Monday, August 19, 2013

Airbrushing Struggles: Phase 1

Over the course of my review of the Daemons codex one of the major themes was how most units received significant point decreases.  In many cases, units that were previous mainstays were also significantly changed.  The result of this for me has been a lot of painting that needs to be done, with a nominal deadline of The Da Boyz GT.  Luckily, I purchased an airbrush to help speed the process this spring and had some initial success working with a Black/White/Gray color pallette.  I dabbled a bit with some pink and blue, but a few weeks ago I made my first real attempt at painting flesh tones using an airbrush.

It did not go well - more from a pure operational standpoint than a painting standpoint, but I really need to resolve these issues if I am going to make it for Da Boyz with the army I want - otherwise it is going to have a lot more Bloodcrushers and Fiends than I originally planned.  Here are some of the problems I ran into:

Ain't no nozzle got time for that
I think I spend 3/4 of my time cleaning the Airbrush and about 1/4 of the time spraying paint that I had thinned too much because the thicket paint kept clogging it.  My process for preparing paint included dropping it into a mixing container, using a 1:2 mixture of paint and water respectively and then straining it in  a tea strainer to make sure no clumps made it into the paint pot.

Obviously I missed the mark here at some point - I am wondering if maybe my cleaning procedures are more flawed than anything else.  I did some research and they suggested dental picks as an option (the soft ones) to clean paint nozzles and delicate areas.

At this moment to clean I first remove the needle, drop it in some water (okay I am more gentle than dropping it) with some simple green in it.  Then unscrew the cap and pop out the nozzle - letting them soak.  I soak the front end of the airbrush as well, and then use a Q-Tip to clean out the paint pot.  I gently wipe the needle down with a Q-Tip or paper towel.  The nozzle I am not doing much for other than letting it soak and running a dilute simple green through it as a final clean.

Uniform Spray
I really wanted to use the Airbrush to lay down a uniform first layer to work over - that had been my procedure when using a brush.  First I would lay down the base color I wanted - avoiding some of the deep recesses since I usually prime black so there is some natural shading, and then I would begin building up the other colors.  This time it seemed like I could not get all those recesses nor cover the model evenly.

Also, I am having trouble judging how much paint I had actually laid down with the brush - I had a product that I liked from a blending perspective but as it dried the top layer become less opaque and the model became flat - and a prime candidate for me to try again.

Under Pressure
I am struggling with what pressure to run the brush at - the suggestions I have heard is anywhere from 15-20 psi.  However, they are a bit unclear whether that is at the brush or at the pump.  I assume it is at the brush - in which case I need to get a handle for what my line losses are in the compressor - I have a feeling I am coming in pretty low.  then again, much higher air pressure and I think I will blow models away.

A Way Forward?
With some of the pressures of summer starting to fade - and with my devotion to house project while I think on this problem - I am going to have some extra time to experiment more with my airbrush.  I think to an extent I should have opted for an easier to use airbrush.  However, I am committed to getting it running properly and to speeding up my painting time.

I have some straightforward models - Chaos Warhounds that will become Flesh Hounds of Khorne.  Since they will be actually Flesh Colored I plan to build them up from Dark Brown as a base and  Light Brown as the main color before using flesh colors at the highest level.  A wash of Ogryn Flesh (new color is called, now it escapes me) and a drybrush of 50/50 Elf and Rotting Flesh will round them out.  All of this being done in the next month though is predicated on that airbrush.

Any tips, tricks or thoughts would be appreciated so that I can spend less time on the trial and error of mechanically operating an airbrush and more on the trial and error of blending paint!

Here is my own to do list for Da Boyz this year - it is actually much shorter than last years, which might mean a less angry spouse:

18x Seekers - Riders Primed, Mounts need drybrush, unbased
18x Flesh Hounds - Primed, unbased
9x Screamers - Primed, bad airbrush job to fix
2x Soul Grinders - final dry brush and details

It is a lot, so we will see if some of my finished Fiends decide to come out for Da Boyz in replacement of the Screamers.


  1. Not sure how much help I can be as I just started working with airbrushes as well, but if that acrylic paint is what you are using, I started with similar and the paint to water ratio was brutal for me to learn, although I was using Ice blue instead of flesh. What I started doing is mixing several batches with different levels of water and letting them sit for 5 min to see which ones turned to milk after a good stirring, I'm not sure what thickness, for lack of a better word, your flesh starts out at but the blue was almost tooth paste thick and it took some doing but once it worked it worked great, so try some with two or three drops and some with more depending, and stir like you've never stirred before. Once its milk like you should be good.

