Airbrushing is an important skill for any artist. Aside from the practicalities of covering a large surface area in a shorter time than you could manage with a regular brush, there are certain visual effects that you can only achieve with an airbrush. We’re going to look at five simple techniques that every airbrush artist should master: five fundamentals of airbrushing that produce incredible results.
Your airbrushing kit
Before you can try any of these methods, you’re going to need an airbrush and, to make it easy for you, we’re going to keep this simple.
The best set-up for a novice airbrush artist is a simple gravity feed, in which the paint is held on the top of the airbrush so that it can flow down into the brush itself. A dual-action trigger is also recommended, as it offers greater control of your paint, allowing you to adjust the amount of air and paint that comes out. You should invest in a good range of needles, with some for spraying larger areas and some for detail work. We would also advise getting an airbrush with a needle-stop, as this can improve your precision regarding the flow of paint, but it is not essential, at least to start with.
Add an air compressor, a cleaning cup, and a set of paints, and you’re ready to go.
Technique #1: Easter eggs
With this method, you don’t even need to use paints. If you’re using real eggs, food colouring will work just as well, as it adheres to the shell like paint.
Add lines, swirls, and other design elements to the egg with wax crayons. The food colouring will not stick to the waterproof crayon, so the design will stand out from the background. Water down some food colouring to form a light pastel shade, and make a couple of passes over the egg with your airbrush. Once you’re satisfied, fill the airbrush with a less dilute colouring for a brighter hue and overspray the original coat. This produces an interesting marbled effect on the shell instead of a block of colour.
Technique #2: Airbrushing a helmet
Motorbike helmets are a great surface for airbrushing, but require some skill to get right, and not just in the design: preparation is everything. You need to remove the visor and fresh-air duct, wipe down the helmet with solvent, and mask over all of the openings so the interior of the helmet is sealed.
The effect you’re after is that the helmet is a certain colour, with a design or logo superimposed on top. In fact, you’re going to do it the other way round. Once you’re satisfied with your surface (remember, you’ll want to sand down the helmet with a 400-grit or finer sandpaper, to give the paint something to adhere to), make sure you have your decals ready for layering your design from the ground up.
Prime the helmet with three layers of undercoat. If any of that undercoat colour is to be part of your design, apply the decals now, covering up the relevant areas and protecting them from the next coat. Spray the helmet in whatever colour you intend for the next layer of your design and, once dry, apply the next layer of decals to be highlighted in this second colour. Keep going, layer by layer, painting, drying and applying decals until your logo is complete. Finally, go over everything with your helmet’s base colour, filling in all the gaps around the decals.
When you peel the decals away, one layer at a time, you’ll see your logo reveal itself in reverse order.
Technique #3: Flames
This technique is the opposite of the decal method described above.
Start with a painted background and a focal point for your design: a skull, a playing card, an eight-ball…whatever takes your fancy. Tape your stencil shape to the surface, mask the background, and airbrush it however you wish.
Once dry, it’s time to add the flames. You can cut out your own flame stencils, or buy commercial stencils from various vendors. Apply the stencil over the unmasked focal design and spray over with a contrasting colour to the main shade to produce a stark flame pattern across the focal point.
Once dry, cover the focal point with masking film, and unmask the rest of the flame stencil so that it covers the background. Airbrush with your colour of choice, applying an accent to the edge of the flames with a complementary colour.
When you remove the masking film, the flames appear to rise up from the bottom of the background, crossing your focal design in the contrasting outline, before returning to living fire on the other side.
Technique #4: Metallic surfaces
Metallic surfaces come in two forms – matte and reflective – and both can be rendered with an airbrush, with a little bit of patience and practice.
Matte surfaces are easiest. All you need to do is spray a vignette of colour, increasing the flow of paint as you move from light to dark. The lighter area is the point where light hits the metallic surface, and the darker area where it falls into shadow. The airbrush’s natural dot pattern will add to the illusion of a metallic finish.
Reflective metals require more effort at the planning stage. Start off by creating a matte metallic surface as discussed above. Once dry, cover the surface with masking film and cut a line to match the curve of the object you’re painting. Peel back the top layer and paint dark blue along the cut line. Once dry, reapply the film and peel back the bottom layer, spraying light brown paint along the line. With the film removed you’ll see a natural horizon, where the metallic surface reflects the background – the blue line indicating the sky and the brown indicating the ground.
Technique #5: Lightning
An easy one to end on.
Start with a dark background, onto which you will apply a single line of white paint, starting from the top and moving down, branching into separate forks as you go.
Next, emphasise the joints by adding small circles of white paint, giving the lightning an organic quality as it bulges with every split from the main bolt.
Finally, give the whole thing a gentle misting of blue paint to give it that electric blue tinge.
So there you have it – five simple airbrushing techniques that form the foundations for any aspiring airbrush artist. Have a go at them yourself and see where they take you.