Category Archives: Airbrush Basics

Airbrush Reference Photos

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!  Welcome to 2012 …. the perfect time to discuss airbrush reference photos (you’ll see why in a second).

I few years back I went to an airbrushing class where the instructor stated that “In order to be a good artist, you must split your drawing into thirds.  One third is drawing from a reference photo, the second is drawing from real life, and the third is to draw from your mind”

While this is excellent advice and I am sure that the intent was great … this ain’t ever gonna happen for me.  I need reference photos. Every single piece I paint is based almost 100% of a photo or a collage of photos.

I would say that this is probably true of most beginners.  Reference photos provide the much needed support that new artists need … they don’t move or shift, the light doesn’t change and they require no creative thinking.  They are what they are.  And that’s what beginners need.  We NEED to use reference photos because we need to FOCUS on painting it right, not flattening a 3D view, or coming up with some vision in our minds.  Our minds are busy trying to figure out the friggin airbrush!

Reference Photos: Where to Get Them


Today we are super lucky … we have the internet to get reference photos from.  Anything you want to paint is just one google image search away.  Technically, though, images that you find on google are more than likely copyrighted.  That means if you are going to create a replica of that image with your airbrush you should find out who took the picture and get their permission to use it for your artwork.

Personally, I don’t take copyrighting too seriously.  Don’t get me wrong, I respect the idea and the law … but I don’t get all ridiculous about it like some artists do.   I basically use the following rules with respect to copyright:

1. If it’s just for me – that is, I am just practicing airbrushing – I don’t ask for permission.

2. If I am going to put it up on my website – that is, others will see it – I’ll give credit to the original photographer if I can find out who they are.

3. If I am going to sell it or make money off of it in anyway – I get permission.

(Interesting side note: Do you know Disney has a division of people that crack down on people selling “homemade” disney stuff!?  For example, they sell Disney themed cake pans for kids birthdays but if you make a Disney themed cake and instead of using it for your personal use, you sell it …. they’ll come after you!  That’s why you never see nice Disney cakes at the grocery store … just ones with licensed little plastic thingies on them).


My favourite internet source for airbrush reference images is Flickr.  Mainly that’s for two reasons.

Creative Commons: I tend to use the images on this website and I want to be able to give people credit for their work (i.e. not for personal use).  Flickr has a whole section of creative commons photos whereby the photographer has granted permission ahead of time for people to use their artwork anyway they like.  Creative commons is a wonderful thing … much too complicated to explain here but here’s a link to Flickr’s Creative Commons Rules

Interesting Photos: There are some incredibly talented photographers on Flickr.  There’s a trick to finding them though.  When you do a search on Flickr, for say, cats, it will bring up every single photo tagged with the word “cats” – including the one Aunt Mavis took of the two cats doing it in the alley.  The trick is to sort the searched photos by “interesting”.  This brings up the best of the best photos.

Picture Quality: When I choose a photo for airbrushing, I want the best quality photo I can get and that doesn’t always happen with a google search.  Flickr will let you download the photos in varying sizes and usually there is a VERY big one to get.  I then send those away to Walmart for photo finishing and voila … I have a great reference.



I love love love using calendar photos as reference photos for airbrushing.  They are usually HUGE photos, great quality and the subject matter is usually stunning.  This time of year is the perfect time to go hunting for great calendars or just to keep your eyes open for free give aways.

At my local mall, they set up a temporary calendar store just before christmas, and after christmas, they sell all the calendars at WAY less.  Since I am only interested in the photos, I’ll go snap up what ever is interesting and CHEAP.  As for freebies, I’ve already lucked out once … my pet supply store was giving out calendars with puppies and kitties pictures (umm… totally my fave subject) so I snapped up a couple.


My mom powers through magazines like nobodies business, so whenever I go to visit I take all her old ones.  Not only do I get to read the latest version of People, but typically there are a few good reference photos in there too.  Most of the photo references I snag from magazines are beauty ads … lots of high detail eyes, faces and hands.  These are especially great to use as airbrush references because they have already been airbrushed digitally once so there are no flaws in them!


I have a thing for books.  I love them.  I love going to the bookstore and just hanging out, flipping through all the books I wish I had an infinite amount of money to buy.  While I am certain to buy a reading book every time I am at the bookstore, every so often I find a book chock full of photos that I can’t live without so I snap it up so I can use them as references.

