via a hose. The paint is directed to the nozzle at the airbrush’s edge regardless of the feed mechanism.

To those unfamiliar with the device, an airbrush may resemble a small pen with a tube spraying paint—a bit like a conventional paint sprayer but on a smaller scale. Their ability to blend colors seamlessly allows airbrushes to be used for detailed work in murals or custom automotive artwork.

Airbrush painting can create the illusion of shadows, transparency, and subtle shading effects that can be challenging to achieve with traditional brushes or palette knives.

Initially thought to have originated in the early 1890s, recent research reveals that one of the first airbrushes was designed in the late 1870s. It was manually cranked to make the pain atomize.

If you want to know about the types of airbrushes, read this introduction.

How Does an Airbrush Work?

When connected to an air compressor, an airbrush achieves atomization—breaking a liquid into tiny droplets. This process allows a painter to produce seamless blends, coatings, and gradients that surpass what a standard paintbrush can achieve.

In an airbrush, compressed air flows through a tapered hole at high speed. As this air passes over a recess connected to a paint container, it creates a pressure drop, forcing the paint up and allowing airflow. Following the stream of air, the paint becomes atomized into small droplets.

The paint and air mixture then reaches the spray tip, and this is when the atomized paint is distributed across the surface being sprayed. One of the standout features of airbrush painting is its control over intensity, radius, and spray pattern— a control that’s challenging with larger paint sprayers.

Airbrushes enable intricate detail due to their use of less compressed air and impossibly small spray tips. Compared to conventional sprayers that require around 100 PSI, an airbrush only needs approximately 20 PSI for a similar application, allowing for finer color blending on a smaller scale.

Professional airbrush artists can achieve extreme detail in their work, sometimes resembling actual photographs. While acquiring such proficiency takes time and commitment, even beginners can create incredible art with some practice.

Benefits of Airbrushing

Investing in an airbrush pays off, and you’ll realize it when you see a sleek finish with your surfaces and models. While it takes some time to get the hang of it, consistently practicing will allow you to achieve impressive results. Here are some reasons why opting for an airbrush is a smart choice:

  • Smooth and even coats: Achieve a flawless finish by applying even, thin coats of paint with an airbrush. This technique allows you to seamlessly blend color transitions for a realistic outcome.
  • Time efficiency: Airbrushing allows you to paint, letting you cover more ground in less time.
  • Enhanced blending: The thin layers of paint in airbrushing make it easier to layer and blend colors, enhancing the overall blending effect.
  • Fine special effects: Unleash creativity with an airbrush by adding unique patterns and effects, using stencils for precision.
  • Efficient coverage: Paint larger areas more efficiently than traditional hand painting – thanks to the versatility of the airbrush.

What You Need to Start with Airbrush Art

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry; airbrushing is more straightforward than it seems. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become. So, what essentials do you need to kickstart your airbrushing journey? Let’s explore the basics and some wise initial choices to save you hassle later on.

Airbrush Gun

There are various airbrush types, but they fall into two primary groups: single-action and dual-action trigger units. Single-action suits beginners, while dual-action is for those aiming at intricate artwork. Controlling air and paint flow separately may sound simple, but it demands practice.

Compressor Unit

Air is a must for airbrushing, and how you supply it is your choice. The two primary options are air compressors and turbines. Choose one that consistently provides 1.5 to 2.2 bars of pressure. Consider the type and length of hoses for your paint and air supply.

Paint for Your Airbrush

The paint you choose profoundly affects your work. Lacquer-based paints are robust but contain VOCs, while water-based paints lack durability. Consider the finish (matte, gloss, etc.) based on your workpiece’s shape, size, application, and lighting conditions.

Personal Protective Gear

Protect yourself with gloves, a respirator, and eye protection graded for aerosolized paints. Ensure a well-ventilated workspace with cross-flow to dissipate airborne particulates. Take extra caution and read paint labels, as cadmium and cobalt pigments pose risks of toxicity in mist form and may be cancer-causing when inhaled. It’s best to choose non-toxic alternatives. Use a tarp or newspaper and painter’s tape to shield your workspace.

How to Use an Airbrush

Mastering airbrush techniques takes time, but let’s begin with a simple guide on setting up your workspace and using your airbrush without creating a mess. As you grow more comfortable, explore advanced techniques through YouTube tutorials and custom modifications for your airbrush unit.

Prepare Your Workspace

While airbrushing doesn’t demand intricate technical know-how, preparation is key. Ensure your workspace is well-ventilated, and cover surfaces with a tarp or old newspaper secured with painter’s tape to avoid accidental paint splatters. Prioritize safety by wearing a ventilator, gloves, and goggles graded for airborne particulates.

Create Your Stencil

While not essential, creating a stencil can be helpful, especially for beginners. Stencils can help cover and protect areas you don’t want to paint and allow you to make patterns or shapes through airbrush paint.

You can sketch and cut out your stencil or choose from available ready-made airbrush stencils. Another option is covering a surface with painter’s tape (preferably on a hard material like wood) and using a knife to cut out the desired form.

