Airbrush Paint Guide

Airbrush Paint Guide
Not so long ago, companies did not make paint specifically for airbrushing. Inks were an option but if an artist wanted to airbrush with paint they needed to go through the trouble of thining it down themselves with an appropriate additive until it would atomize correctly. Thankfully, today's artist lives in an age of convenience and there are plenty of airbrush paints to choose from. In fact, paint companies like Createx are constantly inventing new lines of paint that cater to specific applications and techniques. Yes, it's never been a better time to be in the market for some airbrush paint. However, if you want to make an informed decision you should first learn some basics.

Paint formulas can be very complicated. Without getting too deep into the chemistry, there are three primary parts to all paints: the diluent, the binder and the coloring agent.

The Diluent - Also known as the base, the diluent allows the paint to flow and determines the viscosity. Once the paint has dried and set the diluent has evaporated from the paint. It also determines what the paint can be thinned with. For instance a water-based acrylic uses water as a diluent and therefore can be thinned with water. Where as a solvent-based paint must me thinned with solvent and so on.

The Binder - This is what holds the paint together and allows it to adhere a surface. The binder will also determine the sheen, durability and flexibility of the paint.

The Coloring Agent - The pigment or dye that provides the desired color for the paint. The quality and purity of the pigments will contribute to the paint's permanence.

Below we've split the paints into four different categories: Water-Based, Solvent-Based, Body-Paint/Makeup and Dyes/Inks. Keep in mind, not all products fit into just one category; there are some crossover products. For example Createx Wicked and Auto-Air colors are considered “water-based” however they do contain small amounts of solvent. ProAiir Hybrid colors are a cross between alcohol and water based. Also, there are additives that can change the attributes of the paint. It may worthwhile to try a different products to determine what works best for you.

Water-Based (Acrylics, Watercolors etc.)

These are the most common types of paints used for airbrushing. They are generally safe to use and low in toxicity. Some product lines are actually certified non-toxic. The base of these paints is water, making them water soluble. However, water is not always the best reducer.

Acrylics – This is a water-based product that uses an acrylic resin as a binder. Traditional artists' acrylics can be converted into airbrush paint using an airbrush medium. However it is highly recommended to only use fluid (aka soft body) acrylics such as Golden Fluid Acrylics. Heavy body acrylics cannot be thinned enough without loosing too much of their pigmentation and binder properties.

A better option is to choose from a variety of premade airbrush paints including Golden High Flow, Holbein Aeroflash, Com-Art and Createx Colors. These colors can be reduced with water as well as mixed with specific mediums to suit your need. Applications include porous materials such as textiles, canvas, paper, wood etc. Createx also makes several lines of water-based acrylic airbrush paint that contain a solvent vehicle. These products (Wicked Colors, Auto-Air Colors, Createx Illustration Colors) are extra durable and work on a variety of surfaces including plastic and metal. Because they are made with solvents these lines should be thinned with a special reducer instead of water.

Watercolors – Traditional watercolors can be thinned a run through an airbrush with ease. Such a technique was used by classic illustrators like pinup master Alberto Vargas. Nowadays watercolors are available in a premixed ready-to-spray variety (i.e. Dr PH Martins Hydrus) which is a convenient option. Watercolors are transparent in nature and can be airbrushed using layering techniques. They are also “rewettable” meaning after being applied they have the the ability to be reactivated by adding water. These paints are far less durable then acrylics and have light-fastness issues. Therefore, they are primarily used for illustration or fine art.

Gouache – Similar to watercolors, gouache colors can be reduced with water and run through an airbrush and are also rewettable. The key difference between these and watercolors is that they are opaque rather than transparent. Unlike acrylics they dry to a flat finish and are a favorite among illustrators.

Solvent-Based (Urethanes, Enamels etc.)

A respirator and proper ventilation is absolutely necessary when using paints like this because the fumes and vapors are highly toxic. Not recommended for in home use.

Urethanes – A very durable paint commonly used in the industry of custom automotive graphics and muraling. These paints have a certain way they flow that is beloved by many. Because of the chemical elements and very fine pigments the paint runs very thin and can be operated at low pressure. They also dry slower than water-based products which leads to less clogging in the airbrush tip. While there are paint lines like Custom Paints Inspire line which are purely solvent-based, there is also Createx Auto-Air which is a primarily water-based paint that offers solvent-based additives like 4030 Intercoat and 4020 Automotive Reducer that make the paint have properties closer to that of a urethane paint in terms of durability, flow and tip dry.