    Also our brushes might be different, I got the one from Harbor Freight and it does great although it does often need cleaning, I haven't used simple green on it I use as hot temp water as I can handle. If yours didn't come with the small airbrush cleaning utensils I highly recommend them, they can pull paint out like a champ. Sorry I couldn't be of more help but those are the things I learned this far and I started using Army Painter paints through it and they work really great, I did 60 Imperial Fists in under an hour.

    1. It is good to know I am not the only one having these struggles. I have some clean paint pots to mix in, so I think making up several levels of dilution is a great idea. I think for the time being I am going to need to settle on laying down one color per session to keep it simple.

      I ordered airbrush utensils last night, so that problem should be solved. I also think the paint you hit on is key - I tried to go with something cheaper under the assumption I could make more mistakes with it for less cash.

    2. This was the main reason I switched from Folk Art to Vallejo paints. I got a couple bottles of greys and blacks I was using on my DE bases for last year's GT and they were so full of acrylic clots that I could only airbrush for 30 seconds before I had to clean out and start over.

      I haven't had any issues with Vallejo model paints yet. I typically use 4 drops of paint with 3 drops of water. Vellejo is nice because the dropper nozzle makes for accurate measurement and I use a turkey baster to drop the water.

  2. Hey Calypso2ts,

    It sounds like you're first run at airbrushing is mimicking what I went through. 1st off, damn Hyv3mynd for making it look so easy. Bastard.

    I had similar problems with clogging during my initial airbrush attempts. I think the 3 main factors that affected my attempts were:

    1) Paint Dilution
    2) Pressure
    3) Paint

    I forgot where I read it, but here's a thought that helped me a lot: The more dilute your paint is, the lower your air pressure can be. The thicker your paint it, the higher the pressure has to be.

    For quick coats, 30+ PSI works for me. One of my airbrushes has a fine control on the brush itself, but my other doesn't. I picked up a pressure regulator/moisture trap ( and can control the pressure with that. In the summer months the moisture trap is invaluable. It really helps.

    When I'm dealing with thin paints, I can go down to ~10PSI. In terms of blowing your models away, I pin all of mine to a dowel 1st. They all go on custom bases, so it's easy for me to pop them off the dowel and then onto a base.

    I also use an airbrush cleaner ( between coats, or when things get clogged. It does a great job of getting the small pieces outta there. If I have a particularly hard clog, I spray some of the cleaner through, set the brush down for 5 min and then come back. It loosens up quite a bit of stuff.

    I'll try to post up more later, gotta go.


    1. I initially balked at getting a regulator other than the one at the pump - but I think that is a purchase I need to make. I am not sure on my line losses but I am going through around 25 feet of 3/8" hose before the quick connect to the airbrush line.

      Also, thanks for the advice on the cleaner, I think I need to stick to dedicated airbrush products before I start experimenting.

  3. a few things that immediately jumped out.

    Q-Tips: I find they tend to leave fibers in the brush and those will clog / make life difficult.

    airbrush cleaning brushes are just about essential. They are cheap as chips and get older paint that a flush doesn't.

    Also sounds like you may not be aggressive enough in your cleaning routine. You really need to get every last bit of dried paint off.

    The paint you're using may not be particularly well suited as the pigments are likely quick coarse. I've used some craft paints (as opposed to gaming or airbrush paints) and find they don't deal well with being thinned too much. Results vary by brand and by batch.

    finally, the comment above hits it on the head when it comes to thinning. I find additionally that I get impatient and tend to spray too much without letting it dry, which makes it pool and generally ruins the finish.

    1. The Q-tip comment is very interesting - most of my limited knowledge has come from youtube tutorials on airbrushing and several recommended q-tips. Thanks for the link to the cleaning brushes, I have already ordered a set. I think I may have been cheaping out a bit too much. The paint I am using is probably a tough medium to work with initially too - so I am going to transition to some airbrush paints.

    2. Good idea. I feel bad now for using craft paints at first. I shouldn't have recommended them for beginners.

      I do use q-tips when cleaning my Grex, but it has much larger openings and an extra portal opposite the paint cup so you can really get in there. The openings on a grex are so large that standard airbrush cleaning brushes are too small to do anything.

      I also run a cup full of isopropyl alcohol at a high PSI through the brush after cleaning.

  4. I think many of us have gone through very similar experiences. Here are some things I've learned to be able to spend more time painting with the airbrush vs the frustrations you are encountering.

    -Vallejo Air paint line. This has been huge. These can be used without dilution, but I still use 1 drop thinner for 4 drops paint in my airbrush (I also use the Vallejo paint thinner). These bottles make is super easy to measure out. I used to be very frustrated trying to mix paints to the point I nearly quit. Additionally, I can use the Vallejo Air paints with a brush for detail and touch up work which ensures I always have the same color at hand.

