Trent Denison teaches us his Airbrush Technique

Airbrush Technique the PRELUDE

I was very humbled when I was asked by Jay to put together an article for figurementors. My own work pales into insignificance compared to many of the other incredible artists whose work and writings I’ve been inspired by, including some on this very site. Painting serious showcase miniatures is a pursuit I’ve only taken up recently. Although I’ve been involved in miniature gaming for many years, the catalyst for me moving into this realm was actually a painting class I attended hosted by Meg Maples.  I spent a lot of time during the weekend class looking over her pieces of work, constantly pestering her with questions and trying to figure out how various effects were achieved.  I walked out with my brain ablaze with ideas, really wanting to experiment and push myself more with my own painting.  A few months later I entered my first competition and I was hooked!  I have since attended a private coaching with Raffaele Picca of Massive Voodoo, another class with Meg and spent many hours researching, watching videos, learning and of course, painting.  Social media and the internet in general has such a wealth of miniature painting resources (such as this site!) that it is infinitely easy to access content from magnificent painters worldwide, and I’ve tried to make the most of this! But enough about me, onto the article.  It was genuinely not easy to decide on a topic… It’s doubtful I could elaborate any further on many brush techniques, talk confidently about light sources or add much more on colour theory/ choice than what is already available. After a bit of consideration, I realised that one area I do have a fair amount of confidence in is using my airbrush. It has become an integral part of my painting process these days. When I read miniature painting articles, the ones I most enjoy are step by step articles, as they’ve always been the ones I’ve found the most illuminating.  It is like getting into other painters brains and seeing how they tick. With these two thoughts in mind, I decided the article I would write would be a step by step showcasing my painting of a bust, and focusing on demonstrating how I use the airbrush, providing some insight into my Airbrush Technique.

Airbrush Technique

my workstation – where the “magic” happens

EQUIPMENT AND PAINTS

Before I get in depth into the article I wanted to have a quick discussion on the paints and equipment I use, and in more detail the airbrush I use.  I pull from a varied range of paints, preferring to choose specific colours for many reasons including colour, consistency and finish. The majority of my paints come from either Vallejo Model Colour and Scale 75 Scale Colour range, but I also have a number of Citadel, VGC, P3 and a few Artist Acrylics.  I prefer the Vallejo because generally most of the colours dilute nicely with water, but still have great coverage. They have a broad range of colours but I only really use twenty or so with any regularity. Scale Colour have an incredibly matte finish, and being able to use this finish at various stages in painting is really helpful, whether for deep non reflective shadows, or different leather textures. Scale 75 also produce a fantastic series of inks, the Inktensity set that I use a lot!  The brushes I use are the same as most serious miniature painters, the Windsor and Newton Series 7, and depending on what I am painting I will use sizes 0, 1 or 2.  

Finally, the airbrush.  I started airbrushing many years ago with a very unwieldy siphon feed double action Paasche brush. It was difficult to get a real handle on things with this kind of airbrush, but it did teach me about consistency of paint, and some basic technique.  I upgraded to a gravity feed, double action Runway 13 brush, an Australian brand.  This made a world of difference, and I used this brush for 3 solid years.  I was able to evolve my skillset, and go from just using it for basecoats to actually using it for painting.  Recently I added another brush and compressor to my rotation, an Iwata Revolution CR. I can honestly say that painting with this airbrush is like upgrading from a Datsun (look it up, it’s Australian) to a Ferrari!  I’ve been able to continue to push and learn more and more advanced techniques with it.

Airbrush Technique

my trusted brush

MY THREE C’s – Consistency, Control and Cleaning

Many people think that an airbrush is this incredible tool that will suddenly give you the ability to create perfect transitions immediately… obviously, this is not the case.  In fact, early on I found using an airbrush to be slower than actually painting by hand.  There is a lot to learn with an airbrush, consistency, control and cleaning being the primary ones. Consistency is one that varies depending on what you are trying to do, and I’ll discuss that in more detail a little later.  Control…well, unfortunately learning control will just take time and practice, there are no shortcuts!  Airbrush cleaning is probably the most important of the three.  There are a number of articles on breaking them down and cleaning the parts, and obviously soaking in cleaner, using dental brushes or running cleaner through the brush are all important.  

