Does An Airbrush Need A Compressor? (Alternatives)

A question that is often asked by many who are new to airbrushing is: Does my airbrush need an air compressor? Or, do all airbrushes require the assistance of a compressor?

And I’m assuming you are here because you wonder one of these questions, or have a similar one.

Well lets discuss this in detail,

As a matter of fact when it comes to doing any sort of airbrush work, there is a level of pressurized air that is always required in order to operate the airbrush. Doesn’t matter if you are using a gravity feed airbrush, siphon feed airbrush, or side feed airbrush. All require pressurized air to operate.

Now, do all airbrushes require the use of a compressor. Well no, airbrushes don’t necessarily need a compressor to operate. However, they do need pressurized air, which can be acquired using pressurized air canisters, or by using a CO2 tank. But an air compressor is most commonly used.

Why The Airbrush Needs Compressed Air

Compressed air helps greatly in the Atomization process. Which is the process of breaking up the paint into much smaller, “micro” particles utilizing pressurized air flow.

Which is the basis of using an airbrush. Any other way of painting wouldn’t be considered “Air” Brushing.

Without the use of compressed air. The paint would basically drip out of the nozzle as you pull the trigger back.

I don’t know about you. But me personally, I would find it quite difficult using an airbrush if the paint only dripped from the nozzle, rather then atomized…

Quick Note:

Though all airbrush makes and models require pressurized air, The Gravity-feed airbrush does require less PSI then other options (Siphon & Side Feed)

Here’s why

The gravity feed airbrush got its name because it employ’s gravity to get the paint into the atomization chamber (Read this article about the gravity feed airbrush for further explanation).

Because of this it allows the artist to use less air pressure then they would if using a siphon feed or side feed airbrush. Simply because, siphon and side fed airbrushes require added pressure to pull the paint into the atomization chamber. Where as the gravity feed airbrush utilizes gravity to do so.

I believe this is the main reason as to why some wonder if they can get away with airbrushing without the aid of compressed air? Due to some making the assumption that the gravity feed airbrush works off of gravity alone. But compressed air is always required, its just the amount of presser that can change depending on application and desired output.

Now lets talk alittle about the different compressed air options you have to pair with your airbrush.

Do keep in mind the gravity fed airbrush is able to use the following compressed air options, simply because it requires less air pressure then the other airbrush options. Granted you could get the following to work with say a siphon feed airbrush. However, the air consumption will be significantly increased due to the requirement of more air pressure in order to operate.

Compressed Air Options Suited For Airbrush Use

First of all, its important that I explain the amount of air consumption that will be required from each airbrush type before we discuss the options, this way you can gain an understanding as to how much air will be consumed per airbrush type. Because when using air sources that are non-refillable (on their own) you will at some point run out of air.

  • First is the gravity feed airbrush. It typically requires 15 – 30 PSI for operation.
  • Second is the side feed airbrush. It typically requires 20 – 35 PSI for operation.
  • Third is the siphon feed airbrush. It typically requires 30 – 45 PSI for operation.

This basically says that the gravity feed airbrush will require less air for operation then the other 2 feed options. Which means the gravity feed airbrush will be able to work for a longer period of time when using a compressed air canister or CO2 Tank (As discussed below).

Based on the numbers above you can get a better understanding as to how long the following air sources will last per airbrush type you use.

Now lets discuss some alternative air sources you could consider:

Airbrush Propellant

Airbrush propellant can act as a replacement for an air compressor. But only for a very short duration of time. Air propellant cans are ideal for those who intend on airbrushing for a short duration of time (small projects).

Airbrush propellant cans are essentially like a can of spray paint, but instead of housing paint they house compressed air.

What makes airbrush propellant so desirable to some is the fact that it is so easy to transport, And provides the means to save money (on small 1 time projects). However, if you intend on doing more than just one simple project the cons begin to far outweigh the pros.

Quick Side Note: Airbrush propellant can be difficult to take on airplanes. Many say it makes security edgy.

Airbrush propellant cans typically cost somewhere around $10 a can. Can be cheaper if bought in bulk. But that $10 cost can begin to add up if you intend on doing multiple airbrush projects using airbrush propellant cans. They typically only last about 10 to 15 minutes of average airbrush use, so essentially you are paying a dollar per minute to use your air brush. 

Multiple decent-sized projects can easily add up to $50 plus in airbrush propellant. (That is basically alittle over half the cost of an average airbrush compressor!)

