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A Technical Guide to Airbrushes

Choose the Right Paint

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Paint is paint is paint right?  Wrong!

Paint is formulated for specific purposes.  For instance painting the side of your house, or painting metal, or paper.  The glue needs to stick to the substrate (the surface to be painted).

Use a paint that meets your specific purpose if at all possible.  Otherwise, you get to do like my instructor taught me.  Buy a small bottle and test it out on a piece that doesn't matter, or in a place no one will see.  Then see what happens!

Beginners Should Stick to "Airbrush Ready" Paints


There are three reasons for this.

  1. Your own sanity.
     
    Airbrushing is hard enough even with airbrush ready paint to make you want to pull your hair out a crush innocent, cute-eyed puppies beneath your boot clad foot in a fit of rage.  Why add the extra paint hassles when you don't have to?
     
    For experienced people who have mastered the airbrush, you can play with creating your own paint.  You've put in the time, you have a good idea of the kind of pigments to use and the kind of runniness and stickiness you need out of your paint for it to spray well.  Beginnerrs should take heed of my warning.  It really is for your own good.
  2. Airbrushes want paint of a certain consistency or thinner.
     
    This means the binder, the glue portion of the paint, has to be reduced enough to flow and spray easily without being over reduced so much that it doesn't stick.
  3. Airbrushes want pigments of a certain size or smaller.

    The pigments need to be very, very finely ground up.  Pigment is simply dirt of the same color.  The dirt likes to form clods in your paint.  The finer the grind the less likely the globs will stick together.  And also the more likely the pigment globs will break up while being sprayed.
Once you've mastered the airbrush, if you still feel like mixing your own paint, by all means, knock yourself out.  Until you HAVE mastered it, stick with the more expensive, airbrush ready paint.


So Which Paint Should I Choose?


  • Purpose

    The paint should be tailored to your purpose, or at the very least very close to your intended purpose. 

    For instance,

    • Automotive paint can be used for anything that has hard, non-porous surface.
    • Sign paint can be used similarly to automotive paint, since they're both made to stand up under harsh weather conditions.
    • Acrylics can be used for most porous surfaces, though you might want to clear the work afterward if it's in a high traffic or weather exposed area.
    • Makeup can be used for the body, though body paint might not be legally acceptable for use on the face.
    • When spraying plastic you'll probably want a lacquer or an acrylic.
  • Use Airbrush Paint

    You'll still have to play with it.  Just because it says airbrush ready doesn't mean you can use it out of the bottle.  Your darker colors like violet and blue can probably be used out of the bottle, while lighter colors like yellow and white will probably need to be thinned down.
  • Legality

    Hobbyists can generally ignore this section, however, professionals MUST consider the legal ramifactions of the coatings they spray.  The problem is that I can only give you directions to think about since every state, county, and city has different issues.

    • Do you need to be licsensed to spray that?

      This actually covers far more than I thought it would.  For instance Lead-Paint is illegal for everyone to use...except the government while painting the road.  Urethane paints are getting phased out because of environmental impact in favor of acrylic paints.  Spray tanners in Oregon must be licensed beauticians.  Most beauty professionals must be licensed in the state they work in.
    • Are there environmental restrictions?

      Hobbyists in California can spray up to a gallon of urethane-based paint without worry.  Go over that amount and if caught you'll face hefty fines with the possibility of prison.
  • Research

    In this particular case, I recommend Airbrush Action Magazine.  They usually have some kind of guide to the best paints to use for particular purposes.