Airbrush equipment tutorial

Basics on airbrushes, acrylic paint, & illustration board.

Artist's Studio & Airbrush Samples

Airbrush Tutorials

Airbrush Painting | Airbrush Equipment

All Tutorial Text & Images - Copyright © 2011 KHI, Inc.

Airbrush Background

The first use of the "airbrush" began in the mid 1800s, and was accomplished by blowing air through a tube with your mouth. In 1879, Abner Peeler invented the 'reciprocating needle' airbrush, which was the basis for Jens Paasche's introduction of the Paasche AB Turbine in the early 1900s.

The Paasche AB Turbine has a 'dual-channel' airflow system which separately regulates air flow and paint flow. I found the AB to be a cantankerous device with a fragile needle, small paint cup, and a high susceptibility to clogging when using acrylic instead of dye (which was toxic), but it remained the gold standard in precision airbrushing until the introduction of the Iwata HP series in the early 1980s. Many professional illustrators still swear by the Paasche AB to this day. Due to its asymmetrical design the Paasche AB Turbine comes in a left-hand and right-hand configuration.

Airbrushing Equipment Recommendations

There are a wide variety of choices in airbrush equipment to choose from. Throughout my 25 years as an airbrush illustrator I have had the opportunity to try many different types of airbrushes, compressors, paint, frisket and other supplies. The list below represents product choices that I have found to outperform all of the others.


I have found the Iwata HP-CH and 'Custom Micron Series' Iwata CM-C Plus (below, left) to be the most versatile and durable airbrushes made. The Iwata HP-C airbrush has great double-action button control, they rarely clog, Iwata's stainless steel tips are among the most durable in the industry, and they have a large paint cup (with cap to prevent spills). The Iwata HP-C is also very easy to disassemble and clean.

Airbrush Tutorial - Airbrush Supplies

Airbrush Tips: Use Vaseline to lubricate the button mechanism, keeping it from drying out or corroding. To straighten a bent tip, grasp the removed airbrush needle between your fingertips and roll the point against a flat surface at a shallow angle. Remove the tip cover to slow down clogging. Clean dried paint with Fantastic brand spray cleaner.

Acrylic Airbrush Paint

Badger "Air-Opaque" acrylic. It is very colorfast, does not clog when properly diluted with distilled water, and is VERY scuff resistant. I have artwork that I did over 25 years ago and they look as good as the day they were created.

Frisket Masking Film

Matt Frisk Film in sheet form. "Frisket" is a term for a transparent self-adhesive plastic film used to mask areas in airbrush illustrations. I have found Matt Frisk Film (in flat sheets) to be far and away the best frisket on the market. It has very low tack (so it doesn't pull up your previous paint work), yet it has just enough to not balloon up when you airbrush right to the cut line. Additionally, the cut masks can be used multiple times and archived for later use while retaining their tack. The matt surface has little or no glare, and is highly transparent. Forget about the rolls - they curl up on you and you can't archive them because of the curling affect.

Airbrush Acrylic Paint Supplies

For painting straight lines and masking straight edges, 3M Scotch #811 'Magic Plus Removable Transparent Tape' works great. It is easy to work with, ultra low tack, and can be reapplied over and over. It is great for creating chrome with its multiple, parallel gradation changes.

Illustration Board

Letramax 2200 Cold Press Board (medium tooth rag surface) for its fine texture and "whiteness." The paint surface is low-texture and paint adhesian is lower than the Strathmore 500, therefor, tacky frisket material can peel up paint.

Strathmore 500 Series Cold Press Illustration Board (100% cotton fiber, acid-free paper) for its durability and "scuff" resistance. It has a slightly warm color to it and slightly more texture which aids in its paint absorption and durability.

Frisket Knife

X-Acto #11 Knife & Blade. It has a very sharp tip (when new), and if you by in bulk packs of 100 blades, you can throw them out after a few cuts. All blades dull quickly so there is no point in wasting the money on expensive alternatives. With a very sharp blade, you should be able to cut through the frisket without leaving any indentation on the board.

Technical Note: New X-Acto blades do have a thin oil coating that can easily transfer from fingertip to board surface. You should wipe fingers with alcohol and a paper towel to remove any oil after changing blades.

Airbrush Illustration of Toyota

Toyota Rav4: Airbrush Acrylic on Strathmore Illustration Board

Air Source

I recommend using an aluminum CO2 tank over a compressor for several reasons: They are silent, they don't draw condensed water out of the humidity in the air like a compressor does, and a large 80 CF tank can drive a set of small airbrushes (with 3, 4, or 5 way manifold) for hundreds of hours. CO2 is non-toxic, non-flammable and cheap to refill.

Misc. Airbrush Accessories

I highly recommend the use of an inline moisture trap which will intercept moisture build-up that accumulates in the airbrush hose due to condensation. Without a moisture trap, your first pull of the airbrush trigger can spit out the accumulated moisture buildup causing an unwanted spurting of paint and water. A multi-valved manifold can be obtained from a restaurant supply store, and is useful when using multiple airbrushes. If you elect to use a compressor you must have an inline moisture trap (see below) to avoid spitting.

A set of "ship's curves" strait-edges are helpful to use as a masking edge (see: Basic Airbrush Tutorial). These templates can provide a soft feathered edge, without the use of frisket.

Studio Lighting

Multi-bulb fluorescent fixtures provide uniform, flicker-free lighting, and helps to minimize shadows created by hand and airbrush. Bulb color temperature is critical for accurate color proofing, and bulbs should have a 4700K (D50) color temperature, or 'full-spectrum' with a 5500K "daylight" color temperature.

The only low-voltage (non-fluorescent) bulb that comes close to this is the SoLux 4700K (D50), but they will produce shadows on the drawing surface.

Airbrush Color Theory

Before we begin this lesson it is important to have a cursory understanding of color theory. We will be working with opaque and semi-opaque airbrush pigments in the "Subtractive Color" method. This differs from computer graphics which functions in an RGB or "Additive Color" environment (a computer monitor gives off light, flat art reflects light of the surface of the board or paper).

Airbrush Color Theory

The diagram below illustrates the difference between Additive Color (RGB) Fig. 1, and Subtractive Color (CMYK) Fig. 2. Notice that when you combine Red, Green, and Blue in the Additive Color process, the combination produces white. In the Additive Color process, white is the combination of all colors. In the Subtractive Color (CMYK) process, when you combine Yellow, Cyan, and Magenta (CMY), the combination produces black. In the Subtractive Color process, black is the combination of all colors.

To paint most mechanical surfaces (metal, plastic, rubber, vinyl, etc.) I use three airbrushes, each filled with a different color (black, blue and brown). This eliminates the need to purge the airbrush for a color change. By diluting the paint with water I can control the opacity, making the paint almost translucent. This allows you to "mix" the colors on the art board to create new hues by spraying a light tint of one color over another.

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