This article isn’t really about the overall physical setup. Its more about how to take all the advice, videos and websites out there (including these articles), and how to put it together, as well as some suggestions on good places to check! You’ll have your own goals, price thresholds and needs. There isn’t one solution for everyone, which is why you need to check multiple places, and get advice from people who do what you want to do. These articles aim at a new beginner in airbrushing 28mm miniatures, mostly Games Workshop, who wants to save some hobby time with quick basecoats, and maybe some simple shading, possibly adding simple stencil and masking effects.
Practise, Practise, Practise
First, let me start with the most common piece of advice when it comes to an airbrush, which I find totally useless and infuriating.
You just need to practise, practise, practise.
Of course you’ll get better at anything if you practise. It’s meaningless. Worse, it implies that you’ll need to invest huge amounts of time before you’ll start getting any half-decent results. There are some airbrush maestroes out there, doing tremendously intricate work with tiny needled expensive airbrushes (take a look at @NigelSBartlett and @Celsork). Yes, that takes a heck of a lot of practise.
Speeding up getting basecoats on minis and vehicles especially? Honestly, everyone I’ve asked says that isn’t so bad. Doing a basic job on big bits of terrain? Yeah, really not too difficult either. You will get out what you put in, but an airbrush can reward your hobby time even if you aren’t a commission painter and don’t have hours a day to spend.
Besides, saying practise in itself doesn’t give you the information you need. What do I need to practise? What is best to practise on?
If someone asked me for advice (given I haven’t really started yet!), I’d point them at this utterly magnificent blog post, that genuinely felt helpful to me. It’s the General’s Tent, and basically suggests – start by priming your miniatures. Move on to trying to paint big terrain bits, where the techniques are simplified by the size of the piece, and honestly people don’t look as closely at terrain. Move onto painting minis, getting more and more complex. And finally, paint your dream piece that you have waiting for you as a special treat. It might be an Imperial Knight, a Titan, or the Millennium Falcon. Thats a heck of lot more useful than “Practise”.
As a personal note, I would suggest admitting to yourself that you will make mistakes, so do what you can to alleviate things. If you spray acrylic paint all over a model and screw it up, it helps to be able to clean it off and start again … and thats a lot easier with metal minis! Starting with metals, and keeping a few metal minis on hand to use as test models for trailing new paint schemes or new fluids like varnish just makes sense to me. Thats a heck of a lot easier if you play Infinity with all their metals, of course! And you can strip resin and plastics if you are careful.
Don’t take these suggestions as prescriptive! You need to plan a pattern of escalating airbrush usage to get you where YOU want to go. If you just want to go as far as some simple one colour basecoats, cool! Start with airbrush rated primers, try some simple one colour basecoats, then maybe some simple masking to do multiple colours on the minis, or mixing colour into the primers to save you extra time. Bam! You’ve got to the point you wanted to get to.
Don’t get me wrong, you will practise a lot. But think about what you need to practise, make sure you have good materials to practise on, and focus on practising what you need to achieve your goals with the airbrush.
Resources for Getting Started
A commission painter I really respect, @PaintySim, thoroughly recommends this youtube video as a brilliant introduction to airbrushing. Its a massive dump of information, and you’ll get more out of it if you go back periodically as you try new things and pick up more and more – by Ken Scholtfeldt from Badger Airbrush – don’t worry, its still just as useful if you use Iwata or another brush! There are a whole range of useful follow up videos too. I struggle a little bit with video guides, as I generally like text, but seeing someone do things is really useful.
EDIT – as it happens, another top airbrusher, @Alan_Kasteli (or leonidas on this site) had actually sent me a link to that video over a year ago, before I got all excited for airbrushing again in August! Shows how very useful it is!
If you can find any cool people willing to show you how to do things, or demonstrate new paint ranges, you’ll learn a lot faster than trying to go solo, even with demonstration videos – Painty often goes through some tricks of the trade down at Dark Sphere in London and you’ll learn a heck of a lot if you catch her.
There are some great websites dedicated to airbrushing. One problem is often information overload, and you’ll find advice on one may contradict advice on another. Thats true if you ask airbrushers you know too – just like painting minis with a brush, there are a wide range of techniques and options, and some work better for some people than others. Take airbrush cleaners, for example. Some people swear by Iwata Medea. Others find the chemicals horrible, and prefer Vallejo cleaners. Others recommend 91% alcohol as a cleaner – still others recommend 99% alcohol. To some degree, it doesn’t really matter – it’ll all get your brush clean … but some options will work better with your nose, your skin, your chosen paints, and maybe even the materials in your airbrush, and certainly with your wallet.
I’ve found the Airbrush Guru to be really informative. There are so many options and things covered here that its best if you have at least a rough question needing a specific answer than a general introduction.
Ive found Paul Budzik’s Airbrush tips for Modelers to be absolutely brilliant. Lots of fascinating facts about the history, clear descriptions of different types of airbrush, lots of video demonstrations (and his site in general is a treasure trove of modelling techniques).
If anyone has any suggestions, I’m happy to add them here.
Choose between Time and Money
At the end of the day, there is a big tradeoff with airbrushing between time and money invested. You probably have loads of paints already. Want to use them in your airbrush? Well, different ranges use different grains of pigment, making them more or less likely to clog … and thats after you’ve experimented with thinners like water, dedicated thinners and mediums. And you might need to add paint retarders to stop it clumping while you paint.
If you spend money on dedicated airbrush paints, like Vallejo Model Air or Game Air, it’ll just tend to work. The pigment is ground fine, the consistency is right. But you’ll have to pay for it.
Want to thin the normal Game or Model Vallejo paints? You can pretty much guarantee the Vallejo thinner will work. Want to thin GW paints? Its all water soluble acrylic, so any acrylic thinner or water should work, shouldn’t it? Well, it won’t always, and you’ll to spend time and effort experimenting. If you stick within a range, it’ll be safer, though might be dearer.
Want to use cheap distilled water to thin? That’ll normally work just fine. Once in a while, you’ll find the pigment doesn’t move right, and you need to use a mix of water and medium or thinner. Again, it’ll cost you time and effort – you’ll learn loads, and not make the mistake in future, but you have to weigh up a cost of time against money.
If you have the money, and are time poor, invest in airbrush paints, invest in thinners and varnishes and medium (and maybe even cleaner) from the same ranges, and you’ll get consistent, comparatively easy results. If you are time rich and cash poor, spending the time to experiment is going to be much better for you in the long run.
Take your goals into account too. If basecoating and simple work is as far as you want to go, you aren’t going to need more than an introductory brush, or at most a workhorse brush like the Iwata Eclipse. If you want to start doing detail work, you’ll probably need to spend a lot more on an airbrush with amazing control … and you’ll need a very small nozzle and needle, and that’ll mean definitely using airbrush grade paints to avoid clogs. The more involved the work is, the more you’ll need to spend to get good results.
If you want easy win stencils, you can quickly pay a company for them, or you can look at techniques and methods of making your own. Making your own will be more flexible in the long run, and probably be cheaper. It’ll also take a lot more time, and probably more experimentation. Again, its ease against cost.
Talking to people you trust (and that might be messaging on Facebook, tweeting on twitter or going for a beer) is going to get you to a solution you feel comfortable with. Articles like these give you information and options, but you need to understand what you want to invest (in terms of money and time) and what you want to get out of using an airbrush (in terms of what level of detail you want to reach with it one day). Thats really the key!