How to Airbrush Anatomy

Kindergarten – Airbrush Anatomy

Pre-School’s over slackers, Kindergarten has begun and what better way to kick things off then by telling lies.  That’s right, 2 truths and a lie. There are really only 2 main styles of airbrushes and 2 main types of airbrushes, can you spot the fakes?

Good luck…

There are three main styles and types of airbrushes. The three main styles are single-action, double-action and extreme-action. These terms refer to how the air and paint flow of an airbrush are controlled. The three main types are siphon-feed, gravity-feed and anti-gravity-feed. These terms refer to how the paint is supplied/delivered to the airbrush. We’re going to explore the nuts and bolts of how each style works, point out the differences between them and consider the advantages/disadvantages of each. Let’s get to it.


Single-Action Airbrush

A Single-action airbrush is classified as such due to the trigger being able to perform only a single-action; push down on the trigger, air and paint are released, let up on the trigger, air and paint stop, just like an aerosol spray can. On most models, the amount of paint that sprays out can be controlled by twisting a knob,  or adjusting a screw located near the tip of the airbrush. The drawback to this is that you have to stop spraying in order to make the adjustment.

IWATA Revolution SAR Single-Action Airbrush

Single action airbrushes are useful mostly for area coverage in activities such as hobbies and crafts, stenciling, mural work and even automotive paint touch-ups. In situations where big backgrounds or large areas of flat color are required, the single action airbrush does an adequate job. Mediums like acrylics, ceramic glazes and automotive paints, are commonly sprayed with a single action brush.

Most single action airbrushes are classified as external-mix (more on this below). Meaning they mix the air and the color outside the tip and are therefore less likely to clog if heavier materials are sprayed (such as ceramic glazes). This also means there are fewer moving parts that need cleaning which makes the single-action, an easy airbrush to maintain. However, a single-action airbrush does not have the precise control and “on the fly” paint adjustment offered by a double-action.

There was a time when single-action airbrushes were the norm because that’s all that existed but nowadays the majority of airbrush artists have switched to using double-action airbrushes.

Advantages: Easy to clean and maintain. Simple to use, not a lot of moving parts. Relatively inexpensive. Good for spraying larger areas. Good for spraying thicker paints/materials.

Disadvantages: You have to stop spraying in order to adjust the flow of the paint. Freehand airbrushing and small, fine detail work is much more difficult.

Double-Action Airbrush (Dual Action-Airbrush)

The spring loaded trigger on a double-action airbrush moves in 2 directions. Pressing the trigger down releases air (Just like on a single-action) and pulling the trigger back releases paint. Being able to control “on the fly” the amount of paint being released is the main advantage a double-action has over a single-action.

IWATA HP-BCS Double-Action Airbrush

Pulling back on the trigger while spraying, releases more paint and “letting up” on the trigger releases less paint. As you’ll learn in 5th grade, the best practice for painting with a double-action airbrush is to always press down on the trigger first to release air, then slowly pull back on the trigger to release the desired amount of paint. The double-action airbrush offers greater control which makes it more adept at producing fine lines and thick-to-thin or thin-to-thick strokes like the coveted “dagger stroke”.

Classified as “internal-mix”, a double-action airbrush mixes paint and air inside the nozzle just before spraying it out.

Being able to push down the trigger on a double-action airbrush and getting air only, has many advantages:

First, it’s much easier to avoid unwanted spots and splatters that can occur when you first press the trigger due to small amounts paint being leftover on the tip of the needle or in the mixing chamber of the airbrush.

Second, when there is tip dry, you can scrape it off with the tips of your fingers or fingernail, then give a quick blast of air to remove any lingering paint.

Third, being able to spray “air only” comes in handy sometimes for making paint dry quicker.

Lastly, sometimes when cleaning your airbrush, it’s necessary to backflush; I.e., hold your finger over the cap and then press the trigger down with your other finger to force a backflush through the paint mixing chamber. This is done on occasion to remove paint clogs.

Advantages: Complete and total control over the amount of paint you want to spray.

