Many consider the ability to airbrush a fine line to be the holy grail of detailed airbrush work, and quite frankly, I agree!
But lets face it, It’s not easy to airbrush a fine line. If you’ve given it a try, you have likely found this statement to be true. But don’t fret!
Today you will learn how to airbrush a fine line like a pro, you’ll learn all the intricate little details necessary for airbrushing fine lines. So, the next time you need a sharp thin line from your airbrush, your able to get it.
Short and sweet answer:
To airbrush fine lines, you must have the paint thinned out to a skim-milk consistency and air pressure set at 25psi for gravity feed users, or 35psi for siphon feed users. Distance the needle tip 3mm off the surface and gently pull back on the trigger while simultaneously moving across the surface.
Your probably thinking, that is better said than done… Right?
Truth be told, you’ll need a significant amount of practice in order to develop the skill of fine line and detail work with an airbrush.
But don’t be hard on yourself, if you don’t pick it up right away. Most take years to master and implement the fine line.
I’ll be honest, this is a long resource. But it is packed with vital information that will greatly aid you in airbrushing fine lines and detail. I reduced the content down as much as I could, but there are a lot of vital aspects to airbrush thin lines and fine detail.
When it comes to fine lines and detail using an airbrush. There are 4 major aspects to consider. Those include,
- Equipment Setup
- Paint Preparation
- Air Pressure
Airbrushing Fine Lines
To airbrush a fine line, you are going to be making micro movements of the airbrush trigger, while simultaneously moving back and forth across the painting surface in a smooth methodical manner.
For this reason, it is vital your airbrush is up to par. A slightly bent needle, or a bit of residual paint residue lodged in the inner orphases of the airbrush will make this task far more difficult.
First, you need to ensure your airbrush is prepared correctly, and up to the task.
1: Equipment Setup For Fine Lines
Commonly the first question asked when it comes to airbrushing fine lines is, what size airbrush needle do I need for fine lines?
An airbrush needle size of 0.35mm or smaller will work great for fine lines. Generally, the smaller the needle size, the thinner the line your able to airbrush.
But fine line work can even be achieved using a 0.5mm needle if everything aligns correctly. But smaller sizes work better.
That being said,
You will need a double action airbrush to pull off a rather satisfying thin line. A single action airbrush can pull a thin line to a degree, but the fine line is far best achieved using a double action airbrush. If you’d like, Here is a link to the airbrush I’m currently using for any fine line work and/or detail work I do.
Preparing Your Airbrush For Fine Lines
To prevent skipping, spitting, or sputtering of the airbrush mid stroke, as well as give you the best overall experience airbrushing detail. Please review the following to ensure your airbrush & equipment is ready for fine lines and detail work.
Start With A Clean Airbrush
There is nothing more frustrating than trying to pull a fine line with a dirty airbrush. Residual dry paint from a prior work event will make the airbrush stick and sputter during use. You could have everything right, your paint consistency on point, air pressure dialed just right… But if you’ve got a dirty airbrush, trying to pull a thin line is going to be enough to drive one crazy. Clean your airbrush thoroughly before fine detail work if necessary.
Verify Airbrush Assembly & Functionality
Proper airbrush assembly and functionality is crucial to spraying thin lines. Air leaks, Loose components and incorrectly oriented parts are all big no no’s for fine detail work. On that same tangent, the condition of your airbrush will play a large part on whether or not your able to effortlessly pull a fine line. A bent needle, cracked or disformed nozzle, burs or other imperfections will impact how your airbrush sprays paint. Before airbrushing detail ensure all airbrush parts are true and functioning as expected.
Lubricate The Airbrush If Needed
Any sort of sticking, binding or snagging of airbrush components will cause headache when painting fine detail, and thin lines. Such conditions will make paint delivery difficult to control and unpredictable. Every now and then, I’ll put a drop of this lube in my airbrush trigger socket, spring, and a light coat on the entire needle. This makes for smoother action, and better control.
