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You should get an airbrush

It’s a small price to pay for a better painting experience all year round

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Winter is coming, and for anyone who paints miniatures (or gunpla, or other kinds of models) that means one thing: You had better have all your priming done to get you by for the next few months. Cans of spray paint don’t work very well in the cold. Especially in northern climates like here in Illinois, that can be a serious problem for hobbyists. That’s just one reason why many people opt for using an airbrush.

I’ve been painting miniatures on the regular for a few years now, and I know enough to say that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve put a lot of energy into studying — how to apply a primer with a rattle can, how to block in colors, and how to get those nice, crispy edge highlights. I am still quite bad at glazing. Wet blending? No dice. But, even at my modest skill level, it’s been a nice, meditative pursuit — especially in these trying times. That’s partly why I’ve given airbrushes a wide berth.

Of course, the other issue is the price. You can easily spend more on an airbrush set-up than a next-generation gaming console. They’re also extremely fragile, and learning how to use one can be a chore. Nevertheless, on the advice of a friend of mine I bought one anyway — a really cheap one. I’m surprised at just how useful it’s been.

Even if all you want to do is prime your miniatures during the winter months, an inexpensive airbrush can save you both time and money. Put in just a little more effort and a whole world of advanced techniques opens up. Here’s what I’ve learned, what I want to work on next, plus a shopping list with everything you’ll need to get started.

Airbrush shopping list

This list isn’t overly long. You’ll need an airbrush and a compressor — like this bundle from Master Airbrush for under $100 — as well as some primers to get started. Grab yourself Vallejo black primer, white primer, airbrush thinner, and some airbrush cleaner. Also, pick up some disposable pipettes for moving paint around, and replacement 0.3 mm airbrush needles. You’ll also want to grab a cleaning kit.

Breathing particulates is never a great idea, regardless of what they’re made out of. So you’ll also want to pick up a reusable mask. 3M makes a good one that I’ve had some experience with. The filters are good for 40 hours. Alternately, you can always grab a good disposable P95 mask (or 10).

Finally, consider setting up a painting hood to protect, well, everything else that you own. I use a sturdy box that I got with a shipment for work. I cut a hole in one side, put a $1.00 furnace filter over it, and duct-taped the whole kludge to a box fan. The goal is to aim the airbrush toward the filter, that way any overspray finds its way onto the filter and not all over your walls and work surface. I also use junk mail and old printer paper to line the inside of the box. That provides me with good reflectivity and consistent color temperature for my lighting.

Things not to do

If you’re like me, disassembling and reassembling your new gadgets is always step one. Don’t take the airbrush apart until you’ve used it a few times. Like I mentioned above, it’s pretty cheaply made. Lots of pieces are friction fit, and the manual isn’t all that helpful when you try to get them back together. Also, there’s a few gaskets that you might accidentally inhale they’re so small.

Just leave it alone for the first few times that you use it. Once you get some repetitions in, identifying the bits you should be taking off for deeper cleaning or adjusting and putting them back together again will become self-evident.

Most importantly, be mindful of the tip of the airbrush — especially the needle point.

Whatever airbrush you get, it’s going to have a thin, six-inch-long needle locked inside. They’re very sharp, but also very delicate. The very tip of the needle extends forward, right out the nozzle on the front of an airbrush. It’s so small you can barely see it, and just touching it the wrong way with a cotton swab or getting it caught on a paper towel can bend or break it. Treat the business end like fine crystal or a fragile sculpture and leave it alone.

Quick tips

A thin silver needle rests on the business end of an airbrush.
The needle at the heart of an airbrush next to a smallish, 28mm miniature from the BattleTech: A Game of Armored Combat boxed set. It’s foot is maybe a quarter inch long.
Image: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Airbrushes work by feeding paint into a stream of air, and then focusing that stream on the surface that you want to paint. The Master-branded airbrush I recommend here is a gravity feed airbrush, meaning that all you need to do is put some paint in the jar and it will find its way down and into the stream of air on its own. Use a few drops of thinner to keep it flowing.

To mix the thinner and the paint, put them both into a dish or a shallow jar with the pipettes and swirl ‘em around. You could also mix them in the pot right on the airbrush, but that risks bending the needle.