There’s one flaw to this method though.  I usually can’t stand to keep the pictures in the book … so I cut them out and then regret it something awful later.  There something inhumane about chopping up a perfectly fine book :(

What about you?

Do you have a secret source for reference photos that you’ve been keeping to yourself?  You should tell us in the comments below … there’s enough to go around.

What is the right airbrush pressure to get the best results?

Questions about proper airbrush pressure are common – but unfortunately – there is not one simple answer.

Don’t worry – there is hope

While I may not be able to provide a single answer, I can provide a selection of answers and some discussion that will get you on the right track to finding the perfect “airbrush pressure” for your particular project.

Here are the pressures I prefer to use for my projects….

(keep reading to find the explanations as to why I prefer them)

NOTE: These are the pressures being DELIVERED to your airbrush, not the pressure that is seen on the surface you’re painting

  • Fine Art = 20 – 25 psi
  • Custom (Automotive, Helmets, etc) = 20 – 25 psi
  • Murals = 20 – 25 psi
  • T-Shirts = 30 – 40 psi

For these types of projects, because they are directly on or near skin, I highly recommend you read the explanation why that follows as it is a safety concern:

  • Nail Art = 15 psi
  • Body Paint = 15 psi
  • Face Paint = 15 psi or less

Is Your Airbrush Spitting?

If you’re experiencing airbrush spitting, I am sorry to say, the problme is more than likely you and not your airbrush…

Don’t worry though – it is easily fixed!

Spitting happens when air is not allowed to flow through the airbrush at all times … the bad habit that people tend to get is “POPPING” the trigger on and off between strokes and that habit leads to lots of SPLATS!

SPLATS happen because when airbrush paint is being supplied on to the needle either through gravity feed or siphen feed and the air is what makes it atomize and “jump off” on to your work. When you POP the air on and off all the time, you are letting a little bit of that paint sit on the needle – and that littly bit of paint is just WAITING for you to turn the air back on so it can jump off! But you don’t see that … so you get in position to paint your next stroke, turn the air on, and then BAM there it is! SPLAT!

Simply changing the habit of popping the trigger on an off between strokes will significantly reduce the amount of airbrush spitting you are seeing. Another tip, is to remove* the needle guard at the very front of your airbrush so that you can SEE the tip of the needle when you are painting. If the color is light enough, often you can see that little blob of paint sitting on the needle waiting for you … which is your clue to spray AWAY from your work to clear the paint off the needle and then continue.

Careful when removing that guard – it’s there for a reason – I don’t want to drop your airbrush and risk bending the delicate needle tip!

Hope that helps!

Airbrush Stencils: An Approved Method of Cheating!

I’m kidding!!! Using airbrush stencils isn’t cheating … they are simply a tool to help you paint faster and cleaner.

There are basically three types of airbrush stencils:

1. Design Elements,
2. Design Aids, and
3. Edge Aids.

(note those are not technical terms – just my way of categorizing them)

Design elements are stencils that, when used properly, actually end up looking like something you recognize. For example an stencil of a skull would be a “design element”.

A design aid would be any type of stencil that doesn’t produce a recognizable result on it’s own but is used instead to add to an overall design. As an example a stencil that adds texture or dimension to artwork would be a “design aid”… specific examples would be wavy lines, membrane textures or a brick design.

An edge aid is any airbrush stencil that’s sole purpose is to help make different shaped edges. French curves are the most recognizable type of edge aid.

The Key to Using Stencils

While using stencils can really speed up your production and can aid those of us who are not terribly creative or artistic in the traditional sense (that is we can’t draw) there is a risk associated with using them…

… your artwork can end up looking like you used a stencil!

Stenciled airbrush art that screams “I used a stencil !” can impress your friends and family, but overall has a bit of a cheap, amateur look about it.

The key is to use the stencil as a guide to help guide your artwork – not drive it.

How do you do you use stencils as a guide ?

For design aid type stencils (i.e. skulls, hearts, etc) place the stencil and then just lightly mist over the stencil with your airbrush… the lighter the better. When you remove the stencil you will have an EXCELLENT starting point to build your design upon…

All the while, edge aids (i.e. french curves etc) can be used to keep your paint where you want it and the design elements (i.e. textures etc) to add some interest and depth.