Verify Compressor & Regulator Is Functioning As Expected
Air pressure, and the management of said air pressure is vital for fine line and detail work. Fine line work with an airbrush requires just the right amount of pressure. Too much, and you’ll get what’s known as spidering (Where the paint puddles on your artwork and the rush of air blows it all over your piece). Too little air pressure and you won’t get good atomization of the paint (Large droplets of paint). Simply, ensure your air compressor & pressure regulator is functioning and reading correctly.
Adjusting Your Airbrush For Fine Lines
There isn’t much that needs to be adjusted on an airbrush in order to spray fine lines. However, I do have some tips in relation to adjusting your airbrush to make fine lines much easier to achieve.
Gently Seat The Airbrush Needle Into The Nozzle
Gently seat your airbrush needle into the nozzle then tighten down the needle chuck to lock it into place. When reassembling their airbrush, many force the needle into the nozzle. This can not only damage the needle or nozzle, but make it feel as if the trigger is sticking during use.
This happens, because each time the airbrush trigger is seated fully forward it forces the tip of the needle into the nozzle tightly which then creates friction trying to pull it back out every time you pull back on the trigger for paint. To eliminate this, remove the handle, loosen the needle chucking nut, pull the needle out / back slightly, then gently seat the needle into the nozzle and reassemble the airbrush.
Soften The Trigger Spring Tension
You can reduce the trigger spring compression to make minor movements of the trigger easier on your finger for an extended period of time.
Every airbrush is different, but most rely on a spring to reset the trigger to the closed position. Often times you can reduce the tension put on the trigger by loosening the needle spring guide for easier, more comfortable micro movements of the trigger, over an extended period of time.
Some will go as far as exchanging the current spring in their airbrush for a softer one.
Remove The Needle Cap / Needle Guard
Remove the needle cap / guard on the front of the airbrush so you can better predict where the spray is going to hit when at close distance from the paint surface. And to make removing tip dry easier.
The needle cap, otherwise known as the needle guard (Located at the tip of the airbrush) can be a large nuisance when airbrushing fine lines and detail. Given you are very close to the surface (Sometimes as little as 1mm off the surface). Removing the needle cap gives you better accuracy when laying down a fine line. Plus, it allows you to clean off tip dry as it occurs.
Swap Needle & Nozzle Sizes (Not Commonly Necessary)
Though not commonly necessary, there is the option of changing the needle and nozzle size in your airbrush to a smaller size that is better suited for fine lines and detail work.
In order to do this, you must change the needle, nozzle, and entire tip assembly to a smaller size.
Most will have a second airbrush that is equipped with a smaller needle and nozzle from the factory (for example 0.2mm), that they’ll use for fine detail. But there is the option to convert the one you’ve got if you’ve only got the one.
2: Paint Prep For Fine Lines (Paint Viscosity)
Paint viscosity, and paint prep is one of the biggest variables to achieving fine lines with an airbrush. To thick of paint will make fine lines impossible. That being said, to thin of paint will spray well, but result in binder poor paint to which won’t hold up over time and use. You need to target a paint viscosity that sprays well, but is still binder stable.
Preparing Your Paint For Fine Lines
To give your self the greatest odds of achieving fine lines and detail with an airbrush, you must do everything you can to mitigate the pitfalls. That starts with the paint you use, and the condition of said paint.
Shake Your Paint Well
To airbrush fine lines, you must start with smooth (clump free) paint. Though you can shake your paint by hand, it will take a significant amount of time and effort to get the paint thoroughly mixed and airbrush ready.
Clumps and other debris in your airbrush paint will cause the airbrush to sputter or even clog under extreme circumstances. This is experienced to a greater extent when trying to airbrush fine lines and detail.
I personally have modified a Sawzall to work as a paint shaker. But any hobby paint shaker can work great for this. If you can, I highly recommend getting yourself a paint shaker if you intend on airbrushing a lot of fine detail. Here is a great option for small hobby paints, or you can build yourself a DIY paint shaker.