Oil-Based Enamels – This is a highly durable and adhesive paint with a glossy finish and self-leveling properties. The big name in oil-based enamels is the iconic 1 Shot Lettering Enamel. Originally designed for hand-painted lettering, this product can also be airbrushed with permanent results. These paints cannot be airbrushed strait out of the can but when reduced with high-temp reducer they make for a very durable airbrush paint that will adhere to any surface. It's even been used on T-shirts, as famously done by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.

Artists' Oils – Yes, this traditional medium can be used in an airbrush when heavily reduced with a solvent such as turpentine or mineral spirits. It's tricky to find the right atomization with these, but the technique has been perfected by some artists. Airbrushing with oils has been more or less phased-out by contemporary airbrush paints.

Body-Paint and Makeup (Alcohol-Based, Silicone-Based etc.)

These non-toxic paints are FDA approved to use on skin. They are very safe to use unless the model is allergic to specific ingredients in the paint. Most airbrush ready body-paints fall under the following categories: Water-based, Alcohol-Based or Silicone-Based.

Alcohol-Based - Alcohol-based paints, i.e. European Body Art's Endura line, provide excellent coverage and durability for body painters. This paint is commonly used in the FX industry because it will stay on for long periods of time and withstand sweat, rain and rubbing up against clothing etc. In addition to skin it can also be applied to hair and prosthetics. This paint needs to be mixed thoroughly and can be reduced with 90% isopropyl alcohol. The ink can stay on the skin for up to 2 weeks if properly cared for. Because of this longevity alcohol-based is the preferred ink for temporary tattoos. It can be removed with 70% or 90% isopropyl alcohol. SOBA ProAiir Hybrid colors are a mix between water and alcohol base. These are waterproof when applied and almost as durable as alcohol-based paints. They are easier to mix and spray and can be removed with liquid soap.

Silicone-Based - Popular airbrush makeups like Temptu SB have a silicone base. Because this product is so light, it is very comfortable to wear. It applies very smooth and evenly and wont dry out on the skin; making it perfect for cosmetic application. Although higher in cost, silicone-base also works great for body painting.

Dyes (Inks, Candies etc.)

Unlike most paints, which get their color from pigment, the majority of inks (and some paints) get their color using dye. The difference between pigments and dyes comes down to chemistry. Pigments are suspended in the base while dyes are dissolved. Pigments are finely ground particles of color which are suspended in the paint which when applies will lay on top of a surface. Dyes are chemicals that completely dissolve into the base medium to create color. When applied they will chemically bind to the surface and actually become part of it. Dye based inks and paints are very transparent as light goes directly through dyes.

Inks - Most calligraphy and drawing inks use dye for coloring (i.e. Winsor Newton, Higgins, Pinata.) However India ink and acrylic inks (such as FW) are pigmented. Inks work well in an airbrush. Being so thin they spray perfectly with no need for reduction. They spray best at a lower pressure (15-20 psi.) Keep in mind that most inks are very transparent and are easily absorbed. They work best on paper or illustration board.

Candies - Automotive candy paints are also dye colored. Whether solvent-based like Custom Paints' Inspire Candies or a water/solvent hybrid like Auto-Air Candy2.0, candy colors are very transparent and work best when applied over a metallic base color or flake.

Things To Look For

Here are some things to consider when looking into a line of paint.

Toxicity - Safety is of the utmost importance when airbrushing. Solvent based paints are very toxic especially when sprayed. Breathing the fumes and vapors can cause irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract resulting in headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Long term exposure can cause serious health problems. Always use a respirator and have proper ventilation when using these paints.

Water-based paints paints are typically safe to use but its still a good idea to have some decent ventilation in place or use a paper mask so that you're not breathing in over-spray. When applying paint to skin always make sure the paint is non-toxic, or better yet, FDA approved.

Viscosity - Paints come in a variety of thicknesses. Airbrush paints and inks come "airbrush ready", however, if you're using a smaller tip size (under .5mm), the paint may need to be reduced before it's ready to spray. The recommended tip size will vary from product to product. Typically paints marketed to illustrators will come ready to spray through a small tip at low pressure, while T-shirt paints will be designed for a larger tip size and work at a higher PSI.

Adhesion and Durability - Obviously, you want to use a paint that will adhere to the surface that you're painting. Furthermore, consider how durable you need it to be. Additives and clear coats can also make the paint more durable.