One of the greatest things about these stencils is that if you get “lost” in your design (say you lose the eyes or teeth in your skull) you can always reapply the main design aid stencil and get that definition back.

Here are some links that showcase my FAVORITE stencils!

Airbrush T Shirt Project: Simple Heart and Lettering


For this airbrush t shirt project I will show you how I painted the shirt shown above.

For this project you will need the following:

  • your airbrush equipment
  • a selection of paints
  • a t-shirt
  • thin marker
  • water color pencil
  • opaque projector (or drawing skills)
  • scrap white paper

Scroll down when you are ready to start!

Step 1

Grab a piece of paper and a pencil and draw your design. I am not a drawer so it took me multiple tries to get the lettering right.


Step 2

Using the thin marker, outline the the image.


Step 3

Project the image onto the t-shirt stretched over a board. Trace your sketch using a watercolor pencil. The watercolor pencil will wash out later (and will mostly be covered by your art work)


Step 4

Mix a pink-y color and outline the heart. If your lines are a little wavy – don’t frett…. you can clean them up later.

Also, this is a good time to say: Even though the pro’s work at break-neck speed, you are not required to. Take your time.


Step 5

Fill in the heart with the pink color – keeping it darker around the edges and lighter in the middle section. Remember the cool thing about airbrush T shirts is the gradients of color.


Step 6

Now switch to a dark transparent purple. Outline the heart again and shade the inside edges of the heart giving it more volume. Also, spray purple around the outside of the heart to make it POP a little.


Step 7

OK… lettering. Don’t panic.

When you are first starting lettering can be really intimidating, but this is the way to tackle it.

As thinly as you can, use black paint to spray over the traced letters. Don’t worry about waves – we’ll fix them.


Step 8

Now repeat….stay as thin as you possible can. Work to even out the lines and waves.


Step 9

All right. Now let’s fancy them up a bit!

Slowly thicken all the DOWN strokes of your letters. You don’t have to go around the whole letter again, just thicken the downstrokes only.

Take as many passes as necessary to get it looking the way you like.


Step 10

Now add some white to punch it up!

A little white dot with a fade on each of the letters makes a huge difference. The goal is to make the black lettering look glossy.


Step 11

This photo shows all the white dots in place. Also add some white highlights to the heart to give it a little gloss too.


Step 12

And again, here is the finished product. Now all that is left to do is heat-set it!


Airbrushes: Know the Lingo!

If we are going to talk about airbrushes, we need to speak the same language… as with any niche art form, it has it’s own lingo and it’s important that we are on the same page…

Airbrushes are defined by three characteristics:

#1. Paint Delivery System which can be further broken down into:

  • gravity feed
  • siphen feed
  • side feed
  • #2. Trigger Functionality which includes:

  • single action
  • dual action
  • #3. Needle Size

    Each of these characteristics serve a different purpose for each particular brush…. so let’s discuss them further…

    Paint Delivery Systems

    Gravity Feed

    Gravity feed airbrushes deliver paint to the needle/paint/air interface through a reservoir or cup positioned on top of the brush.

    The size of the cup or reservoir varies from model to model – typically from 1/32 oz. to 1 oz. The small size of the cup or resevoir dictates the use or functionality of the brush.

    A brush with a very small cup is meant to be used in applications where the volume of paint required is very small. Finger nail artists and model/miniuature artists find this size cup to be a good fit with their work.

    The larger cups are used for a variety of applications where small amounts of paint are used, such as detailed automotive work, fine art, cake decorating, etc.

    The basic idea with any gravity fed brush is that you would only mix a small amount of paint (perhaps in another small container or directly in the reservoir) and then use just that little bit of paint to paint on your piece.

    Siphen Fed

    Siphen fed airbrushes have a threaded or pressure fit (squeeze fit) connection at the base of the brush where a bottle filled with paint can be attached. The bottle has a tube in it that reaches to the bottom of the container. When air rushes past the top of the tube (i.e. when you trigger the air on) a pressure differential is created that causes the paint to rise up the tube and come in contact with the needle/air interface.

    Siphen feed brushes (also called bottom feed) are typically used when larger quantities (i.e. greater than 1 oz) of paint will be required at a time or if you will consistently be using the same color over and over again.

    T-shirt artists are by far the best example of a good siphen feed application as typically they consistently use the same set of colors to paint with. All of their color mixing is done on the t-shirt by layering colors as opposed to in a separate container.

