Airbrush Priming for Miniatures: Tips for the Frustrated
You do need to plug your airbrush into an air compressor. This image is just for show.
If you’re like me, you’ve never been able to grasp airbrushing miniatures. It looks so easy when the pros do it on YouTube, but I have yet to master even the basic techniques needed to airbrush miniatures to any other degree but primed. I felt like I was cleaning my airbrush more than actually using it because clogs were constant. It was annoying.
I’ve watched many tutorials on airbrushing, and have tried many approaches, but have never been able to even remotely do anything useful with it other than the super popular zenithal priming effect, which works so well with my approach to miniature painting.
The weather lately has been all over the place where I live. Using rattle can primers when the weather is not perfect often screws up your miniature's finish, so airbrushing is a much more ideal way of priming in my opinion.
So, what this article isn’t is a tutorial on painting your miniatures with an airbrush. I won’t be covering any tips on using any airbrush paint colors other than black, grey, and white (the zenithal colors). But the tips below could just as easily be used with color air paints, I just include these colors because it's what I am priming with as of late.
What I will be covering is how to get some use out of your airbrush by using it as a priming tool. You may be saying to yourself, “well, I can already prime with my airbrush”. But do you find your airbrush getting clogged all the time? I did until I found the techniques below (unfortunately I cannot remember where I saw these techniques online, or I would credit them).
So, throw away those rattle cans, and follow me as I show you how to get some use out of an airbrush when you are a total newb with it.
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My Approach & The Items I Purchased
I own an Iwata Neo CN airbrush, and to be honest, I think the thing feels flimsy. Now, pros may throw tomatoes at me for saying that, so listen to the pros for sure on what brands and models to purchase for pro airbrushing, and all of that.
But for me, as a complete novice, I found that I was breaking the nozzle and bending the needle way too often. I had to actually order a replacement of the entire airbrush because I destroyed my first one. Full disclosure, I tend to destroy lots of things because of my butter fingers. I've gone through 5 Xbox controllers over the past couple years, and live with the fact that my iPhone's protective shield will always be cracked.
So, for my “tutorial” here, I am suggesting that you start fresh, with a new, cheap Master airbrush. I purchased this cheap airbrush mainly because I wanted to start anew. Who knows how much paint is caked in the crevices of my Iwata Neo, but the technique I’m about to show you works decently even in it right now.
Starting fresh means optimal performance without any issues, or the knowledge needed to thoroughly clean an airbrush.
Click on this image for the Amazon listing.
This is the set featuring an air compressor. The air compressor I use is the Master light blue one, but this probably works just as well. I used to use a small black air compressor but I hated it, so I do suggest buying a proper air compressor. I’ve been using the Master air compressor for over a year and it works just fine, and it feels like a sturdy, quality product.
This little guy is ready to be speedpainted. I didn't mean to be insulting to this dwarf by calling him little. Oh boy...
Click this picture if you're interested in seeing the Amazon listing.
Whether you have an air compressor or not, this is listing I would suggest you check out. It seems like there are tons of Master Airbrush listings on Amazon, they’re practically giving away these airbrushes, and they are great quality airbrushes for what we are using them for. This lot includes needles and all sorts of bits and whatnot.
Having replaced parts on my Iwata, it blows me away how much cheaper these Master airbrushes are, and the quality is still there. I would imagine that if you plan on doing high-level airbrushing, you should get into the more expensive brands (at least that’s what the pros say, so I take their word for it). But this sucker is great at priming. Oh yeah, be sure to get the gravity-fed airbrush. I've never tried a suction fed airbrush, but screw it.
The Paints I Use
When I first purchased my Iwata, I was going headlong into airbrushing, so I purchased The Army Painter Warpaints Air Starter Set. I’m a typical wargamer with impulsivity issues. Anyway, someday I may find a use for the color air Warpaints, but for now, I can use the white, grey, and black colors as mentioned above.
I’ve since moved on to Vallejo Model Air paints. Warpaints air paints are fine though, I just moved to Vallejo to try them out. It appears like they are the same quality, but I have read online that some bottles of Warpaints White Primer have been chalky, requiring painters to filter the paint through a strainer. That’s not been my experience but it is worth noting.
Buy Airbrushing Stuff
It is very important that you grab some of the basic stuff you need for your airbrush setup if you don’t already have it. Namely cleaner, flow improver, cleaning kits, and so on.
For the tips below, you will also need a stemless wine glass full of water. It can be any reasonably sized glass, but I prefer using this type of glass because it seems to work well. You can find this sort of thing at your local department store, or online if the harsh sun burns your skin.
Now, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this blog post.
How I Keep My Airbrush Clean
The important thing to remember when using this technique is to try to keep the paint wet in your airbrush at all times. The reason your airbrush gets clogged is that you are running through too thick of paint, or you let the paint settle in the airbrush and dry. Thinning your paint and keeping it wet at all times makes it far less likely to clog, which is the number one reason I got frustrated and stopped airbrushing for the longest time.
1) Whenever your airbrush pot is empty enough to where no more paint is coming out, immediately submerge the front half of the airbrush into your glass full of water, and pull the trigger full blast. Let the airbrush blow its bubbles for a little while, then remove the airbrush, and fire the water into your airbrush cleaning pot.
2) Put some airbrush cleaner into the airbrush and discharge it into your airbrush cleaning pot (not your glass of water). This cleans out any remaining paint.
3) Take a q-tip and clean any paint out of the airbrushes’ pot. If you see paint collecting under the needle, partially remove the needle and clean the pot out with the q-tip.
4) After every session of airbrushing, I like to clean the needle by dipping it into Tamiya Airbrush Cleaner (not found on Amazon, but you can buy it at HobbyTown or on eBay). This stuff is more for a serious cleaning than the airbrush cleaner mentioned above. It has that nail polish my-lungs-hurt smell to it, so don’t breathe that stuff in. I run the needle through the fold of my pointing finger to remove any stubborn paint and reinstall it.
Another Big Tip: I like to put some flow improver in with my paint while airbrushing. This also helps prevent clogs. The ratio I use is ¼, but I am still trying out new ratios of paint/flow improver. If you want to spray a wash effect, 50-50 paint/flow improver produces some neat effects.
When I put flow improver into my airbrush pot, along with the paint, I mix it by putting the tip of my finger over the front and pulling the trigger. The paint will mix in the pot as the air flows backward into it. Pretty easy way to mix paints right in your airbrush.
Well, That's It
So, are the tips above groundbreaking? Many of them are practical, but submerging the airbrush into water thing really has changed airbrushing for me. I can pump out a lot more primed miniatures when using this technique, and I have yet to have had to do a breakdown and cleaning of the new Master airbrush I purchased from Amazon. I’m not saying you’ll never have to break down an airbrush and clean it again, nor am I suggesting that you won’t have clogs by doing the above. All I am saying is, this technique has really enabled me to make some good use of my airbrush. Being the kind of person that seems to never get it right with this thing, that’s a very good feeling.
- Jay C. Shepherd
- Content Creator
- Jay is a graphic designer, board game enthusiast, and professional wrestling fan who loves all things 80's, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and of course, video games. He is one of the rare few that believes that one can be a Trekkie and Star Wars fan at the same time.