Prepare Your Airbrush

Getting your airbrush ready is a breeze and usually only takes a few minutes. Start by ensuring all hoses, extensions, and connectors are securely in place for both your air and paint supplies. If using a hopper, make sure it’s threaded correctly and there are no obstructions like old paint or dust inside.

Next, prep your paint by stirring it thoroughly before adding it to the hopper or exterior paint canister. This ensures any heavier elements settled at the bottom are well-mixed. Finally, check your compressor/turbine for sufficient and consistent air pressure by performing a test spray on spare material.

Practice Using Your Airbrush

1. Connect the air hose from the air compressor to the stylus

Set up your air compressor within reach of your work area. Attach one end of the air hose securely to the nozzle on the compressor. Connect the other end of the hose to the long air nozzle on the airbrush stylus, ensuring a tight fit for proper pressure.

Tip: Consider purchasing airbrush kits available at hobby stores or online, often including a small air compressor and hose.

2. Thin your paint in a mixing tray

Paint is too thick to load directly into the airbrush, leading to uneven application. Pour a small amount of paint into a mixing dish and add an equal amount of paint thinner. Stir the mixture until it matches the consistency of plain color thinner. Adjust the paint or thinner ratio until it reaches the desired thinness.

For acrylic paints, use water for thinning. For enamel or lacquer paints, use paint thinner or lacquer thinner. Refer to the paint packaging for specific ratios, and work in a well-ventilated area or wear a respirator when using paint thinner.

3. Load Paint into the Airbrush Cup

Place 4-6 drops of paint into the airbrush cup. After thinning the paint to suit the airbrush, use a pipette to transfer the paint from the mixing dish to the cup on your airbrush stylus. It’s crucial to add only a few drops at a time, as airbrushes require minimal paint to operate. Once loaded, avoid tipping the stylus to prevent spills.

4. Adjust the Air Compressor to 10 PSI

Power on the air compressor, setting it to approximately 10 PSI. Start with this pressure, and as you become more accustomed to airbrushing, you can fine-tune the pressure for effects.

  • Higher pressure minimizes clogging but dries paint quickly with more overspray.
  • Lower pressure allows detailed painting with less paint but may lead to clogs and a rougher paint texture.

5. Position the Airbrush 1–2 Inches Away

Hold the airbrush 1–2 inches away from your painting object, using it like a pen in your dominant hand. Rest your index finger on the trigger button, pointing the airbrush nozzle at the object perpendicular to it.

You may want to wrap the airbrush hose around your arm to prevent interference. Also, adjust the distance for varied line thickness.

6. Apply Paint by Pressing the Trigger

Push the trigger down with your index finger to apply the paint. Keep your wrist steady and move your arm to control the airbrush’s spray. Release the trigger to stop painting. Practice creating different lines and shapes to familiarize yourself with the airbrush.

Some airbrushes may require pulling back on the trigger for paint application. Test the airbrush on scrap paper before painting to ensure smooth paint flow. If you want to make precise designs, use a stencil.

7. Allow Paint to Cure for 24 Hours

Let the paint dry for 24 hours to ensure proper curing. If handling the painted piece is necessary, wait at least 30 minutes or until the paint is no longer tacky. For thicker paint applications, extended curing time may be needed.

Achieving the Right Paint Consistency

Now, it’s time to mix your paint and give spraying a shot. Even airbrush-specific colors are typically a bit too thick straight from the bottle. Controlling them is challenging, while you can spray them as is at high pressure. So, you’ll often need to thin your paints with airbrush thinner. Generally, a ratio like 1:1, 1:2, or 1:4 works well. It involves a bit of experimentation; there’s no strict formula. The ideal paint consistency varies based on your technique (base coating, blending, glazing, etc.), the paint itself, the current nozzle size, and more.

As a starting point: if you’re using a 0.20-size nozzle, set the pressure to 1.8 bar, thin at 1:1, and spray from 3-5 centimeters (1-2 inches), pulling the trigger about 30-50% back. Observe the outcome and adjust as needed.

You’ll encounter situations like this:

  • If the paint is too thin, it may splatter into “spiders” and “millipedes” — you must thicken it.
  • If the paint is too thick, it might look chalky and coarse — so you might want to thin it down a bit.

Always thin your paint using a mixing tray before loading it into the airbrush – don’t be tempted just to put a drop of water or paint thinner on the gun. Use water for acrylic paints or paint thinner for lacquer/enamel paints.

Don’t worry if you don’t nail it immediately; it takes practice. Even with experience, you’ll always test your paint and flow (on your hand or a piece of paper) before spraying on the model.

Airbrushing takes time to master, so dedicate a couple of evenings to try basic exercises. Your goal is to confidently control air and paint flow, understanding when to adjust pressure, consistency, and lever operation.

Masking Techniques

Masks protect areas you want to keep paint-free. For larger sections, stencils, friskets, or masking paper can be used. Stencils are thin sheets with cut-out shapes or patterns, usable either as positive stencils, where you spray through the holes, or negative stencils, where shapes are held on the surface while spraying around them.

Frisket, a thin vinyl film with a low-tack adhesive, shields covered areas from overspray. Ensure painted areas are fully dry before applying frisket.

