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.


Custom Airbrushed Graphics on Nissan Altima

Custom Airbrushed Graphics on Nissan Altima

1) We start with a freshly body-worked, primed and wetsanded Nissan Altima courtesy of Juan’s Body Shop. Whether you’re into the sport compact scene or not, you gotta respect a guy that takes his time and does a good job. Seamlessly molded front and rear bumpers, nicely done. The plan is to give it a two tone paint job with a tribal style graphic separating the two colors. Our job is to design and apply the graphic to help transform this regular Altima into a custom painted, head turning, fire breathing, death dealing monster Altima. Or in other words, just another day at Sid Vicious Art & Airbrush.

Normally, I’d start by laying down the graphic color, taping out my graphic, back masking it, then spraying the two colors. But in this case, because my schedule is a bit hectic and the car was ready for basecoat, I stop in and simply run a divider line with some 1/4 in. blue fine line tape. I designed the graphic ahead of time in Corel Draw, so I knew where to run the line…or at least that’s what I’m saying anyways.

2) Would you look at that! I guess I did design it on paper first. CorelDraw can be an awesome tool for doing pre sketch work. Giving your customer a good idea of what the finished product will look like before you begin painting it, is a great way to set expectations and avoid misunderstandings. Making changes in Corel Draw is much easier than making changes in real life.

3) Juan sprayed the basecoats and we’re ready for graphics. There’s a couple different ways to get the design from paper to vehicle. One option is to take some measurements on the car, scale the vector file from Corel Draw to match, send it to the plotter and create a large vinyl stencil for each side of the car. However, when working with this size/style of graphic, I prefer to lay them out by hand with 1/4 & 1/8 in. blue fine line tape. This gives me more control over the design and better versatility to make “on the fly” adjustments for things like body lines and door handles.

4) I start by pulling the longest lines first. Always pull the full length of a line from start to finish. Using my original division line as a reference, I work from the front of the vehicle to the back and proceed to layout the entire graphic. A comfortable chair or stool on wheels really helps here but there are few spots where I know I’m going to have to take off my shirt and lift the car high above my head with one hand so I can layout certain lines just right. Be careful and lift with your legs.

5) Once my graphic is layed out in fine line tape on the drivers side, I trim everywhere the graphic overlaps with a new Xacto knife, then run 16 in. transfer tape across it and cut away the inside. After masking the rest of the car, this side would be ready to spray but if we did spray it, we’d get a nasty line going through our graphic from that original division line for the two tone. I use 400 grit sandpaper to feather the division line between the two colors until there’s no ridge at all.  I should have done this before I started taping off the graphic but oh well, you live and learn…and rack up vast amounts of credit card debt.

6) I’ve run 18 in. masking paper down the length of the car over the graphic so I can trace the design in preparation for transferring to the other side.

7) Using a ball point pen at a 45 degree angle to the inside edges of the graphic where the tape is, I trace an outline of the graphic.

8) I lay the traced design on top of some foam padding and use a pounce wheel to trace it. I then tape the design (in reverse) to the passenger side of the car, being sure to line it up exactly as it is on the drivers side and use a pounce pad with blue chalk powder to transfer it to the car. (This technique is outlined in more depth in another tutorial so I won’t repeat it here.)

9) My daughter said it’s probably pixie dust but I’m guessing it’s the metallic flakes in the silver basecoat that you’re seeing flying through the air here. Don’t be a hero, wear a respirator!

10) We skipped a few steps here. After spraying the silver basecoat and letting it dry, I used 1/8 in. blue fine line and masked around the inside edge of the graphic to give it an edge. I then sprayed 3 good coats of HOK Pagan Gold Kandy over the graphic and after it was dry, unmasked everything. Ready for clear coat.

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.