Permanence - This is the light-fastness of the paint. Or rather how well the paint pigment holds up to the element of light. Colors that fade more rapidly are called fugitive. Florescent colors, for example, are very fugitive. There is an ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) grade for measuring levels of light-fastness. Manufacturer Standards are another way of measuring light-fastness. Either one or both of these should be displayed on the label of each color.

ASTM Permanence Standard:
ATSM I = Excellent Light-fastness
ATSM II = Very Good Light-fastness
ATSM III = Not Sufficiently Light-fast

Manufacturer Standard:
**** or AA = Extremely permanent colors
*** or A = Durable colors.
** or B = Moderately durable colors.
* or C = Fugitive Colors

Airbrush Paint Quick Reference Chart

Art and Illustration Paints
Paint Line Base Finish Spray Ready PSI Tip Size Non-Toxic Opacity #Colors
Createx Colors Acylic Flat Yes 40-50 psi .5mm ≥ Yes Trns/Opq. 72
Wicked Water w/Solvent Semi-Gloss Yes 30-50 psi .35mm ≥ No Trns/Opq. 55
Wicked Details Water w/Solvent Flat Yes 20-40 psi .2mm ≥ No Transparent 52
Createx Illustration Water w/Solvent Flat Yes 15-30 psi .15mm ≥ No Transparent 16
Bloodline Colors Water w/Solvent Flat Yes 15-30 psi .15mm ≥ No Transparent 15
Com-Art Acylic Flat Yes 15-30 psi .18mm ≥ Yes Trans/Opq 71
Jacquard Airbrush Acylic Semi-Gloss Yes 30-50 psi .5mm ≥ No Trans/Opq 48
Golden High Flow Acylic Semi-Gloss Yes 25-50 psi .2mm ≥ No Transparent 47
Holbein Aeroflash Acylic Flat Yes 15-30 psi .15mm ≥ Yes Trans/Opq 86
Dr.Ph.Martin's Hydrus Watercolor Flat Yes 15-30 psi .15mm ≥ Yes Transparent 36
Auto and Hobby Paints
Auto-Air Water w/Solvent Semi-Gloss Yes 30-50 psi .5mm ≥ No Trans/Opq 162
Inspire Urethane Semi-Gloss Yes 20-35 psi .3mm ≥ No Trans/Opq 37
1 Shot Oil-Enamel Gloss No 30-40 psi .5mm ≥ No Opaque 56
Testors Enamel Gloss No 25-40 psi .5mm ≥ No Opaque 44
Minitaire Acrylic Gloss Yes 25-30 psi .35mm ≥ Yes Opaque 50
Inks
FW Acrylic(pigment) Satin Yes 25-30 psi .2mm ≥ No Transparent 44
Higgins Waterproof Water(dye) Satin Yes 15-25 psi .15mm ≥ No Transparent 16
Winsor Newton Drawing Water(dye) Satin Yes 15-25 psi .15mm ≥ No Transparent 26
Pinata Alcohol(dye) Flat Yes 15-25 psi .15mm ≥ No Transparent 17
Body-Paint and Makeup
Temptu Dura Alcohol Satin Yes 15-25 psi .35mm ≥ Yes Opaque 33
Temptu SB Silcone Semi-Gloss Yes 15-25 psi .35mm ≥ Yes Opaque 81
Mehron Lux Water Flat Yes 20-30 psi .35mm ≥ Yes Opaque 18
Mehron Liquid Makeup Water Satin No 20-30 psi .5mm ≥ Yes Opaque 10
ProAiir Hybrid Water/Alcohol Satin Yes 15-30 psi .3mm ≥ Yes Opaque 35
EBA Endura Alcohol Satin Yes 15-30 psi .35mm ≥ Yes Opaque 40
Paasche Temp. Tattoo Alcohol Satin Yes 15-30 psi .35mm ≥ Yes Opaque 13
Artool Body of Art Alcohol Satin Yes 15-30 psi .35mm ≥ Yes Opaque 14
Base: The base and or binder (vehicle) of the paint. Finish: The sheen of the paint once dry (how shiny it is.) Spray Ready: Whether or not the paint is ready to be sprayed through an airbrush. PSI: The recommended pressure (Pounds Per Square Inch) for the paint to be sprayed through an airbrush. Tip Size: The recommended nozzle size for the paint to be used strait out of the bottle. (Or in the case or non airbrush ready paints, once mixed.) Opacity: How opaque or transparent the paint is. #Colors: Number of colors available in the paint line.

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