Disadvantages: All of your single-action friends are going to be way jealous of your new double-action lifestyle.

Note: While the RELEASE of air is controlled by pressing down on the trigger for both single and double action airbrushes, the AMOUNT of air released, is not controlled at the trigger. It’s controlled with an air pressure gauge at the compressor or an inline adjustable valve on the air hose.

NOTE: Internal Mix vs. External Mix

Pretty self explanatory. With an internal mix airbrush, the paint and air are mixed inside, near the tip of the airbrush before being sprayed out the nozzle. This gives you better atomization of the paint which creates smaller paint particles. Smaller paint particles = smoother blending, shading and fades.

With an external mix airbrush, the air and paint are mixed outside the airbrush just after the paint has left the nozzle. You still get a good mix/blend just not quite as good as the pre-mixing that happens in an internal mix airbrush.

Extreme Action Airbrush

Let’s not beat around the bush, this is the coolest and best most awesome airbrush on the planet. It’s what we in the industry call a BAMF Brush (Figure it out). If you thought the single action airbrush was cool…well then you’re kinda lame. If you thought the double action airbrush was cool…well that’s understandable, it is pretty rad. But, as Bachman-Turner Overdrive put it so eloquently: b-b-baby you just ain’t seen nothing yet!

The Extreme Action Airbrush is the latest and greatest/biggest and baddest airbrush to ever hit the market. Features include:

– Fully wireless digital handheld remote control for 100% hands free airbrushing with a max operating range of 23 ft

– Military grade laser sight assist for hairline precision and accuracy

-Military grade SLS-640 night vision scope for those late night airbrush sessions

-Quick disconnect iPod Jack

-Detachable lightweight aluminum alloy energy drink holder

-Optional anti gravity feed paint cup/bottle attachment (Not Pictured)

I think it’s safe to say that the extreme action airbrush is in a class all it’s own. Though the $8000 price tag may be out of reach for many potential buyers, true airbrush artists who can appreciate all the EAA has to offer, will find a way to come up with the cash to make the purchase. (I.e., sell your soul to the devil)


Congratulations, Kindergarten is over. Move onto 1st grade, it’s time to learn about Airbrush Compressors.


Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Airbrushed Poker Table Build

Custom Airbrushed Mural

Custom Airbrushed Mural

1) We start with 3 sheets of 3/4 in. 4 x 8 plywood. Each sheet gets 2 solid coats of wood primer. Plywood really sucks up the primer so leave plenty of time in between coats. After being primed, the sheets are screwed together with 6 large door hinges, 3 on each seam. This is going to be a carnival fishing game prop that kids are going to cast their fishing line over the top of, to get candy and other prizes.

I mask off a 4 in. border around the outside and roll on a solid blue base using an exterior grade latex paint. After the blue has dried, I use a combination of a 3 in. paint brush and a 4 in. roller to freehand in some sand for the bottom of our fish tank.

2) I back mask the sand from our previous step and I’m going to use a full size automotive paint gun to spray in a darker blue fade going from the bottom of the tank towards the top. This helps add a little depth to our tank because we wouldn’t want people thinking we were shallow. The dark blue I’m using is a urethane base coat which has no trouble sticking to the latex base. However, if you water-reduce a latex paint enough, and make sure you run it through a strainer, you can spray that through an automotive paint gun as well.

3) You can see the darker blue fade here. I also masked off another wavy line through the middle of the sand and then sprayed in a darker brown to give the sand some dimension and make it look like the darker brown part is right up against the glass sides of the fish tank. This is going to be a quick mural, so I’m not spending the time to add a lot of texture or other detail to the sand.

4)  Using the 3/4 in. masking tape, I mask off the corners of the fish tank and paint them the same color darker blue I was using earlier. As you’ll see in the next step, using the dark blue here instead of black or some other color, really helps give us the 3D look we’re after.

5) I’ve painted my 4 in. border around the outside black. This is a perfect contrast to the dark blue. You can see how using black up front really brings the front of the fish tank forward and using the dark blue pushes the back to the back.