Furnish it for a flat, bubble-free surface. Use a razor knife to cut the frisket into the desired shape, remove unwanted portions, and apply the next color. Do not leave frisket or tape on the surface for more than a day.

Tape, especially drafting or Scotch tape, with low adhesive tack, is useful for achieving straight lines or attaching masking materials without damaging painted areas when removed.

Cleaning Your Airbrush

As you learn how to use your airbrush, you must also learn how to clean it. Initially, you might spend more time cleaning than painting – it’s part of the process. However, as you become more adept, cleaning will take less time. Here are some tips to speed up the learning curve.

Firstly, avoid excessive cleaning. Your airbrush is a tool, not a holy grail. It should be clean enough to function correctly, but no more than that. That’s the “speed painter’s take” on airbrush cleaning.

There are several cleaning options, and you should move to the next one only if the previous one isn’t sufficient:

No Cleaning

If you can skip cleaning, do it. There is no need to clean between spraying similar colors. Is the paint flowing smoothly without clogging? Keep on spraying.

Needle Cleaning

Paint may dry on the needle tip while spraying, causing buildup. Gently remove the paint with your fingers. This takes seconds, allowing you to continue spraying immediately. Working without the needle cap may help access the needle more easily, but be cautious as it makes the needle more prone to damage.

Cup Cleaning

Clean with water and airbrush cleaner for clogging or significant color changes. Pour a few drops into the cup, use a brush to clean it, and then spray into a cleaning pot. Repeat with airbrush cleaner if necessary. Rub the paint with tissue paper or a Q-tip soaked in airbrush cleaner if the paint dried in the cup.

Air Cleaning

Sometimes, paint remains inside the airbrush, which needs air cleaning. Pour a few drops of cleaner, close the airhead with your fingers or a dedicated tool, slowly push the trigger to let air circulate for 30-60 seconds, then spray into a cleaning pot. After one or two passes, your airbrush should be clean enough.

Mechanical Cleaning

If all else fails (usually when the airbrush is clogged), partially disassemble and clean mechanically. Detach the end piece, pull out the needle, and detach the middle piece, nozzle, and airhead. Clean the needle with cleaner and tissue paper, use pipe-cleaner brushes for the body, and clean the nozzle with nozzle cleaner or a thin brush and airbrush cleaner. Ensure there are no visible obstructions by checking if you can see through the body and nozzle.

Here are the steps to cleaning your airbrush:

  1. Use Airbrush Cleaning Solution: You can buy airbrush cleaning solutions from hobby stores or online. Fill the airbrush cup halfway with the cleaning solution, allowing it to flow through the airbrush. Let it sit for 10-15 seconds to break down any residual paint.
  2. Loosen Residue with Swab or Brush: If paint or makeup clings to the airbrush cup’s sides, dip a cotton swab or paintbrush into the solution. Scrape the cup’s sides to mix with the solution and facilitate its flow through the stylus. You may skip this step if nothing is sticking to the sides of the cup.
  3. Spray Cleaning Solution: Keep the airbrush connected to the compressor. Direct the airbrush nozzle into an empty cup, pressing down on the trigger to spray the solution. Maintain a pressure of about 10-15 PSI for an even spray. Continue until the cup is empty.
  4. Check Solution Clarity: Refill the stylus cup and observe the color of the cleaning solution. Any change indicates remaining makeup or paint. Press the trigger again to empty the cup and spray the cleaner through the stylus. Once the cleaner is clear in the cup, conclude the cleaning process and store your airbrush.

Troubleshooting Your Airbrush

At some point, you might run into issues with the paint flow. Here are the main categories of problems you might encounter:


This is a common occurrence where the paint doesn’t come out smoothly or comes in irregular bursts, and you notice bubbling in the cup. Usually, it’s caused by dried paint in the nozzle, on the needle, or in the body channel. To address this, try blowing the paint using high pressure into a cleaning pot. If that’s not enough, you can explore cleaning options listed above.

To prevent clogging, thin your paints outside the airbrush and stir thoroughly to eliminate lumps. A simple piece of plastic blister works well for paint mixing.

No Flow

Sometimes, there might be no flow at all, and you won’t see any bubbles in the cap. Disconnect the airbrush and check if the compressor is working correctly. If the compressor blows air, the airbrush might have a mechanical problem. Disassemble and reassemble your airbrush, inspecting each part for cracks or damage. Tighten all connections to ensure a secure fit.

Distorted Spray Cone

If the spray cone is distorted, resulting in an uneven print like an ellipse or a blob instead of a circle, it likely indicates an issue with the needle or nozzle. Disassemble the airbrush and examine these parts. If the needle is bent or there’s a crack in the nozzle, consider replacing the damaged part with a new one. In some cases, a bent needle can be straightened with care and precision.


In airbrush painting, patience is the key. Familiarize yourself with an airbrush’s parts and practice. Before you know it, you’ll be on to paving the way to making remarkable art. By following the tips and techniques, you’ll not only refine your airbrushing skills but also enhance your overall artistic expression. So, equip yourself with the proper knowledge, embrace the learning process, and let your creativity soar through the versatile strokes of the airbrush!