If you’re a beginner, you may wonder what types of paints are best suited to your chosen surface. Although many airbrush experts stress that becoming a pro means lots of experimentation, our charts will help steer you in the right direction and hopefully eliminate much of the frustration new airbrushers encounter. For each paint product featured in the guide, we’ve checked off a list of manufacturer-recommended surfaces on which to use the paint.
Simply find your desired painting surface at the top right of the chart and see which paints are best for that surface. In the charts, you’ll also find information on paint base, thinning, additives and finish.
We’ve also included a directory with phone numbers, addresses and Web sites for all the paint makers included
in the guide.
There are roughly five types of paint—acrylics, inks and dyes, oils, urethanes, and watercolors. Each one has its own set of pros, cons and recommended surfaces, so before you start a project, take a moment to review your needs and choose the correct paint.
Acrylics: Of all the paint options for airbrush, these are the most versatile and easiest to use. You can use these paints on just about any surface, including fabric, canvas and acetate. They spray evenly through an airbrush and have short dry times, which means you don’t have to wait long between coats. If you thin acrylic paints properly, you can even use them to achieve a transparent effect. Some brands make this even easier by offering ready mixed transparent paints.
When acrylic paints dry, they are very strong. The pigment in acrylics is bound with plastic, allowing the paints to stand up to just about anything, including water. The notable exception to this, however, is alcohol.
The good news for frisket lovers is that acrylic paints are hardy enough to withstand this type of masking, especially when compared to watercolors or gouache.
Be sure to shake acrylic paint before using; it can separate if not homogenized. Also, when spraying acrylic textile paint, you need to use a relatively high air pressure (40 to 60 psi) to more effectively force the color into the fabric. Another way to ensure that you’re getting the most from your acrylic paint is to heat-set your fabric after painting. Tip: Acrylic paints can be very difficult to remove from the inside of your airbrush, so make sure you clean up right away. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to clean your airbrush.
Inks and Dyes: Another great choice for airbrush use. These thin pigments are easy to spray with an airbrush and require a low psi. A top choice of commercial illustrators, inks and dyes provide brilliant color on paper and illustration board. If you use paper, it should be extremely fine-grained because any textures will show through your paint. A small drawback to using inks and dyes is that your ready-to-use color choices are relatively limited, but you can easily mix them, allowing for creative custom colors.
In fact, most jars come with an eyedropper on the lid, giving you the ability to precisely fine-tune your color mixtures. Caution: although your colors will be vibrant, exposure to light causes fading.
With inks, you should always shake the bottle first, because the pigment can separate. As with acrylics, we recommend that you clean your airbrush immediately after working with inks.
Tip: Avoid letting your hands come in contact with the art. The oil in your skin can wreak havoc on your work, turning a first-rate paint job into a splotchy nightmare. We recommend using cotton gloves when you work with inks
Oils: Oil paints provide intense and durable colors, but using them with an airbrush can be tricky. Oil paints predate the airbrush by hundreds of years, so they weren’t exactly designed with our tool in mind! But it is certainly possible to airbrush with oil paints. The first step is to thin the oils with turpentine or mineral spirits at about a 60/40 paint-to-thinner ratio. Add the thinnerworking from the bottom and don’t shake the mixture.
Because of their slow dry time, oils are difficult to use with frisket. Make sure your paint has dried thoroughly between coats and when applying any masks. Thinning helps speed up drying times. As with any paint, clean your airbrush thoroughly and promptly after spraying use.
Urethanes: Unlike many other types of paint, urethanes are extremely durable. They are designed for heavy-duty work on cars, motorcycles, boats and other such surfaces, and can withstand the elements. These tough-as-nails paints can be covered in clearcoat, sanded and polished. Urethanes contain much more pigment than lighter-weight acrylics, which helps explain their rugged strength. Because they do not dry by water evaporation, urethanes require a catalyst or hardener to dry them.
Urethanes came in two varieties: single-stage and two-stage. Single-stage urethanes combine their pigments with a clearcoat material, eliminating the need for a separate clear finish application. Although single-stage urethanes
have lengthy dry times, you can sand and polish them as soon as they’re dry.
Two-stage urethanes have a dull finish when applied and need the addition of a clearcoat to provide luster. Your color options with two-stage urethanes are plentiful with opaques, pearls and transparents. Although you will have
the extra step of applying clearcoat, your dry time is much shorter.
Urethanes require special caution when sprayed. Use a respirator and good ventilation to minimize your exposure to fumes.
Watercolors: Watercolors are perfect for airbrush because their thin makeup allows for very even and easy spraying. The con: watercolors lack the durability of acrylics and urethanes. Watercolors won’t hold up when exposed to the elements, especially moisture; the same water that binds the pigments will destroy the paint once it’s applied to a surface. This is why watercolors are generally limited to illustration and fine art.
Since watercolors are transparent, you should apply them in thin coats, building layer upon layer until you achieve your desired depth. Remember that hints of earlier coats will show through the layers. This makes it especially difficult to paint over a mistake when using watercolors. However, gouache, an opaque version of watercolors, is suped up with white paint to achieve opacity. Gouache has all the airbrush-friendly traits of watercolor, but it effectively covers mistakes, and because it’s thicker, you don’t need to apply as many coats.
You can purchase watercolors in tubes or cakes, or you can get them premixed and ready to spray. Simply add distilled water to the cakes or tubes, and you’re ready to airbrush. Frisket poses some challenges when working with watercolors. The adhesive can easily pull your paint off the surface. Also, once dry, watercolors can crack if forced to bend, so keep your completed artwork as rigid as possible.
Watercolors dry quickly. One of the best parts of working with watercolors is their easy clean-up. A good soaking will remove just about all the paint.