Airbrush Technique

a selection of the ever growing tools and accessories

However, I’ve found one of the most effectives ways of keeping my airbrush clean is using a technique called backflow.  You need a specific type of tip for this, and I recommend if you are looking for an airbrush you strongly consider purchasing one with a tip that will allow you to backflow.  It is quite simple: Put some cleaner in the cup, push the palm of your hand over the tip so there is nowhere for the air to go, and push down the nozzle.  What happens instead is the air flows back through the brush, creating bubbles in the cup.  Often small bits of paint that were stuck can get drawn back out into the cup.  At the end of every session I will run cleaner and water through the brush and backflow both, to really make sure all the paint is out of the brush.  Since using this technique, I’ve not had to seriously strip and clean my brush in a few months, and it is working like a dream.

AIRBRUSH GLAZING

Finally, before I get into the actual step by step I want to explain the technique in more detail.  I like to call it airbrush glazing. I would be highly surprised if this is an original technique, however I have not come across any articles that explain in depth the exact process I use.  My own version of this technique evolved from one that is used by another Australian painter, Sebastian Archer.  Seb uses a technique with a paintbrush where he will water down a neutral colour down to an ultra thin consistency.  He then removes almost all of the paint in the well of the brush on a paper towel, and then applies it to an area that he has already painted. After several (sometimes upwards of ten, sometimes less) really thin coats of this neutral glaze, there is a very subtle harmonising of colours.  It brings the highest value contrast areas down, and the lowest contrast areas up, reducing the overall amount of contrast.  At the same time, it softens the transitions between highlights and shadows, creating a more subtle look. It is not a technique that works quickly, but his results speak for themselves.

Airbrush Technique

finding space for everything and keeping organised is essential

I was unhappy with an area of skin that I had painted one day, and I decided to try the neutral glazing technique, but I was bored after about twelve seconds.  Patience is not a virtue I am blessed with… so I tried doing it through the airbrush!  It took me a few tries to work out how to do it.  Broadly speaking, I don’t find it necessary to use an ultra dilute paint like Sebastian would with a brush.  The airbrush tends to do a lot of the work in dispersing the pigment softly and gently.  Using a low pressure is also important, if the pressure is too high the paint will spider across the model.   Another key to keep in mind is distance from the model, as too close will again cause spidering paint, so keeping it further back is best.  This means that usually it is necessary to mask off other areas of colour, but for the first few stages I do not bother.  One final thing I like to do is add a little matte or satin varnish to my mixture.  This is a personal choice, as I feel the varnish helps aid in softening the transitions and harmonising the model, but the type of varnish depends on the area and the effect I am trying to achieve.  

That is the technique in a nutshell!  Let’s dive into painting a model, shall we! Below you can see the gallery of the figure I painted in just this way, I hope you found my musings interesting and perhaps there was something that I wrote, that you didn’t know or makes you want to try!

Thanks for reading, enjoy!

Trent!

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Comments

  1. Kelly

    Great writeup!

    I have an Iwata Revolution, and while it’s a slightly different model than yours, it also has that fully enclosed needle cover… no cutouts or “crown-shape” so that you could see the needle tip. While it makes getting close to your painting surface difficult, it was the only end that would work for the backflow cleaning method that you described. I’ll have to look to see if there are any of those covers for my new Badger airbrushes, as the backflow method does work very well.

    Hope to see more of your articles on Figurementors!

    1. Author
      Redrum

      Hey it’s great to hear back about the articles we collaborate on especially when people find them helpful, thanks for your feedback!

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