Strain Your Paint If Necessary
If your paint is old and containing clumps that will not shake out, you can try straining your paint using one of these. Though you should use fresh paint for fine lines and detail work, you sometimes can revive old paint by straining out the clumps.
Any micro clumps floating in your paint will cause the airbrush to sputter at least, and clog at most.
Reducing Paint For Fine Lines (Ratios)
Thinning out the paint is the most vital part to achieving fine lines with an airbrush. As I’ve said before, paint that is too thick will not spray through the airbrush, and paint that is too thin will end up binder poor. Meaning the glue in the paint is so diluted with reducer that, once dry, the paint will not hold up to common use.
For a complete walk through on thinning out paint for an airbrush check out my latest post on the topic.
It’s likely going to take some trial and error before you find correct paint viscosity for fine line work. Aim for a skim-milk like consistency for fine lines and detail work. I say “a skim-milk like consistency” rather than a whole-milk consistency because skim is thinner then whole but not as thin as water. Though a water like consistency would spray great through an airbrush. Thinning out your paint to a water like consistency will likely make the paint binder poor resulting in issues with the paint once dry.
I personally airbrush createx illustration colors. I’ve found I’m able to airbrush fine lines with this paint quite well using a 0.35mm airbrush needle at a 1:4 ratio (paint to reducer).
Though this ratio of, 1 part paint to 4 parts reducer, works well for Createx paint. There is no guarantee it will work for the paint your using. As different paint makers bottle their paint at a different viscosity then others.
Paint viscosity is key to achieving fine lines using an airbrush. Too thick of paint, and it will not flow through the airbrush in a consistently manageable manor. For fine detail work you must target a very thin, almost water like consistency, but careful not to go quite that far.
It’s difficult to say a specific ratio to go by (paint : thinner) for fine lines. As different paint’s will be at different viscosity straight from the bottle. For this reason, your going to have to experiment for a bit to find the perfect ratio for you.
Start with a 1:1 ratio then 1:2 then 1:3 then 1:4 then 1:5 then 1:6… (paint to reducer). You’ll hit a point where the paint flows well, atomization is good, and the paint is consistently released at the same point in the trigger throw each time you pull back (Likely just off fully seated forward).
Generally speaking, a 1:2 up to 1:6 ratio (Paint to thinner) will be the range to work within. But paint lines such as Com-art colors can spray fine line and detail work virtually straight from the bottle.
When testing reduction ratios for fine lines. You’re looking for,
- smooth paint delivery from the airbrush. (No sputtering or pulses of paint at the start or end of your lines)
- consistent paint release at the same point on the trigger throw. Commonly when airbrushing thicker paint, it will be difficult to know at what point throughout the trigger throw, paint will begin to spray from the airbrush. If you find this to be the case, you need to thin the paint further. I can almost guarantee you will experience this (unless your using a paint like “Com-art” which is very thin from the bottle).
It is important to test your paint viscosity with your air pressure set around 25 – 30psi for gravity feed airbrush users, and 30 – 35psi for siphon feed airbrush users.
Oh, and test you paint viscosity by trying to airbrush thin lines. Close proximity to the surface, pulling back slightly, and watching how the paint hits the surface.
Opt for a slow drying reducer or flow aid
Lastly, opt for a slow drying reducer or flow aid product if possible. This will reduce tip dry, and aid in smooth, consistent paint flow from the airbrush.
Many water-based airbrush ready paints will call for a specific reducer, commonly made by the paint maker themselves. These reducers commonly are formulated using a significant amount of rubbing alcohol or related element to speed up the dry time of said paint. Using a paint retarder, can slow the dry time down and reduce tip dry.
Or simply mix 1:1 (Reducer to Distilled Water), Having more water in the reducer will slow down the dry time as water dries slower than alcohol (which is a common ingredient in water-based reducers). Some use straight distilled water for their water-based paint reduction needs.
