16 insights: What I learned in my 5 years of airbrushing

Franc Kaiser

Air-Valve Autobot!
As of this month, I am entering my 5 year anniversary with this medium… yay! 😊 It has been a thrilling ride, my love for airbrushing has gotten deeper by the minute, and I don’t see an end of this love affair in sight yet. I thought that now would be a good time to reflect what I learned in all this time, and maybe this would be helpful for our dear airbrushing community to reflect on it as well.

Please mind that I am not teaching anybody or it should be understood as my way of indoctrinating anybody; it’s simply my own notes to myself, reflecting on what works for me and what helps me to push forward. The first and the last two tips I find essential.

  1. Less is more. The more I progress, the less paint I apply on the substrate. Previously I pumped all the ink in the chamber onto the substrate, no matter what. Now I probably get through the same painting with half or less volume of paint. I realized that it normally only requires one light pass to achieve what you want, not 3 or 4 repeated passes. It is important to apply constraint, and not simply plaster some area because you can. This will also help to mitigate the old problem of “going too dark”.

  1. Do the background first. When an object is in the foreground of a “complicated” background, then it may be easier to tackle the background first and leave the foreground object once the background is firmly established. I don’t always follow this rule, but it is one of the first questions I am asking myself when deciding how to paint something – background first or foreground first. Typically, if the background has lighter values than the foreground, it is safe to do the background first, as darker colors will cover the background in an easier way. If the background is dark and the foreground object is light, then I go the other way round, but then I make sure the foreground object is masked well before laying in the background.

  1. Give the paint time to breathe and dry. Acrylics is such a forgiving type of paint, and seemingly you can move on within minutes, adding further layers. I found that this is not always true. After blocking in a solid background, I tend to give it time to dry overnight. This way, it will be really dry and solid the next day and subsequent erasing into new layers will not drill into the first layer.

  1. Masking isn’t cheating. In my earlier years, I always considered the application of masking, friskets, stencils etc. as “cheating”. When doing fine art, many people have this attitude and they are very high-brow… they don’t want to be in the same mold as motorcycle pinstripers. That’s all false pride, really. Many contemporary artists (also, outside the airbrush realm) use masking tape and all kinds of tools to create hard lines, straight lines, and to avoid coverage of objects by color. Some people think it takes way too long to cut out a frisket or tape everything up as they want to paint, not do some pedestrian work first. You may get away with it when painting animals and organic objects, but so far I don’t see any other way to recreate the feel of technical objects without the use of some sort of taping or frisking tools. I still get the a subconscious feeling of guilt when removing the tape around a painted spaceship these days, but again, the artist’s biggest critic is himself.

  1. Avoiding overspray. When applying a stencil, I make sure it is right on the substrate. In the past I applied paper with some scotch tape underneath, but then the edges are still not all way down and risk overspray areas. The best way is of course some masking film or film frisket but I don’t have that tool. I am cutting out the object (a negative stencil) and cut little triangle holes around the object, which are then covered with tape. I do triangles because they’re easy to cut with the knife.

  1. Use white sparingly. Ok, so we all know the unwanted blueshift of an opaque color such as white over a darker area – there is a lot written here in this form about it, and how to mitigate it. Nevertheless, I love to use white, but I try to limit it as much as possible… less because of blueshift (which can be actually a desired cool effect) but because the painting gets inevitably grainy which each pass. The best option is to avoid white paint altogether by either not painting bright areas (leave them “blank”) or to use erasers to remove the paint from it. It is better to go “light to dark” in any case – this approach lends itself best to airbrushing.
 
  1. Buffering is very effective. For a long time I primarily worked with transparent colors. This is nice, and can result in great outcomes. However, I started to add on one drop of white or grey to the transparent color, which has the great advantage of being more opaque and especially shifting the values into a more realistic realm. The new problem it creates is that darker areas can’t be simply over-sprayed and may need to be cleaned up later on.

  1. Use black sparingly. Black is an easy color because it solves all the details you didn’t want to work on, but the outcome may be very flat. I rarely use real black – I found the Golden Color black to be create a strange shift. Instead use other colors – several passes will make them darker anyway. If some black or really dark values are needed, I use a mix of medium with black ink, but again very sparingly.