If you intend on using your airbrush often, I strongly suggest you avoid using only airbrush propellant cans (Pressurized air cans). Simply because, in the long-term, the added cost up front of say a compressor will be far cheaper than the option of purchasing airbrush propellant canisters every couple days or weeks.  The major pros and cons of “airbrush propellant” are as follows:

PROS Of Airbrush Propellant:

Cheap – if you intend on doing only 1 small airbrush project
Quiet – no noise other than airflow
Easily Portable – light weight & small
No Need For Moisture Trap

CONS Of Airbrush Propellant:

Expensive – if you intend on doing multiple projects
Minimal Use Per Can – only 10 – 15 minutes of average airbrush use
Air Pressure Drops As The Canister Empties
Canister Gets Cold During Use

Large CO2 Tanks

This is basically like using an extra large airbrush propellant canister, to which typically comes in the size of a spray paint can, but only last upwards of 10 to 15 minutes as stated above.

The major differences between using an airbrush propellant can, and a large CO2 tank is the fact of size, as well as the amount of pressure that is compressed inside (CO2 tanks usually can withstand a significant more air pressure then airbrush propellant cans).

Depending on the size of CO2 tank you opt for, the amount of use you get out of each fill can substantially increase.

Simply put, a 5 gallon tank can last anywhere upwards of a few days (of extensive use) or more depending on the amount of time spent airbrushing and pressure consumption. The bigger the tank the longer it will last…

I personally have never tried using a CO2 tank as an air supply for my airbrush, however I have seen other airbrush artists employ this idea. Based on their experience, I believe using a large CO2 tank is a more viable option than that of using airbrush propellant canisters. Plus CO2 tanks are re-fillable.

However, the major downside about using large CO2 tanks is the fact of size and weight. Now, simply using a 5 gallon tank can still be quite easily transported, however any larger than that and it becomes more difficult to transport your compressed air. 

The major pros and cons of using large CO2 tanks

PROS Of CO2 Tanks:

Transportable – depending on the size of tank
Longer Use Time – when compared to airbrush propellant cans
Silent – no noise other than airflow
No Need For Moisture Trap
Cheaper Long Term Than Airbrush Propellant

CONS Of CO2 Tanks:

Larger & Heavier Than Airbrush Propellant
Added Cost Up Front – cost of tank, and regulators
Requires Re-fill Occasionally

For more about using CO2 tanks check out the video below provided by brett g. He is one that uses CO2 for airbrushing and enjoys it!

Video By Brett G. “Alternative to air compressors”

Air Compressors – Best Option For Most

For most who have the intention of airbrushing often, I strongly recommend the use of an air compressor. Air compressors come in a variety of different sizes and specs. But for the most part they are reliable, and cheaper long-term.

Now, given the fact that there is such a large variety of air compressors available on the market today, I find it most viable for the majority who get involved in airbrushing to opt for an air compressor. The pros of an air compressor far outweigh the use of compressed air canisters and tanks

Compressors for the most part are much cheaper long term, and with all the different options available today, you will most likely be able to find one that checks all the boxes

PROS Of Airbrush Compressors:

Long Lasting
Much Cheaper Long Term
Variety Of Different Options Available
Easily Transported – small ones
Quiet – today they have compressors under 60db
Requires Minimal Maintenance

CONS Of Airbrush Compressors

Quiet Compressors Cost More
Added Noise – when compared to pressurized tanks
Heavy – depending on the size


The reason as to why all airbrushes require the assistance of compressed air is simply to provide force to make the paint spray / Atomize rather than drip from the nozzle of the airbrush. That being said, as stated above, “gravity-fed airbrushes require less psi (pounds per square inch)” but they do still require the use of pressurized air… 

But just because an airbrush requires pressurized air, does not mean it requires the assistance of an air compressor. Granted compressors are likely the best option for many, they are not the only option.

As listed above there are a few methods that can be employed in order to gain access to compressed air, and if you intend on using other methods then simply an air compressor. Then odds are, a gravity feed airbrush is likely going to be the best option, simply because it can operate on lower air pressure. Which means you will be able to get more use out of compressed air tanks then you would using a siphon feed airbrush. 

Anyway, 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!

Check Out Some Of My Favorite Airbrush Equipment:


Hello, My Name Is Colt. I have always had an interest in the artistic, and creative side of things. But personally, I enjoy the process of shading and using gradients in order to achieve a photo realistic, 3D image of my choosing! That is the why I employ the airbrush every time I work! I have found the process of Airbrushing to be very therapeutic, and allows me to utilize the creative side of my brain to a greater extent! If you'd like to learn more about me, be sure to check me out over on my About Page

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