What Proper Paint Viscosity Sprays Like
You’ll know your at, or close to the correct paint viscosity for fine lines when, you go to airbrush a thin line and the paint effortlessly leaves the tip of the airbrush with very minimal trigger movement. As well, you will have no paint sputtering (or pulsing) from the airbrush at any point when creating a line.
Properly thinned airbrush paint for detail work will make the airbrush trigger feel sensitive, concise and consistent to minor changes in trigger input.
For example: Thin paint will flow from the airbrush even when the airbrush trigger is pulled back ever so slightly. Where as, paint that is to thick will not flow from the airbrush nozzle until the trigger is pulled back significantly.
What Improper Paint Viscosity Sprays Like
Commonly paint that is too thick for fine lines will sputter (or pulse) mid-way through a line and very commonly at the end of a line.
As well, it will feel as if you must pull the airbrush trigger back significantly before you get any paint to release from the tip of the airbrush.
Either of these symptoms means you must add more reducer to your paint.
3: Air Pressure For Fine Lines
Working simultaneously alongside paint viscosity is air pressure.
Over time you will find, there is a push, pull relationship between paint viscosity and air pressure.
Commonly, the thinner the paint viscosity, the less air pressure required to propel the paint from the airbrush.
And vice versa, the thicker the paint viscosity, the greater air pressure required to propel the paint from the airbrush.
Setting Your Air Pressure For Fine Lines
Start at the low end of the airbrush air pressure spectrum and work your way up till you reach optimum paint atomization and spray pattern.
- For gravity feed airbrush users, start your air pressure at 15psi. This will be the low end of the pressure spectrum for gravity feed users. Don’t go over 35psi, this is the high end of the pressure spectrum for gravity feed users. (In relation to fine detail pressure)
- For siphon feed airbrush users, start your air pressure at 25psi. This will be the low end of the pressure spectrum for siphon feed users. Don’t go over 45psi, this is the high end of the pressure spectrum for siphon feed users (In relation to fine detail pressure)
You will start at the low end of the pressure spectrum and increase the pressure slowly till you reach optimal atomization and spray.
But careful not to go too high with the air pressure, otherwise you’ll get what is known as “spidering“. In simple terms, the paint puddles on the surface then blows into stringy lines that look like spider webs. Though this is likely to happen if you stay in one place for too long no matter the pressure level. Spidering occurs far greater when the air pressure is too high.
To airbrush fine lines and detail, gravity feed airbrush users will be between 20psi and 30psi. Whereas siphon feed airbrush users will be between 25psi & 35psi.
I personally use a gravity feed airbrush with a 0.35mm needle. I find that 30psi is about right for me. However, smaller needle sizes such as 0.2mm can utilize less air pressure for the same output.
It will likely take some time along with a hint of trial & error before you begin to understand how air pressure impacts the different ways at which paint sprays from an airbrush.
What Proper Air Pressure Sprays Like
You’ll know air pressure is correct or close when you go to airbrush a thin line and the paint leaves the tip of the airbrush with very minimal trigger movement, and the paint is atomized into small droplets that are virtually undetectable by the naked eye. But careful, to great of air pressure can result in excessive over spray.
What Improper Air Pressure Sprays Like
As briefly stated above, If your air pressure is set too high, you’ll have a significant amount of overspray, and a greater likelihood of “spidering” (Paint pooling then skating across the surface, creating what looks like spider webs).
If your pressure is set to low, you’ll have lagging trigger response, and little paint atomization. Resulting in difficulty knowing at which point in the trigger throw you’ll get paint discharge. As well, little paint atomization will make your artwork appear polka-dotted to an extent.
4: Technique For Fine Lines
Last, but definitely not least is technique.
Believe it or not, there is a level of skill and technique that needs to be developed before you can airbrush a consistently flawless thin line.
Before you develop the technique required to airbrush fine lines you must first ensure you are holding the airbrush correctly, and in a manner that is comfortable for you. Due to the micro movements of fine detail work, If you aren’t holding the airbrush correctly your hand will begin to cramp and fatigue quickly.
Anyway, lets begin.
As you probably know, You must be very close to the painting surface in order to airbrush a fine line. I’m talking millimeters from the surface.