  1. Reality is not a comic strip. Don’t paint black outlines to any object. I was often tempted to do it because of the lines of sketch to accentuate the outline. In reality, no objects have black outlines as you would see them in a comic.

  1. Study the color values. If I want to recreate a certain color value, I zoom into the reference picture (on an ipad or laptop) until I see large pixels only. That pixel shows me the color in a box, so to speak, and it is often surprisingly different from what I thought it should be. For example, I started to use blue or yellow more although I didn’t notice is to be initially. A lot of this goes against our intuition, but sometimes there is blue in there for a cooler value.

  1. Air on, trigger back. I don’t know how many splatters I created by not following the ancient rule of pressing down first and only then pulling back. I was (and probably am) very erratic in the handling of the airbrush, and guilty of violating the first rule of airbrushing. Lots of tip dry / sprinkles of substrate problem can be solved with this rule right away.

  1. Make the trigger release softer. It took me years to figure out that you don’t need to screw the adjustment screw of the spring housing / spring case until the max. The more screwed up it is, the more immediate the release of paint. The less you screw it on, the finer and smoother the release, and hence better control. See my first point… you don’t need so much paint anyway.

  1. Increase pressure for larger areas. With more experience, the further away the airbrush tends to be from substrate; lightly coating something from a fair distance. Depending on the color mix and compressor / mac-valve settings, you need to increase pressure otherwise the droplets dry mid-way before hitting the substrate, creating an unwanted grainy effect.

  1. It’s ok to use other tools. I am not a die-hard airbrusher – other tools such as traditional brushes, pens and so on have their merits, and why not throw them into the mix if it help to get something done in a more convenient way. I still have more control over a traditional brush when working on details than using the heavy airbrush. I use felt pens and a ruler for some lines and contours on technical objects. If you create a cool painting, nobody will disqualify your outcome because you didn’t use the airbrush for everything… those who do so are idiots, in my opinion.

  1. It always looks awkward until it’s done. There were so many paintings I wanted to abort 10 minutes, 1 hour, and 10 hours into it, because they didn’t have the right feel or did simply underwhelm my expectations. We’re all primed and conditioned by watching Youtube videos where each stroke and step looks amazing. Good for them, but the reality is different for most of us. Many paintings look rather ghastly before things come together in the end. This requires discipline and, especially, confidence that the end-result will pay off. You have to keep believing in your approach and build up the scenery slowly. You can only judge if it works once you have actually completed it – aborting midway will not teach you anything. Also: If I would give up mid-way because of some mistake made then I would never have finished any painting.

  1. Don’t rush it but enjoy the process. I am speaking from the comfort zone of not having any imposed deadline on a painting… except for my own mental one and the lack of patience to seeing cool stuff emerge in front of my eyes. It is so important to slow things down, and to take a step back, to reminisce how something looks and what could be done next. An effective way for me to work is to curb my own enthusiasm and to mentally agree with myself that I want to focus on a very small step today only and get that one right in the next 2 hours… typically a small step or item that is not very ambitious to tackle in the first place. I found doing that makes the step a great success always, and before I know it I have done completed much more afterwards within shortest time. That’s then again the right time to take a step back and go into a Zen mode. I believe we’re not airbrushing for the final result, but for the love of doing the work. If I want to have a result right away, I would do a digital painting (or, these days, an AI prompt). It’s not about the result, it’s about the journey.

Please let me know your comments!
 
All good points.
This can help a beginner immensely. :thumbsup:
Can add a few more.
Don't be afraid to try new things (techniques).
Fix your mistakes or at least try.
Have never made a work without something going wrong. Knowing how to fix it is a big advantage.
Finish the work you started.
Do not give up.
 
This is great advice Franc. I feel personally attacked by the "Less is More" point. lol. Seriously though, this is great advice that I will probably read 100 more times and still not have it all formed into habits. I saw someone painting something using the triangle method the other day. I did it for the first time on my "Ain't No Grave" painting and it work great.
 
I think you've learned a lot in the last 5 years ! I can put my hand up to say I've learnt most of what you've stated above.