    -PSI ranging around 30 works for good base coats. I'm still working on detail work, but this gives great coverage with little chance of clogging or 'spitting'.

    -Clean airbrush. I will disassemble mine a few times during a paint session to make sure the needle hasn't got dried paint as well as make sure the nozzle is clear. It takes a few minutes, but I've found it very much worth it.

    1. I am definitely using too little pressure on the brush - I was not sure the effect too much might have on any of the gaskets inside the brush, but 30 psi seems to be a common value.

      How long does a session last in general? I am trying to get a sense for how long I can realistically paint before needing to disassemble, clean and reassemble.

    2. I typically go 10 minutes or until I change colors, whichever comes first.

      Maintaining your needle point is also key. Any burr or bend at the tip of the needle will cause a spatter effect and collect paint faster. It's possible to straighten the tip between two hard surfaces, but replacing the needle is a good idea if you've damaged it at some point.

  5. All good advice so far. And I agree on paint. Craft paints aren't good for starters. Using paints made for airbrushing will save you a lot of headaches. A lot of basic acrylics sit on the shelf long enough to develop clots which will ruin your experience if they make it into the airbrush.

    On "making it look easy", I went to college for SFX makeup and took several airbrushing courses. Some of the basics I take for granted can be really challenging for others. Minis are especially challenging to airbrush. It's important that you don't try to do everything with the airbrush. Just blend the base colors and finish up by hand.

    Next time you're in town LMK and we'll have a painting session. It's a lot easier to show someone in person than write tutorial and hope it communicates everything properly.

    1. I have been meaning to stop by for a while to pick you brain on airbrushing. It is also totally cheating that you took airbrushing courses. Not taking advantage of some of the art offerings in college (I had room in my senior year for one more class) is something I regret.

      Also what are you doing the weekend of the 7th? I am going to be in town and I was hoping to get in a GT practice game.

    2. I'll see what I can do. Email me what days and times would work best and I'll pencil you in.

      I ordered the last 2 models I need for my GT list so I should be good to go by then.

  6. One more tip: don't take the mixing ratio's for granted. For example, yesterday I used a Vallejo Air paint that I had to mix 1:1 with airbrush thinner before it was thin enough. And that's another tip that works for me: mix with airbrush thinner, not with water.

    1. This is an interesting observation - is there a particular reason why you have noticed yo need to thin paints to differing degrees? Related to temperature, humidity or does it seem to randomly vary?

    2. The amount of time they've been sitting on the shelf makes a difference also. I bought a bottle of moon yellow at a local shop that was fully solidified and unusable.

      I haven't seen my paints change by heat or humidity. Usually just the condition they come off the shelf at the shop. Like Bryan said above, some craft paints are like toothpaste and some are liquid enough to use.

      You really just need to get comfortable with a certain air pressure and mix your paints to works best with that. Nowadays, I use a very heavy primer coat and then very watered down paints with a PSI around 8. The end effect is more of staining the primer coat than actually covering it with paint. Also worth noting that side or top fed airbrushes require less PSI to paint than those that pull from the bottom.

  7. One thing I took to heart when starting was doing all the dots, lines, shading exercises on some scrap cardboard and pretty much burned through the bottle of airbrush acrylic that came with my kit. At first, I was "that is a stupid idea, I'm not making T-shirts", but the idea is to learn brush control, which I figured out after trying to do a consistent line of dots. The secondary goodie from blowing through an ounce-ish of paint at a time was cleaning practice. No expert, but now I don't even think about blowing it clear, backflushing, wiggling the needle and taking it apart when I'm through. Use higher pressure when cleaning.

    I haven't had a cleaning or clogging issue at all using airbrush paints. Grex has its own line, but the tech I talked to at Grex recommended using any airbrush paint to start with. Simply, they aren't as "chunky" as craft paints, so provide less issues while learning. I've done sessions over a couple of hours (really just using the airbrush as a apray paint substitute) putting a lot of black basecoat on a bunch of models and when I have to take a break, I just flush, backflush, wiggle the needle and go.

    1. I actually spent about an hour doing some exercises - like those described above - when I first got the brush. I used the same paint type, but for some reason the black and white of that paint are much easier to work with.

      Thanks for the tip on backflushing, I had seen the term but not had a chance to look it up yet.

  8. One thing I've noticed with my PB rig is that the higher the pressure the farther away you need to be to keep the paint from pooling and the drying into little circles of color. There is definitely a sweet spot that keeps the pools at bay but also gives you good coverage. 15 psi is about an inch for me. 30 psi is about 2 inches.

    1. Thanks, I think I need to work on better consistency with my pressure. At home I have a compressor setup, but I was attempting to do some painting using my father's compressor (it is oiless) and had a lot of trouble when it did work getting the paint to not act like a wash.