I switch to an airbrush with urethane paints and I freehand in some seaweed. I paint the seaweed right up the middle of the 2 seams in an effort to try and hide the seams a bit.

Switching to a white base coat, I freehand in some reflections on the top surface of the water (thank you Craig Fraser) and even throw in some rays of light shooting through.

6) I use a paint bush and small roller with white latex paint, along with some Dr. Seuss reference pics, to add my main fish and requisite treasure chest. In this case, using a paintbrush and a small roller is faster than masking off each individual fish and spraying white base coat.

7) I’m spraying the fish as I would spray them if I were doing them on t-shirts. Using urethane base coat black and my IWATA HP-BCS, I start by outlining all the fish.

8) Then adding the base color and shading from there. Again, this is a quick painting so I’m not doing much detail work.

9) I end up deciding to mask off the treasure chest anyways because it will have more detail than the fish and it will be easier to work with when it’s masked off. Notice that I’ve extended the light rays and added highlights to the fish and treasure chests at the points where the light rays are hitting them. Also, using root beer kandy, I add some more detail to the sandy areas. Switching to cobalt blue kandy, I freehand in small schools of fish swimming every which way in the background. (Thanks Robert)

10) A quick and simple fish tank.  “One fish, two fish, red fish , blue fish”

History of the Airbrush pt 2

Charles Burdick Aerograph Airbrush www.getpainted.com

Pre-School Part 3:
History of the Airbrush cont…

1891-1893 – The reign of the Liberty Walkup external mix airbrush comes to an end when Charles L. Burdick from Chicago invents the internal mix airbrush. This new airbrush had several unique features and more closely resembled the airbrushes of today with a centralized fluid tip, needle, and air cap. It was sleeker, more refined and produced an atomized spray that was softer and more controllable than current external mix airbrushes. In your face Walkup!

The Burdick airbrushes were dubbed Aerographs, and the process of painting with one was called aerographing instead of airbrushing. The first Aerograph was labeled the Model A, it featured a dual action trigger and interchangeable paint tips. Apparently when you upgrade something that already exists, you can call it whatever you want to. Which is why I’ve taken a standard airbrush and welded a samurai sword to it. I call it a Samurair Sword.

Thayer and Chandler Airbrush by Olaus Wold www.getpainted.com

1893 – Norwegian Henry Thayer, and Englishman Charles Chandler’s new and improved internal mix airbrush makes it’s debut at the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair. The new, new internal mix airbrush was easier to use, simpler to maintain and it gave better results with less training. About 4 years later, thanks to a guy named Olaus Wold, who was working with Thayer and Chandler at the time, a breakthrough airbrush design is created where the paint is isolated from the trigger assembly. This made it much easier to switch colors and to clean.

1904 – Jens Andreas Paasche from Norway starts Paasche Airbrush Company.  Offering “The most complete line of Airpainting equipment for Art Studios, Factories and Maser Painters” Paasche continues to refine and improve upon current designs, securing several patents of his own. Notable airbrushes include the iconic red handled Paasche VL Series  (one of the most used airbrushes in the industry) the Paasche AB-Turbo with it’s unique turbine system and more recently the Paasche Talon.

1926 – Iwata Seisakusho company is established. Initially started with manufacture and sales of spray guns and small-sized air compressors in Japan. Credited with developing the world’s first electric, multi-articulated painting robot together with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. Started manufacture and sales of Airbrushes in 1973. Changed the name to Anest Iwata some years later.

Famous for their Eclipse and Micron line of airbrushes.

1964 – Badger Airbrush Company is born. The founder’s grandfather owned a swiss screw machine shop that was making parts for three airbrush companies (Paasche, Thayer & Chandler, and Wold).

Teflon seals, free standing color cups, and one piece triggers were the first notable advances as well as doing a left handed side feed gun. Badger was also the first to offer different airbrush models with interchangeable parts to help dealers and consumers reduce spare parts needs, two piece break away handles, easy needle access, stainless tips, the first airbrush ready paint, the first airbrush holder, the Universal dual feed airbrush.

