Winter is coming, and for anyone who paints miniatures (or Gunpla or other types of models) it means one thing: you’d better get all of the primers done to get through for the next few months. Aerosol cans don’t work very well in the cold. This can be a serious problem for hobbyists, especially in northern climates like here in Illinois. This is just one reason why many people choose to use an airbrush.
I’ve been painting miniatures on a regular basis for a few years now and I know enough to say that I still have a lot to learn. I put a lot of energy into learning – how to apply a primer with a rattle can, how to block colors, and how to get those nice, crispy edge highlights. I’m still pretty bad at glazing. Wet mix? No dice. But even with my humble abilities, it was a nice, meditative occupation – especially in these difficult times. That’s partly why I gave airbrush a wide berth.
The other problem, of course, is the price. You can easily spend more on an airbrush set up than you would on a next-generation game console. They are also extremely fragile and learning to use them can be a chore. Still, on the advice of a friend, I bought one anyway – a really cheap one. I’m surprised how useful it was.
Even if you just want to prime your miniatures in the winter months, an inexpensive airbrush can save you time and money. If you try just a little more, a whole world of advanced techniques will open up. Here is what I learned, what I want to work on next, plus a shopping list of everything you need to get started.
Airbrush shopping list
This list is not too long. You will need an airbrush and a compressor This bundle from Master Airbrush for under $ 100 – as well as some primers to get you started. Grab Vallejo black primer, white primer, Airbrush thinner, and some Airbrush cleaner. Record some too Disposable pipettes for moving color and replacing 0.3 mm airbrush needles. You’ll want to grab too a cleaning kit.
Inhaling particles is never a great idea no matter what they’re made of. So you should also take a reusable mask with you. 3M. does well one that I have had some experience with. The filters are stable for 40 hours. Alternatively, you can always use a good disposable P95 mask (or 10).
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.
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
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 an airbrush is a real problem, which is why I like to paint large quantities of miniatures in one color at a time. But you need to do a proper clean every time you are done using your airbrush or you will ruin it.
One of the best guides I’ve found is from Cult of color. Not only is it thorough, it is economical with the use of cleaner, one of the worst chemicals you will use during the entire painting process.
Smooth, quick-drying primers are just the beginning. There are much more advanced techniques that an airbrush is good for.
Zenith highlighting is another excellent technique, but it requires slightly more specialized materials. Basically, you start with a dark color and then apply a lighter color from above – as if the miniature was lit by the sun at the zenith. I’ve used black and white to great effect. You can also put a gray layer in between for a smoother transition.
The problem is, when you apply your foundation, you need to see through that high-contrast layer. The Citadel Air paints I use for my basecoats seem too opaque to show the primers underneath. A great option that I recently came across is using Citadel Contrast inks. They have much lower coverage – which means you need to apply them in multiple coats to build up a rich, solid color on top of a primer. But even with just a layer or two, the colors are vibrant and you can easily see the zenithic highlight underneath.
Other painters circumvent the limitation of commercial acrylic paints by using inks for zenithic emphasis instead. The Miniac The YouTube channel does a great job of teaching the basics of this technique and also has some great recommendations for inks.
Airbrush brushes are also good for fine detail work, but they also require special parts – including smaller nozzles and various needles – that I have no experience with. Feel free to explore these methods on your own.
As your skills increase, you will likely go beyond what that particular master airbrush can do. That’s fine as it comes with a perfectly serviceable air compressor. When you’re ready, it’s fully compatible with high-end airbrushes from companies like Badger, Iwata, and others.
With a bit of luck, this guide has helped you save some time getting your miniatures to table standard – and has helped you paint more miniatures overall over the winter months.