  9. So I also have been having a lot of problems with my new airbrush. I am glad it is not only me. But I think I have it figured out, but there was a time I spend 10 minutes painting and 20 minutes trying to clean the air brush. If it starts to not work I don’t even bother with taking the front nozzle off or cleaning cup where the paint goes into. I just take apart the air brush. I can do it less then 5 min. I don’t even unhook air compressor. I find this is a lot faster this way just to tear it all apart.

    I even want ahead and sent an email to Badger on cleaning instructions. Below what they sent back. Some stuff I been doing and some I have not. You find it helpful.

    Cleaning –
    Step one: The key to keeping an airbrush clean is to not let material set up (dry) in it. This can be done by simply spraying the appropriate cleaning agent through the airbrush with reasonable frequency (when changing color and when setting the airbrush to rest for any period of time). Three important things to remember:
    1. Your cleaning agent should be determined based on the material you are using, not the airbrush you are using 2. Material dries as fast in an airbrush as it does on the surface it is being sprayed on to. 3. Anything you think will take 2 seconds will take 2 minutes, and anything you think will take 2 minutes will usually take at least 20 – so spray the cleaner.

    Step two: Should material set up (dry) in the airbrush, it may be necessary to back flush the airbrush. This is done by suffocating the air flow of the airbrush at the nozzle (while spraying cleaner) by carefully “pinching” a soft cloth over the nozzle’s end. This deflects air back into the airbrush chamber - loosening dried material and sending it into the cleaning bottle/color cup. If done correctly, the cleaner will bubble during back flushing. After back flushing,
    dump/remove back flushed material from the airbrush – don’t spray it out of airbrush. Spray fresh cleaner through the airbrush after you have back flushed it.

    Step three: On what should be rare occasions it may be necessary to disassemble some parts of the airbrush for more thorough cleaning. This should only be necessary if the previous cleaning steps are not done regularly or are unsuccessful in cleaning the airbrush. If disassembly is required, it should only be of parts that come in contact with the sprayed material; from the material’s point of entry into the airbrush and forward. This includes are the nozzle assembly and the needle. To thoroughly clean the nozzle assembly, use an ultrasonic cleaner or denture cleaner (yes, denture cleaner – follow the directions on the package). The needle should be wiped down with a soft cloth saturated with the appropriate cleaning agent. If residue on the needle is still apparent it may be removed by gently rubbing a fine steel wool over the residual deposit area. While the needle and nozzle are removed from the airbrush it is OK to run a pipe cleaner saturated with cleaning agent through the chamber of the airbrush, following the same path as sprayed material, and out the airbrush front. For bottom feed airbrushes that is up the jar adaptor stem and out the front, for gravity feed airbrushes it is down the color cup and out the front. Only do this when the needle and nozzle are removed - forcing anything through the nozzle will damage it. A cleaner saturated cotton swab can also be used to clean the airbrush’s jar stem and the airbrush’s paint tip housing. Be careful not to scratch or damage any seal requiring surfaces. After using the pipe cleaner/cotton swab, blow out the airbrush to remove any “fuzz”. After all nozzle/needle cleaning steps are complete the airbrush can be reassembled and will be ready for use. This disassembly process should be rarely necessary if steps one and two are followed, but it is recommended if storing your airbrush for an extended period of time.

    1. Thanks for the tips Jay, the idea of not disassembling my brush constantly is particularly appealing.

  10. In my experience, the vallejo thinner is great for thinning out colours without changing the hue of the colour and also keeps it from drying too fast.

    I, like Hyvemynd also use vallejo paints, and i think they work great.

    I have also had some interesting finds when it comes to thinning ratios. All of my metal colours doesn't need to be thinned for some reason, they all flow a lot easier than the regular paints. I don't know why that is and it could be that it's just me. Also i think that the brighter the colours are, they might be subject to more thinner than other darker ones.

  11. NOt much to say that hasn't already been said but here goes:

    Pressure: for me 15 psi is fine because I dilute my paints a fair amount.

    Dilution: I don't use much water. Instead I use Vallejo Satin Varnish. And no, my models are not glossy. Satin varnish is very different than gloss varnish. Satin is good because it is thin and dries fast.

    Cleaning: every once and while, you need to remove the accumulated paint that is on the tip of the nozzle. I wipe it off with a paper towel and some rubbing alcohol ( a very small amount).

    No Q-tips. As mentioned before. No tissue either. Paper towel and brushes for cleaning.

    Also...give it time. Practice. Airbrushing can be fast but only if you know what you are doing.

    1. The tip on Satin Varnish is a good one, and it reinforces that I need to acquire a thinning medium. I had a gift certificate to a local shop, so I ordered up some Valejo paints this afternoon.