    The bottles that attach to these brushes vary in size from 1 oz to 8 oz. Typically, airbrushes are compatible with multiple size bottles.

    Side Feed

    Side feed airbrushes are a hybrid between a gravity feed and a bottom feed (or siphen feed).

    Side feed brushes have a cup or reservoir that is mounted on either the right or left side of the brush. Rather than gravity pulling the paint onto the air/needle interface, these brushes, like the bottom fed one, use a siphen system to move the paint – however – rather than a physical tube that you can see, the siphen system is built right into the cup.

    Side feed brushes were born from the frustration of artists having to “look over” or “past” the top mounted cups on the gravity feed systems when working on detail work. Ideally, the artist wants to look directly down at the needle tip as opposed to off to the side. Simply moving the cup to the side gave them a direct view of the work in front of them.

    Trigger Functionality

    Single Action

    Single Action brushes are the simpler of the two trigger function designs. With the single action, the operations is simply ON or OFF. That is, as soon as the trigger is pulled back, both air and paint flow.

    Because paint flows immediately these types of brushes are best used when painting with stencils or in applications where lots of detail is not required as artists find it difficult to achieve fine points of dagger strokes with this type of trigger.

    Dual Action

    Dual action brushes have triggers that require two steps to achieve paint flow. Initially, the trigger has to be pushed down to get the air flowing, and then, when the trigger is pulled back paint is released into the air/needle interface.

    Dual action brushes allow for a lot finer control than single action.

    Needle Size

    The needle of the airbrush has one major function – it’s tapered end regulates (limits) the amount of paint that is allowed to pass the nozzle. The finer the needle the airbrush has, the finer the detail you will be able to achieve.

    So this begs the question “Why do they come in different sizes?”. You would assume that the finer the better, right?

    Well, simply, it is a function of paint. Paints with thicker, more dense pigment have difficulty passing through the small opening that a fine needle has … so, thicker paints – thicker needles.

    Most paints work perfectly fine with the fine needles with the exception of some textile paints and some automotive paints.

    What is airbrush tip dry anyway?

    Airbrush tip dry is a fact of life when it comes to airbrush art. You may find yourself asking why paint producers haven’t developed a product that doesn’t cause tip dry…. well, it is not as simple as it sounds.

    All paint, whether it is house paint or art paint starts out as powdered pigment. The higher quality the paint, the finer the pigment is ground. House paint has fairly large pigment in comparison to art paint.

    To make the pigment “spreadable” they are suspended in a liquid base. That base liquid dries entrapping the powder pigment on to the surface painted.

    Now we all know that when you paint using traditional paints (i.e. house paint or any paint applied with a brush) that you can speed up the drying time by blowing on the freshly painted surface. Circulating air causes the curing agent in the base liquid to evaporate at a faster rate and thus sets the paint faster.

    The problem with airbrushes is that they come with there own “blower”. Air is constantly being circulated around the paint causing it to dry very very fast. This is great for our artwork, but not so great for the application of that artwork.

    All that air blowing past the tip causes paint to dry very rapidly causing pigment to build up on the tip which equals airbrush tip dry…

    … Paints with high pigment content (which typically depends on color – for example white paint has a LOT of pigment) add an extra complexity because all that “extra” pigment builds up much more rapidly on the tip and interferes with the flow of paint.

    So, for airbrush paint manufacturers it is a delicate balance of achieving a blend of paint that will have good intensity (i.e. enough pigment) and dry at a rate that is fast enough for application to artwork, but no so fast as to cause excessive tip dry.

    One good thing about airbrush tip dry is that it becomes predictable so you can anticipate when you are going to have problems. For instance…

    … if you are using white paint – you are likely to encounter a tip dry issue due to the amount of pigment

    … if you are spraying a larger amount of paint than you normally would (i.e. you have the trigger pulled far back and are covering a large area in a hurry) you are likely to see more tip dry due to extra air circulation

    … if you are using an opaque paint as opposed to a transparent – probably going to see more tip dry.

    The key is to get to know your paint and to learn from your mistakes!

    Airbrush Troubleshoot: Paint Sneeking Out

    Airbrush Troubleshoot:
    Paint Sneeking Out

    This is by far one of the most common airbrush troubleshoot questions that arises with new airbrush artists…. it goes something like this…

    My airbrush is leaking paint! When I press down the trigger, expecting only to get air, paint sprays out! Is it broken??

