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.


5 thoughts on “How to Airbrush Anatomy

  1. Your drawing of an internal mix airbrush is just plain wrong. There is no internal chamber where paint and air mix. Air and paint travel separate paths until they reach the tip of the nozzle. And they don’t really mix until the tip of the needle.

  2. I apologize for my hasty comment. It came across as nasty, and I didn’t mean it that way. I know you spent a lot of time making that drawing with the best intentions. But this is a sore spot for me. I see this so many times, even from airbrush manufacturers, and I think it confuses beginners. If you trace out the paths of air and paint in your brush, I think you’ll see that they don’t meet until the very tip of the nozzle. And if you look at the spray coming out, you’ll see that the paint doesn’t atomize until right at the tip of the needle. There may have been some early airbrushes that really did mix internally, but none of the modern ones that I’ve seen do.

  3. Don, thank you for your informative comment; no apology necessary. I don’t mind being called out if I’m wrong. I’ve modified my drawing/description to reflect the changes.

  4. ive just start reading, im pleased to have found some knoledge on what i love to do. i think i’ll skip a elementary grades and see what you got to say. im in an area of washington state that is like all logging country (diesel rigs all day) a good place to know how to run some stuff. i’m always looking to be franchise savy.

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