Thursday, May 16, 2013

Airbrushing: A Stumbling Beginning

As I've dived further into the hobby, and seeing numerous impressive examples from other hobbyists and gamers, I decided that I wanted to expand my painting repertoire to include airbrushing. For one, it would present a new challenge and learning experience, and keep me from stagnating in my skills as a painter. Secondly, the versatility of an airbrush could allow me to eventually perform new effects not possible with a regular paint brush, as well as more efficient assembly-line painting of mass units. 



As I'm sure anyone who has looked into airbrushing can attest, it can be a little overwhelming. I spent several months doing research on different kinds of airbrushes, companies, techniques, what supplies were needed, and so on. I'm hoping to put my experiences down in a series of posts, including all of my pitfalls, stumbles, mistakes, and learning experiences so that you might be able to avoid some of my missteps. Of course, you'll want to take into consideration that I'm still learning and could get things wrong too. For readers with more experience, please(!) correct me if I'm doing something wrong or giving terrible advice/lessons; that's the last thing I want to do.
In the end, no matter how much research I did, I realized I would never be comfortable until I jumped in and just tried it out. I recently had a birthday and my big gift was a full starter kit. From my research I knew I wanted at least a middle-tier brush and, more importantly, compressor. I know many people advise starting cheap so it won't hurt as much if you screw it up. That's definitely sound advice, and I might end up regretting my decision to go slightly higher tier (I think I did anyway), but I find that I'm more liable to be careful if I spend a little more, which hopefully means fewer dumb mistakes. Anyway, it came down to a couple kits in the $300-400 range, and I went with a Grex starter kit.


The big thing about this kit and brush is that it has a pistol-style trigger rather than the traditional style. I thought it might be a little more intuitive for me as a complete novice. Whether this decision pays off in the end is to be seen, but so far, in my limited experience, I like it. My big take-away so far is that the double-action is very simple to use.

For the complete novices like myself, double action means that the primary action will not push paint through the brush, but air only. You engage this first and then engage the secondary action to begin dispensing paint. With the pistol-trigger, this is very simple, with the primary action engaging on initial pull, and a slight catch you can feel before paint will be dispensed. Continuing to allow air to flow when not dispensing paint helps prevent paint from stopping in the brush and then drying, causing clogs and other nightmares. With the Grex pistol trigger, so long as you are deliberate and don't simply release the trigger in the middle of painting, you should generally avoid this problem.

The kit comes with an instructional DVD that is about 30 minutes long and goes through basic techniques for use as well as cleaning. I'll admit, I jumped the gun a bit and did my first trial before watching the videos, instead simply reading the instructions. In hindsight, I should have been more patient as my cleaning wasn't as effective or complete as it should have been. I started by just using the black paint that comes with the kit and testing it on some unpainted scenery. In particular, it will be nice for polystyrene scenery since you can't spray paint it, and it can be a pain to paint some things by hand. Once I was finished with my tinkering, I tried to follow the instructions to thoroughly clean the brush.

The first step is straightforward and simple: flush water or cleaner through the brush until in comes out clear. It goes a bit faster if the paint cup is either empty or you flush that out first. The next step is backwashing. This is where the DVD helped me understand why I was unsuccessful. Essentially, you pull back the needle so it isn't exposed out the front of the brush, then cover the hole and engage the airflow. This will force the air and clearner back up into the paint-cup. My problem was (despite how simple it seems in hindsight) was that I didn't remove the needle guard on the front, which made it more or less impossible to completely stop-up the airflow and force it back through the brush.

Following the backflow is generally cleaning everything as well as possible, including removing the needle and gently wiping it clean. Once again, while I thought I did a good job, the DVD showed me some parts I missed, which could have resulted in paint drying inside the brush and generally creating a clog. Complete disassembling of the brush and washing/soaking of the parts will help, even if it is a little scary. 

The next step, for me, was getting comfortable with thinning my current paints. I have a fairly wide selection of paints and don't fancy buying a full line of airbrush paints. After asking around and doing some more research, I settled on a flow aid to add to my paints:


The final lesson for today's post is to read the bottle. I spent two evenings trying to make my paint mixtures have a "milk" like consistency and still stick to the model, with limited success, as you may judge from the models below. I repeatedly ran into the problem that the paint would not stick to the plastic, and despite adjusting to add more paint and less flow-aid, acted like a wash and generally was blown into the recesses of the models:


I managed to do a little better with the red on the Termagants, but not by much.


After generally getting frustrated, it finally occurred to me to look at the bottle, which informed me I should be diluting it with 20 parts water before mixing with the paint. Major facepalm moment, particularly since I had run out of time for that session and wouldn't be able to apply this lesson until the next time I break out the airbrush.

There's definitely a learning curve I'm going through, but I am inspired with the amazing things other painters can do with airbrushing. I hope you'll join me as I continue to learn, whether you have things to teach me or if my lessons learned will help you as you begin your own journey into airbrushing.