Depending on the thickness of line you are trying to achieve. You’ll be closer or further from the surface.
For instance, say your trying to get a pencil thin line. To do this you’ll have to place the airbrush needle tip 1mm to 3mm off the surface. Depending on the size of needle equipped in the airbrush. Commonly, the smaller the needle size the further you can be from the painted surface for finer lines and detail work, when compared to a larger 0.35mm needle.
Trigger control is vital to airbrush thin lines and detail work.
In order to achieve quality line work and detail within close quarters, small movements of the trigger go a long way.
Most that initially try to airbrush thin lines and detail commonly struggle by pulling to far back on the trigger, resulting in too much paint that pools and skates / smears across the surface.
When airbrushing fine lines, you must be very mindful of your trigger control. Minor inputs go a long way when airbrushing close to the surface.
Obviously to pull a line, you must move across the surface. Staying stationary will simply paint a dot.
Proper movement is key to pulling off a perfect line.
In order to airbrush a line (specifically a fine line) you must first start moving across the surface before you begin to put down paint. This will ensure you do not create what is known as a “Dog bone” line (A “dog bone” is a line with a dot at each end, this occurs when one begins and ends a line without consistent movement from paint start to stop).
Next is movement speed,
Movement speed (the speed at which you move across the surface) along with trigger control both play a large part in creating a smooth well formed line.
Commonly speaking, the slower you move across the surface, the less paint you’ll need (Pull back less on the trigger). The quicker you move across the surface the more paint you’ll need (Pull back more on the trigger).
To much paint at to slow of movement speed will result in “spidering”, where the paint puddles and skates across the surface.
For beginners, its best to move slowly, and develop trigger control.
Commonly when the airbrush is used for line work, the artist will build up the paint with many passes. This means, tracing back over an already painted line.
Re-tracing a line can get very difficult for fine lines and detail if you don’t have a steady hand, and the necessary hand eye coordination required to accurately hit your target each time you pull back on the trigger.
To develop better tracing skills with an airbrush. Simply draw some lines with a pencil then using your airbrush go back and trace said pencil lines. Try to keep the line as thin as possible. You’ll find in the beginning the first pass is easy to keep thin but as you build up the paint with multiple passes, the line thickness will increase, do your best to avoid this.
You need to be accurate with where you start and stop your lines. In order to do so, your movement and trigger timing need to be on point. So you start a line where you need it and end it where you need it ended.
Otherwise you’ll have line flares that damage the intended look you were going for.
Take airbrushing a simple square for example. All 4 lines must start and stop at the same point at all 4 corners, otherwise the square will not look like a square.
You can practice your accuracy by taking a sheet of paper, and drawing to vertical lines exactly parallel from one another, then paint many multiple lines vertically from one horizontal line to the other, trying to start and stop your airbrush lines exactly on the vertical lines. You can do this exercise vertically (up and down) as well.
Learning to airbrush fine lines and detail can be difficult, but by thinning out your paint to a skim-milk like consistency, setting your air pressure at 30psi, and developing good airbrush trigger control, stability control and practicing lots.
Anyone can put down thin lines and exquisite detail with their airbrush.
Though there are a multitude of different factors & aspects to consider in order to pull a thin line using an airbrush. The most important factors to consider are,
- Equipment Condition – fine detail work requires quality and well-maintained equipment. A cheap, dirty, or damaged airbrush will make achieving fine lines far more difficult and less consistent.
- Paint viscosity – for fine lines and detail work you must thin out your paint as much as you can without breaking down the paint. Thin paint works far better for fine detail then thick paint…
- Air pressure – It’s best to use a lower air pressure for fine lines and detail so to reduce overspray, and limit “spidering”.
- Technique – Understanding proper technique will not only make achieving fine detail possible. It makes the process far more efficient and enjoyable.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, airbrushing fine lines and detail is no easy task. But by following these rules and putting in a lot of practice. You’ll become very effective with the airbrush.
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: