Every wonder what kind of paint can be used with an airbrush, and which paint types can’t?
A common misconception many have is that an airbrush requires a specific type of paint in order to function properly.
But this simply is not true!
Truth be told,
Any kind of paint can be used with an airbrush as long as the chosen paint is thinned out to a milk like consistency, and the paint is free of debris such as metallic flakes, large pigment particles or clumps.
Meet or exceed these expectations with the paint you have chosen, and you’ve got yourself a paint worthy of airbrush use.
Now there are some precautions to be discussed before you go slinging any kind of paint through your airbrush.
1st: Consider your health,
The sole purpose of an airbrush is to atomize the paint for smooth application. These tiny micro droplets of paint will contaminate the air within the vicinity, and depending on the chemical makeup of the paint, Inhaling such contaminated air can result in vast health effects. Always ensure you have plenty of ventilation, and you wear the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment.
2nd: Always clean your equipment immediately after use,
An airbrushes worst nightmare is dried up paint deep within the interworking of the airbrush. Though there are cases people have revived their airbrush from such turmoil. Dried paint in an airbrush can result in catastrophic failure. So, get your self a good airbrush cleaner, and always clean out your airbrush immediately after use.
Now let’s dive into the paint types worthy of airbrush use, and those that aren’t.
Paints You Can Use In Your Airbrush:
✓ Acrylic Paint – Acrylic paint can be applied using an airbrush by thinning it down using distilled water or the paint makers formulated reducer, then spray at 30psi. Acrylic paint is considered to be a staple airbrush paint. All of the top airbrush ready paints on the market today are formulated using a high flow acrylic with finely ground pigments. Using Acrylic paint with an airbrush gives you great color vibrancy along with some durability and water resiliency once dry. Plus, acrylic paint is water based which makes it far safer for your health when airbrushed then solvent based products. Acrylic airbrush ready paint is the industry standard paint for airbrush use. You’ll find that the majority of airbrush paint manufacturers are using a fluid acrylic as the base product. Some popular airbrush ready acrylic paints include:
- Com-Art Colors (Available on Amazon & Perfect for beginners)
- Createx Illustration Colors (Available on Amazon. I personally use this a lot for fine art and love it)
- Villejo Model Air (Available on Amazon. Great for models and miniatures)
✓ Inks & Dyes – You can airbrush inks & dyes pretty much straight from the bottle as they are already very thin. Start by spraying at 30 psi, if needed, you can reduce them further using distilled water or rubbing alcohol depending on the base product. Both inks and dyes will commonly spray through an airbrush better than most paints as the color pigments are commonly dissolved into the carrier or very fine making the medium spray similar to water when reduced. That being said, one pitfall of using inks or dyes as a stand-alone product, is they commonly finish transparent, which is good in many cases, but bad when trying to cover up a mistake or simply working a spot on your artwork that needs opacity. A popular Ink for airbrush application is:
- Daler-Rowney “FW” Acrylic Ink (Available on Amazon)
✓ Model Paint – Paints for models and miniatures, whether water-based or solvent-based can be applied using an airbrush. Simply, reduce the paint to a milk like viscosity and spray at 25 – 35 psi. That being said, there is one cavate when it comes to hobby paint application using an airbrush, specifically concerning additives such as metallic flakes, sand and other debris mixed in with the paint intended to improve the finished look of the paint. Paints with such additives do raise a red flag for airbrush use, as they can and commonly do, clog the airbrush during use (More on this later). As of the time of this writing, there is a plethora of airbrush ready model paint available on the market. Some popular airbrush ready hobby paints include:
- Testers Model Paint (Solvent based hobby paint, Available on Amazon)
- Vallejo Model Air (Water Based hobby paint, Available on Amazon)
✓ Urethane Paint (Automotive) – Both urethane as well as water-based automotive paints are great for airbrush use. Though given the latest advancements in paint technology many have migrated to water-based automotive paint products for the reduced VOC emissions. To airbrush Urethane paint you must understand the ratio limitations of the product in order to thin out the paint for airbrush application correctly. Urethane is a product that chemically cures using a catalyst rather than air dry. Adding too much reducer to the mix can result in under catalyzation, which in turn does not allow the paint to cure correctly in a timely manner. Though urethane paints are great for durability, longevity and overall finish. They do give off a lot of VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) which are known to have significant health impacts to the user and environment. Do ensure you wear the appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) if you airbrush urethane paint, and only do so in a well-ventilated area. Do note, many water based paint manufacturers such as “Createx” do make paints intended for automotive applications. Some popular Urethane based airbrush paints include:
- ChromaAir (Water-based Acrylic Urethane, Available on Amazon)
- Xotic Colours (Urethane based airbrush paint)
- House Of Kolor (Urethane based airbrush paint, Available on Amazon)
✓ Lacquers – Lacquer paint can be used with an airbrush, however you must thin it using a lacquer-based reducer. Many suggest using a hobby grade lacquer thinner as it’s not as “hot” as industrial grade lacquer thinners which can eat plastic and rubber airbrush parts. Lacquers though commonly clear, do come in colors. The main intent behind lacquers is to provide surface protection as they are very durable. That being said, they should be applied thick to provide adequate protection and shine. A potential drawback of applying lacquer using an airbrush is, you may not be able to build up sufficient layer thickness due to the airbrushes need for the material to be thin. A.K.A it will take multiple layers to build up sufficient coverage. If you do airbrush lacquer, keep in mind it is solvent based so be sure to protect yourself with adequate PPE and be sure you have plenty of ventilation.
✓ Enamels – Enamel paint is commonly applied using an airbrush, specifically by those working on hobby grade miniatures and models. For airbrush use, thin enamel paint to a viscosity similar to milk and apply at 30 – 40 psi depending on the viscosity. Slightly thicker paint commonly requires higher air pressure and vice versa. Enamel is a great option for both durability and finished shine. Enamel paint is commonly solvent-based but as of lately many water-based paints have adopted the term. Whether you intend on airbrushing solvent-based or water-based enamels, odds are it can be done. However, given the innate nature of enamel products, you must clean your airbrush immediately after use, to eliminate the risk of the paint drying in your airbrush. To reduce solvent-based enamel for airbrush use you can use mineral spirits, white spirits or the paint makers formulated reducer. For best results its recommended that you use the paint manufacturers formulated reducer intended specifically for the paint you’ve chosen. Some popular hobby grade enamel paints include:
✓ WaterColors – Though not traditionally applied using an airbrush, watercolors are great for airbrush application as they can be easily thinned out using distilled water and sprayed at 20 – 30psi. But be sure to mix the paint thoroughly, as any clumps will cause the airbrush to clog. That being said, you do need to get a little creative when it comes to mixing up watercolor paint for airbrush use. As you will be taking the paint from a solid to a liquid state that is thin enough to flow well through the airbrush and free from clumps… You can do this by adding small amounts of water and mixing simultaneously, until you have reached a milk like consistency. As you likely know the more water you add to watercolors the further transparent the product becomes. So, depending on the effect you’re going for. You can go with a slightly thicker viscosity for stronger color vibrancy, but you’ll have to spray at a higher air pressure. Or, you can go slightly thinner for less color vibrancy, but can be sprayed at a lower air pressure.
✓ Food Coloring – Food coloring can be applied using an airbrush as it has a natural water like viscosity. Which makes it function exceptionally well with an airbrush. I often suggest new airbrush users give food coloring a try in their airbrush to see how a well thinned medium feels and acts when sprayed through an airbrush. If desired, you could thin it further using a small amount of distilled water, but it’s not necessary. When it comes to using food coloring, most use it to color their food (Hence the name). If you intend on applying food coloring using an airbrush to pastries and other edibles that will be consumed, it is vital that you use either a brand-new airbrush that has been sanitized, or one that has never been used with anything other than food grade liquids / products. Spraying toxic paint using the same airbrush as you are food coloring on edibles is a bad idea. Now if you’re just looking to spray some food coloring onto a sheet of paper for practice, the historical use of the airbrush isn’t a big deal. Some popular food coloring people pair with their airbrush include:
✓ Makeup & Foundation – The airbrush is a popular tool for applying makeup, as it provides a smooth natural finished appearance. To airbrush makeup, the product needs to be in liquid form and thinned out to a milk like viscosity. For safety purposes, only spray at a max of 15psi. The reason why you should never use any more than 15psi when applying makeup with an airbrush is because pressurized air can make its way under the skin and cause serious injury. Airbrush makeup is applied best by placing 5 – 10 drops of liquid makeup into the airbrush, then apply in small circles, 6-inches or so away from the face. Airbrush applied makeup can appear more natural, and consistent then traditional methods. Plus, it can save time once you’ve developed a routine. For best results, use an airbrush ready makeup, that is specifically formulated for airbrush application. Some popular airbrush makeup kits include:
- Temptu Airbrush Makeup Kit (Available on Amazon)
- Art Of Air Airbrush Makeup Kit (Available on Amazon)
✓ Face & Body Paint – You can airbrush face and body paints by reducing the paint down to a fluid consistency similar to skim-milk. For safety purposes, you must keep the air pressure under 15psi when airbrushing on skin. High pressurized air focused on the skin can make its way under the skin causing serious injury. The thinner you get the paint, the better, as it will flow through the airbrush much better at lower pressure (15psi), but careful not to thin out the paint so much it becomes transparent and difficult to build opacity. If you choose to airbrush body paints, I recommend staying away from those that are of a “cakey” like consistency. As they do not thin out well, and if you can get them thinned down, they do not spray well. For thinning out face and body paint for airbrush application, different paint makers will call for different thinning solutions and methods. But commonly water will do the trick. For best results I recommend you opt for an “Airbrush ready” face and body paint. A very popular airbrush ready face / body paint is:
- Custom Body Art (Available on Amazon)
✓ Nail Polish – You can airbrush nail polish by reducing it using pure acetone. Do this by applying a couple drops of acetone to the nail polish and stir, repeat until you’ve reached a milk like consistency. If applying direct to fingernails, or toenails, do be careful not to exceed 15psi & stay at least 2″-4″ away from the skin as pressurized air can make its way under the skin causing serious injury. I don’t personally recommend applying nail polish to fingernails or toenails using an airbrush as it can be dangerous if done incorrectly. But you definitely can get nail polish to work with an airbrush. That being said, given the durable nature of nail polish, a detailed cleaning of your airbrush immediately after application is a must. If left to dry in the airbrush it will be near to impossible, if not impossible, to remove.
✓ Leather Paint (Angelus Paint) – Angelus paint, or leather paint can be used with an airbrush as it is commonly formulated out of a fluid acrylic. However, it’s very likely you’ll need to thin out the product to a milk like consistency before airbrush use. Angelus Paint brand specifically, is formulated for airbrush use as long as the airbrush is equipped with a needle size of 0.5mm or larger. If needed, you can thin the product down using their “2-Thin” reducer (Available on Amazon). For airbrush use, simply reduce Angelus paint down using a ratio of: One part “Angelus 2-thin” to Four parts “Angelus Paint” (1:4). For air pressure, it’s common to use around 30 PSI on a gravity feed airbrush, and 45 PSI on a siphon feed. Don’t live by this ratio. Be willing to test the boundaries of this ratio and air pressure recommendation to find what works best for you. If needed, Angelus has a guide for those using their product with an airbrush here.
- Angelus Paint (Available on Amazon, Developed for airbrush use)
✓ Fabric Paint (Textile Paint) – Textile paint is very popular in the airbrush industry, as you’ll commonly see T-shirt airbrush artists using a textile specific paint for their artwork. To apply textile paint to fabric using an airbrush it’s recommended you maintain a thicker viscosity than other airbrush applications. Target a whole milk like consistency. The thicker viscosity will keep the paint from absorbing and bleeding into the fabric. You’ll airbrush textile paint onto fabric at a higher air pressure then many other applications. Textile paint is best airbrush between 40 & 80 psi. This is for 2 reasons, first to push the thicker viscosity paint through the airbrush, second to embed the paint into the fabric to reduce fading over time. Obviously, never apply textile paint to clothing that is currently worn by someone, as it can be dangerous to the wearer of the garment. For best results, lay the fabric flat on a solid surface and strap down using clamps to keep the fabric from moving. A popular fabric ready paint for airbrush application is:
- Createx Wicked Colors (Available on Amazon, simply apply heat once finished to set the paint)
✓ Gesso – Though gesso is commonly a thick creamy consistency, it can be applied using an airbrush. Simply reduce it down using distilled water to a whole milk like consistency. A 1:1 ratio (Water to Paint) will get you near to the consistency an airbrush requires, adjust as necessary. Be careful not to over reduce the product as this could result in structural problems of the gesso later on. Ideally, you would airbrush gesso using a 0.5mm needle and nozzle size, or larger. The larger needle and nozzle size will allow you to maintain a thicker viscosity, as gesso is better applied on the thicker side of the spectrum then the thinner.
✓ Gouache – Many apply Gouache using an airbrush by thinning it down using distilled water at a 1:1 (Gouache to Water) ratio. Target a milk like consistency. Though gouache is commonly a creamy consistency, it can be reduced down to work well with an airbrush. Given that gouache is basically a cousin to watercolors, It can be thinned out using water. That being said, you need to be careful not to add to much water, as this will make the medium binder poor.
✓ Latex Paint (Emulsion) – Commonly used for household projects, Latex paint can be applied using an airbrush. However, given the thick consistency of latex paint, you must thin it down in order for it to function well with an airbrush. You can use water to reduce latex paint for airbrush application. If you intend on airbrushing Latex paints, you must 1st ensure the paint is thoroughly mixed and stirred to a smooth consistency. Then thin it down to a milk like consistency and give it a go. You can fine tune the spray by either adjusting the air pressure or the paint consistency.
✓ Mod Podge – You can airbrush mod podge, by reducing it down using small amounts of water. Though, bringing mod podge down to a consistency required for airbrush use, you do run the risk of damaging its adhesion properties. For best results, use an airbrush equipped with a 0.5mm needle and nozzle or larger. This will allow you to stay on the thicker side of the airbrush viscosity spectrum. Target a Whole milk like consistency, and spray at a higher pressure. Say, 35 – 50 psi. Mod podge is intended to be a thicker consistency to form a thick layer over the surface it is being applied to. The thicker you can keep it the better, but in order to apply it with an airbrush you will need to reduce down the viscosity some.
✓ Varnish – You can airbrush varnish as it is a popular application method for many in the miniatures and model’s space. Ideally, you’d airbrush a varnish medium that is labeled airbrush ready. However, you can airbrush common place varnish as long as your able to get the consistency near to that of milk. The common intent behind using a varnish is to seal your artwork and make it durable for longevity purposes, correct? This makes it vital you clean the product out of your airbrush immediately when finished applying it, so it does not get the opportunity to dry in your airbrush. Simply, don’t allow varnish to have the time to dry in your expensive airbrush. It can be a bugger to remove when dry, and possibly deem the airbrush done for.
✓ Wood Stain – Though application of wood stain using an airbrush is less common, wood stain can be applied using an airbrush by thinning it out to a consistency near to that of milk. For oil-based stain’s use a solvent based thinner. Water-based products can use water for viscosity reduction. Given wood stain is naturally a thinner medium then most, it likely won’t take much to get the product airbrush worthy. That being said, careful not to over reduce the product as it will lose its structural integrity when dry.
✓ Cerakote – Cerakote is commonly applied using an airbrush, to apply Cerakote using an airbrush, the airbrush must be equipped with a 0.5mm needle and nozzle size or greater. Given the naturally thin viscosity of Cerakote, it can commonly be applied, as is, with minimal consistency manipulation. But it’s a good idea to test the ratios for best spray and durability on your intended application. Just know the products limits. A Gravity feed airbrush will commonly handle Cerakote better than a siphon feed, but both can be set up to work with it. The major difference is in the air pressure necessary to spray the product. For a gravity feed, start at 25psi and work your way up to a max of 35psi. For a siphon feed airbrush, start at 30 psi and work your way up to 45psi. You’re looking for a smooth consistent spray with good atomization and no hiccups. Always wear your Personal protective equipment when working with Cerakote.
✓ Duracoat – Duracoat is specifically designed to be applied using an airbrush or alternative paint sprayer. For airbrush application, reduce Duracoat paint near to the viscosity of milk then apply at 30psi using a gravity feed airbrush, or 45psi using a Siphon feed airbrush. After the application of Duracoat be sure to clean your airbrush thoroughly. Clean your airbrush using Duracoat reducer. (Available on Amazon) See current pricing here. When spraying Duracoat its always a good idea to have extra reducer on hand for cleanup purposes.