This is great advice Franc. I feel personally attacked by the "Less is More" point. lol. Seriously though, this is great advice that I will probably read 100 more times and still not have it all formed into habits. I saw someone painting something using the triangle method the other day. I did it for the first time on my "Ain't No Grave" painting and it work great.
What is this triangle method you refer to ? I don't think I've ever heard that mentioned before.
 
I think you've learned a lot in the last 5 years ! I can put my hand up to say I've learnt most of what you've stated above.


What is this triangle method you refer to ? I don't think I've ever heard that mentioned before.
Hi Jackie, please see the picture below. This is the negative stencil of one of the small spaceships for the painting I am working on right now. The triangles are the holes that allow the tape to keep the stencil flat on the substrate. If you got Frisket film then you won’t need this method.1FB3BF3C-14D7-4E6F-8DE3-A2AEE5C6BC84.jpeg
 
I think you've learned a lot in the last 5 years ! I can put my hand up to say I've learnt most of what you've stated above.


What is this triangle method you refer to ? I don't think I've ever heard that mentioned before.
I forgot to mention that a lot of my lessons learned are because of this forum (and my own trial and error application)!
 
Great idea for a thread Franc. You have a lot to offer from the knowledge that you’ve gained, which is obvious from you fantastic work. I appreciate you sharing your insights.
It’s interesting to read about your “guilt” around using masking. Giger is thought of as one of the masters of airbrush. He used masking and shields when producing his masterpieces. I figure if it’s good enough for Giger, it’s good enough for us all lol.
 
Great idea for a thread Franc. You have a lot to offer from the knowledge that you’ve gained, which is obvious from you fantastic work. I appreciate you sharing your insights.
It’s interesting to read about your “guilt” around using masking. Giger is thought of as one of the masters of airbrush. He used masking and shields when producing his masterpieces. I figure if it’s good enough for Giger, it’s good enough for us all lol.
That’s so interesting! I never knew he used masking… I’ve been looking for a video that shows him completing a painting but never found one.
 
That’s so interesting! I never knew he used masking… I’ve been looking for a video that shows him completing a painting but never found one.
I’ve never seen a full video either. But I have seen him using masking tape and papercut stencils for some of his backgrounds in a couple documentaries. He worked on the same basis you described. He would use some masking techniques or shields for some of the “mech” elements and all free hand for the “bio” parts.
 
This post is a perfect example of why our much loved and respected JackEb knew this site must continue. ( A big thank you to Mitch from me for allowing this to happen, many website owners wouldn't.).

From the original post to the additions from the other members, just reading these gives an education that would be impossible in any other single place. And there are so many like it on this site.

The quick helpful answers to newbie questions without the "High and Mighty" so many sites have has been enlightening to me, as this is how it should be, not how it often is. You have all earned much respect just by being yourselves. Thank you.

There is so much information on this site, given freely, that is just incredible to someone just starting out (like me) and those who have airbrushed for years to take their skills to a higher level.


Thank you all.

Sorry Franc for hijacking your thread.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program ....
 
This post is a perfect example of why our much loved and respected JackEb knew this site must continue. ( A big thank you to Mitch from me for allowing this to happen, many website owners wouldn't.).

From the original post to the additions from the other members, just reading these gives an education that would be impossible in any other single place. And there are so many like it on this site.

The quick helpful answers to newbie questions without the "High and Mighty" so many sites have has been enlightening to me, as this is how it should be, not how it often is. You have all earned much respect just by being yourselves. Thank you.

There is so much information on this site, given freely, that is just incredible to someone just starting out (like me) and those who have airbrushed for years to take their skills to a higher level.


Thank you all.

Sorry Franc for hijacking your thread.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program ....
Aw shucks, you’ll make me blush ;)
the ‘feel’ of the forum hasn’t changed since the day it started. No egos just plenty of helpful folk wanting to ‘spread the love’ of airbrushing was Mitchs’ motto. I couldn’t let that disappear , this has alway been a great place to just hang out

we all learn a lot when we first pick up an airbrush,
mine would probably be
- the is no right or wrong, just alternative methods you haven’t yet tried.
- creating something on a blank page is awesome, never thought that would be me but here I am, filling pages with colour
 
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