History of the Airbrush

The First Airbrush - Francis E. Stanley's 1876 "Atomizer" (Photo www.airbrushmuseum.com)

Pre-School Part 2:
History of the Airbrush

1876 – Like most everything else in life which is awesome or cool that I’ve invented, I also claim to have invented the airbrush but in reality, most sane people agree that Francis Edgar Stanley (the same guy who invented the Stanley Steamer Automobile) invented the Airbrush. Since there’s no real proof though, we’ll just say I invented it. I’m joking, Francis is the man! (genome re-sequencing was my idea though.)

Francis Edgar “Airbrush”  Stanley was living in Newton, Massachusetts and created what he called an “Atomizer”. According to the patent, the Atomizer was used to “spray water colors, India-ink or crayon and also for all kinds of shading in which color can can be used in a liquid state.” The patent office classifies Stanley’s “atomizer” as the first patent of its type and the first in its class and subclass.

The Atomizer was similar in looks/function to an old fashioned hand pump perfume bottle. It consisted of a spray head assembly attached to a paint bottle and a hand pump. There was a small chamber inside the head where paint was drawn up from the bottle via a needle and mixed with the incoming, hand pumped air. The Atomizer also featured interchangeable heads to regulate the spray pattern. This is kind of a strange coincidence because I’ve always used my airbrush to apply cologne. I feel like I get better coverage that way.

1879 – A professional inventor named Abner Peeler from Webster City, Iowa invents the “Paint Distributor”. Patented “…for the painting of watercolors and other artistic purposes.” According to Andy Penaluna of www.andypenaluna.com, “In 1879 an eccentric jeweler from Iowa assembled;

The Paint Distributor - Illustration by Andy Penaluna www.andypenaluna.com

* a jam spoon
* a sewing machine needle,
* a bent over screwdriver,
* old soldering pipes,
* some bent metal
* …. and screwed it all together on some blocks of wood!”

The Paint Distributor featured a spinning wind-wheel with a needle attached slightly off center. As the wind-wheel spun, the needle would dip in and out of the ink reservoir in the spoon. The tip of the needle would pass right in front of a small tube blowing air  and the paint would be blown off the needle tip. The Paint Distributor was powered by a foot pump that fed air into a tank, where it was compressed, and then forced along an attached hose up to the distributor. Cool stuff.

1882-1891 – A dude named Liberty Walkup purchases the patent to the “Paint Distributor”. Some time later he forms The Airbrush Manufacturing Company of Rockford, Illinois. Thanks to some improvements like the revolutionary “walking bar” and a hard rubber handle to enhance appearance, the new and improved Walkup Airbrush was introduced and became an immediate success.

1885 Liberty Walkup Airbrush

Soon after the introduction of the Walkup Airbrush, Liberty forms the Illinois Art School. Housed in the same building as his airbrush company, the school specialized in airbrush technique but taught other disciplines as well. Later, Walkup would go on to publish a quarterly pamphlet dedicated to all things airbrushing called The Airbrush Journal.

*Random note: From the Atomizer to the Paint Distributor, early airbrushes were used predominately for photo retouching. Typically, artists would paint directly on enlarged portrait photos to enhance the photo’s appearance and eliminate unwanted scars or blemishes. This is similar to the way that digital airbrushing and Photoshop are used today for re-touching and enhancing photographs of models before displaying them on magazine covers.

So the next time you’re’ holding an airbrush, pour a little paint out in honor of all the vain people who’ve passed before us and helped to advance the technology of the airbrush to make it what it is today. Just think, if  everyone were happy with the way they looked, the airbrush might never have been invented.

Part 3 – History of the Airbrush continued…

How To Airbrush Painting

How To Airbrush Painting is covered in depth at our online Airbrush School here at Sid Vicious Art.com. Everything you need to know to go from average Joe to seasoned Pro. Start with the basics in Airbrush Pre-School, work your way through Elementary School, Junior High, High School and College.

Learn how to airbrush painting here and take the  fast track on your road to airbrush success.