✓ Solvent-Based Paints – Solvent based paint can definitely be applied using an airbrush as long as it’s thinned down using either mineral spirits, white spirits or turpentine, and it is free of any debris that could potentially clog the airbrush during use. But do be sure to wear the appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) before spraying any solvent / oil based paints through your airbrush. As well ensure your working environment is up to par. Lots of ventilation, and away from any living space. Preferably spray out doors or in a garage with lots of air flow.
✓ Water-Based Paints – Water based paint is the go-to for most in the airbrush industry, its far safer than solvent based and with today’s advancements in paint technology, water-based is becoming close to possessing the same positive traits as solvent base without all the hazards. Personally speaking, I only use water-based paint unless I’m working a job that requires otherwise. But for the most part, water-based paint has made leaps and bounds in terms of usability and applications. For this reason, I recommend most to use water-based paint for airbrush applications.
Paints You Can’t Use In Your Airbrush:
✕ Glitter – Glitter is not recommended for airbrush use. Mediums such as glitter with Large particles will cause the airbrush to clog, spit, and likely sputter during use. If you must airbrush glitter, try it using an airbrush with a large needle & nozzle size of 0.5mm or larger. Though there is no guarantee it will work with your airbrush. But, you might be-able to make it work long enough to add that extra little bit of zest to your artwork.
✕ Metallic’s – It is not recommended that you airbrush metallic paints, as the large metallic particles will get stuck in the nozzle of the airbrush, causing it to clog during use. That being said, if you must airbrush metallic paints. At least, use a 0.5mm sized airbrush needle & nozzle, or larger. Though not guarantied to work, the bigger the needle and specifically, the nozzle, the greater the odds of the metallic flakes making it through the nozzle without clogging the airbrush. But I 100% recommend staying away from metallics if your using an airbrush with a needle & nozzle size smaller then 0.5mm.
As you can probably tell, the type of paint is not the deciding factor as to whether or not one type of paint can be airbrushed and another can’t.
The true deciding factor as to which paints can be airbrushed, and which can not, lies in whether or not the paint can or can’t be thinned out to the consistancy an airbrush requires (without damaging the paints structural integrity, making it binder poor).
Not all paints can be thinned out as thin as an airbrush requires. Most can, but not all. This is why I always recommend those testing new paint in their airbrush to do so on a scrap part. This way, if the paint does not hold up you will likely be able to tell once dry. By visually and physically testing the paint.
It is important to note, the further you reduce paint down, the closer you get to making it binder poor. Binder is the glue that keeps the pigment together. without it you’ll get opacity inconsistency as well as adhesion issues. If you worry about this, target a whole milk like consistancy with your paint, rather then a skim-milk like consistancy.
For further detail, and Illustration on how to thin paint for an airbrush. (Do check out my latest article on the topic).
Once you’ve got your paint thinned out correctly (To a milk like consistancy). Then its time to figure out the correct air pressure to airbrush at.
Generally speaking, the thicker the paint, the higher the air pressure required. The thinner the paint, the less air pressure required.
For those using a gravity feed airbrush. I recommend 20 psi for a skim-milk like consistancy paint, up to 40 psi for a whole-milk like consistancy paint.
For those using a siphon feed airbrush. I recommend 30 psi for a skim-milk like consistancy paint, up to 80 psi for a whole-milk like consistancy (Depending on the application).
For greater detail, and illustration on airbrush air pressure (Do check out my latest article on the topic).
And of course, once your finished using your airbrush. Always clean it thoroughly. Leaving a dirty airbrush even for a moment can make the cleaning process far more difficult. Depending on the paint your using, if left to dry in your airbrush, it can damage the airbrush so bad that the airbrush is no longer usable.
Please, if your unsure as to how to clean an airbrush correctly (Do review my latest post on the topic).
Cleaning is a simple task that can be performed quickly when done when the paint is still wet, but if left to dry it can take hours to clean. Or not even come clean, depending on the paint type used. So play it safe.
I hope you were able to find some value here! If you have any further questions regarding the airbrush do be sure to take a look around the website. Airbrush Insider is dedicated to helping all in the airbrush community!
This is Colt signing off!
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