This Master airbrush is a dual-action airbrush, meaning the trigger has two functions. Press down on the trigger to get the air flowing, and pull back on the trigger to increase the flow of paint. Pull back far enough and you’ll rip the trigger right out of the airbrush, so please be gentle.

To avoid getting paint stuck to the nozzle — which can lead to paint splatters and jams — begin and end every press of the brush with air. The pattern should go like this:

  • Press the trigger to begin blowing air
  • Pull the trigger back to introduce a flow of paint
  • Paint your miniature
  • Push the trigger forward to stop the paint from flowing
  • Let the air flow for just a moment longer once the paint stops flying
  • And, finally, release the trigger to stop blowing air
A disassembled airbrush showing the major components.
To remove the needle of your airbrush for cleaning, you’ll need to unscrew the back cap and the tiny nut that locks it in place.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Start with black primer, and go slow. It will take some time to get the feel for how much paint is going onto the model. Keep your air pressure around 20 PSI, and thin your paints 50/50 or more with thinner — even if they’re paints specifically designed for an airbrush. You won’t need higher pressures at first, unless you’re doing large models or bits of terrain. Remember to hit the model from all angles — including from underneath.

What you should be left with is a fine coat of black primer. It will have much less “tooth” than if you used a rattle can, meaning that the finish will be much smoother. Stick with that black primer for as long as you like, and prime a good half-dozen or so minis before your pot runs out of paint.

Congratulations. You just saved yourself a good $6 in spray paint, saved a nasty can of paint from heading to the landfill, and got a cleaner finish on your miniature to boot. The miniature is also dry and ready for additional layering much more quickly. Also, since you’re inside, you didn’t have to worry about temperature or humidity — a big deal if you live in a northern climate.

Cleaning your airbrush

Cleaning an airbrush is a real pain, which is why I like to paint big batches of miniatures a single color at a time. But you need to do a proper cleaning every time you finish working with your airbrush, or you’ll ruin it.

One of the best guides I’ve found comes from Cult of Paint. Not only is he thorough, he’s also economical with his use of cleaner, which is one of the nastier chemicals you’ll use throughout the whole painting process.

Advanced techniques

Smooth, quick-drying coats of primer are just the beginning. There are a lot more advanced techniques that an airbrush is good for.

Zenithal highlighting is another excellent technique, but one that takes slightly more specialized materials. Basically, you start with a dark color and then apply a lighter color from above — as though the miniature was being lit by the sun at its zenith. I’ve used black and white to great effect. You can also slip a coat of gray in between to give a more gentle transition.

Trouble is that when you apply your base coat, you need to be able to see this high-contrast layer through it. The Citadel Air paints that I’m using for my basecoats seem to be too opaque to show the undercoats beneath. A good option that I recently stumbled upon is using Citadel Contrast paints. They have a much lower opacity — meaning that you have to apply them in multiple coats to build up a rich, solid color on top of a primer. But even with just one or two coats the colors are vibrant, and you can easily see the zenithal highlight underneath.

Three pre-shaded, black and white miniatures.
Three zenithal highlighted miniatures.
Image: Charlie Hall/Polygon
A zenithal primed mini in black and white next to the same sculpt with a coat of red paint over the top.
A zenithal highlighted miniatured painted with thin coast of Citadel Colour Contrast Blood Angels Red.
Image: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Other painters get around the limitation of commercial acrylic paints by using inks instead for zenithal highlighting. The Miniac YouTube channel does a great job of covering the basics of that technique, and also has some good recommendations for inks.

Airbrushes are also good for fine detail work, but that’s also going to require specialized parts — smaller nozzles and different needles, among other things — that I don’t yet have any experience with. Feel free to explore those methods on your own.

Next steps

As your skills grow, you’ll likely move beyond what this particular Master airbrush is capable of. That’s fine, since it comes with a perfectly serviceable air compressor. When you’re ready the whole thing is fully compatible with higher-end airbrushes from companies like Badger, Iwata, and others.

With any luck, this guide has helped you shave off some time on getting your miniatures up to table-ready standards — and helped you get more miniatures painted overall during the winter months.


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