    Well let me ease your mind…. your airbrush is likely not broken!


    There are three reasons why airbrushes “leak” paint from time to time:

    • gunk
    • needles
    • nozzle tips

    All three reasons have to do with the needle seating. The needle of the airbrush is tapered so that it fits snug inside the nozzle tip. When the needle is fully seated inside the nozzle tip, it acts like a cork in a bottle… that is, it keeps liquid (paint) on one side, and doesn’t allow it to drip, spill or leak out.

    When your airbrush leaks paint in means your “cork” is not sealing…. this is typically caused by small particles of gunk trapped in the nozzle tip or clinging to the tapered end of your needle. Common culprits are white paint (it has large pigments), Q-tip fuzz, paper towel lint… or… the one that gets me all the time… pet hair.

    Airbrush Troubleshoot #1:

    Usually simply removing your needle, wiping it down and re-seating it will solve the problem…

    If that doesn’t work…

    Crank up your air pressure to 40 or 50 psi and spray lots (several ounces) of water through your airbrush being sure to pull the trigger back all the way…. the goal here is to try and flush the particle out of the way….

    If that doesn’t work…

    Remove and reinsert the needle one more time…

    If that doesn’t work…

    thoroughly clean your airbrush with soap and water

    If that doesn’t work…

    … I am sorry to say, that you might have a problem bigger than “gunk” :(

    Here are the possibilities:

    – You could have a blemish or burr on your needle that is preventing a tight seal;


    – You could have a broken nozzle tip which would also prevent a tight seal from forming.

    Airbrush Troubleshoot #2

    To determine if the needle is the problem, remove it from the airbrush and inspect the tapered end for any rough spots. If you find a rough spot, you can try to use some metal polishing cream to buff the rough spot out.

    Warning: Don’t buff your needle unless you are SURE you have a problem… this is a last resort solution prior to purchasing a new needle. There is a possibility that buffing the needle may make the situation worse.

    If you do have a rough spot, and the buffing doesn’t help… sorry to say, you need a new needle.

    Airbrush Troubleshoot #3

    If your needle seems fine (i.e. no rough spots or burrs) inspect the nozzle tip for any signs of damage.

    Warning: Don’t remove the nozzle tip to inspect it… it is very delicate (and easily lost)

    Common damage to nozzle tips is splaying or cracking. Both splaying and cracking are caused by jamming the needle into the airbrush or being too rough when seating the needle. Use a magnifying glass to inspect the nozzle tip. Any signs of damage means that that bit needs to be replaced. Most manufacturers of airbrushes require that the entire airbrush be sent in to replace the nozzle tip, and, they also charge quite a bit to do it.

    But… before you frett too much… 99.9995% of the time, leaking paint is a “gunk” problem and easily fixed!

    (and yes, that statistic is made up)

    Can you use an Airbrush On …. ?

    Can you use an airbrush on T-shirts?

    Can you use a nail art airbrush on canvas?

    Can you use bottom feed airbrush for fine art?

    These are some common questions I have been getting…

    So let’s clear something up!


    (sorry, I didn’t mean to yell – that was supposed to be excitement)

    Some airbrush manufacturers market their airbrushes for specific uses … for example, an airbrush with a really small paint cup might be marketed as a “nail art airbrush” …

    … but that does not mean that you can’t use it for any other purpose!

    Simply, some airbrushes are better suited for certain application – but the basic principle of the tool is exactly the same.

    Let me use an analogy to explain…

    There are many sizes of paint brushes, right? There are really tiny ones best used for painting models or fine lines, and there are large paint brushes that can be used to paint your house.

    There is no rule that says you CAN’T use the teeny tiny paint brush to paint your house … it might take a while… it might be frustrating at times (ok – so the whole time) but it would get the job done … right? And visa versa with the big brush…

    The same applies to airbrushes. Some airbrushes are better suited to the task at hand but their function is ultimately the same.

    If you think that you may like to use your airbrush for multiple uses (i.e nail art, murals, and fine art say) try to get an airbrush that is really versatile – a medium sized brush – something all purpose.

    If you plan to speciallize (i.e. only nail art) then buy one that is well suited to that which has a smaller paint cup.