This is the first part in a series on painting techniques that I use to paint miniatures. Obviously, everything that follows is my opinion and not objective fact.
1. A good starter airbrush is the Iwata Eclipse HP-CS. It is a good jack-of-all-trades starter brush and can do wonders in the hands of an advanced painter. Get the gravity feed model for miniature work, not the syphon feed. The gravity feed models are easier to use with small amounts of paint. I use an eyedropper style pipette to fill and empty mine.
Also go for the 0.3 mm tip or even 0.35 mm tip to start. These are more forgiving than the 0.2 mm tip when you’re still learning to mix your own paint. Mostly because some paints like Citadel, Reaper, and Vallejo have larger sizes of pigment particles which can get frustrating in the 0.2mm tip when you’re new to mixing your own paint. Once you get used to how much you may have to thin them, Citadel, Reaper, and Vallejo Game Color paints work just fine.
1.1 Also, until you get the knack for mixing your own paint, a good resource is Vallejo Model Air paints which come pre-thinned and intended to go directly from the bottle into the airbrush. You can get these at most specialty hobby stores like HobbyTown U.S.A.
For primary colors, you can’t go wrong with Createx brand paints. You get a lot of paint for little money. I find mine at the local Hobby Lobby.
I still thin both of them a little more, but that comes down to personal preference and how much pressure you use to blow.
1.2 Using my Iwata I blow anywhere from 30-35 psi on the compressor, but recently I won a Grex airbrush in a painting competition and I use it for finer detail work. I use a quick disconnect with an airflow adjuster and I’m blowing as low as 15 psi for close detail work with my Grex.
2. Realize that one airbrush won’t do all things for all people. Just as you have multiple brushes in your paint kit (fine detail, wash brush, basecoat brush, dry brush), so you might eventually have different airbrushes with different capabilities or just different tips to allow you to achieve different results. The Citadel Spray Gun is pretty much locked in on one setting. It is great for basecoating, but not much else. Plus it looks like a flamer so I had to get it on principle.
But realize that the Citadel Spray Gun isn’t going to do what a Grex does.
3. If you have multiple airbrushes, quick disconnects are your friend. But remember to use Teflon tape around the connections to maintain a good seal.
4. You should probably also get an inline watertrap/water filter that prevents water that is in the air line from coming out through your brush and messing up your paint. Even though your compressor will most likely have one already. Get another on your line like this.
5. For a compressor, it is best to get one with an external tank. Not only will this help you by removing the pulsing from your air line and providing you with constant air, but it will supply your brush with on-demand air, meaning that once the tank is pressurized the compressor will shut off, thus extending the life of your compressor and lessening the amount of times you get a thermal shutoff. The compressors get extremely hot. An inexpensive compressor you can get on the web is the model TC-20.
You can get a really good combo kit on eBay that has everything you need to start out. Cheap. If you’re lucky you can get the whole kit and caboodle for less than $300 shipped. You might have to dig around for it, but it looks very similar to this.
6. Paint models in sections BEFORE you assemble them. Double-sided sticky tape is your friend! So much easier to do shoulder pads when you don’t have to mask the model.
6.1 Tamiya makes great masking tape in varying widths. Saves a lot of time.
6.2 If for some reason you weren’t able / it wasn’t practical to do Step 6. Silly Putty is a great masking tool on small things, like shoulder pads. But be sure to only use the name-brand Silly Putty, not the generic stuff. The generic stuff will leave a greasy residue behind on the miniature.
6.3 Index cards also make good masks. You can cut them into a lot of shapes (like for doing flames) and you don’t need to tape them down unless you need a hard edge. If feathering isn’t a problem, a cut piece of card may work very well.
7. For thinning paints, I use a 50-50 mix of isopropyl alcohol and water. The more alcohol you have the faster the paint will dry. More water = easier to blend. I keep it in an old squirt bottle and calculate my mix bases on how many ‘squirts’ it takes for a ratio of paint. I have it figured out for myself. You’ll need to figure it out for yours. Most people recommend that the paint be thinned to the consistency of milk. Err on the side of thinner rather than thicker. I used to use Windex to thin my paints too but I was recently told that the ammonia in the Windex can actually damage the guts of your brush, so I stopped and went to straight water and alcohol. Keep in mind, I never had trouble using Windex. It’s just something I stopped using after hearing some anecdotal stories about it. A lot of folks just use water. You’re going to need to figure it out what works best for you.
8. Resist the urge to mix the paint in the airbrushes paint cup. Just don’t do it. You will throw off your ratio and you may not be able to replicate the mix if you need to paint more of the same shade.
9. Those little plastic pipette eyedropper things, you can get at hobby stores are your best friend. That and get a lot of small plastic 1 oz cups to mix your paint in. You can buy them bulk, like 100 for $4.
10. To build skill, take a scrap piece of brown cardboard and put water in the airbrush…play around on the cardboard and see how thick or thin a line you can make. Play tic-tac-toe. Try to write things out.
11. Never leave paint in your brush. Clean it out each and every time, even if you’re just stepping away for a few minutes. If that paint dries inside the brush, it will be a royal pain to clean.
12. Wear a mask! I wear one of these. It works very well and is comfortable over long periods of time. You can pick it up an any home improvement store or Wal-Mart.
13. Also, I like to wear latex gloves when I’m working on my models. Not only does it keep your hands clean but it keeps your finger oils etc, off the model…thus keeping fingerprints off your model. Realize that an airbrush coat of paint is very very thin.
14. You may want to get a spraybooth with a turntable. Not absolutely necessary. You can make one out of an old cardboard box. Just realize that there is going to be overspray and you probably want it to go somewhere instead of your wall.
15. Realize that you can’t do everything with the airbrush. Some things still need brushwork. The best models result from a combination of techniques. The airbrush is just another tool in your arsenal, but you must become skilled with it. Don’t think that you’re going to be Michelangelo just because you’re using an airbrush. Remember how long it took you to get good at painting with a brush and how you learned different techniques like drybrushing, stippling, washes, inking? You’re going to have to go through all that with the airbrush. The first time you use it, you’re probably going to make a mess.
That’s all for now. More tips to come soon.