Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Other Side of the House – the Airbrush

Now, if you recall, military modelers are extremely concerned with historical accuracy and realism. The dedicated modelers will spend a large chunk of their time doing research – pouring over pictures (both black & white and color), visiting museums and reading. They spend time comparing the kit they have with all their accumulated info and then make changes as necessary. Again, the aim is realism. They can’t afford to have large brushstrokes or thick, detail-hiding paint fucking up the illusion.

To that end, they make heavy use of airbrushes. For today’s discussion I will be focusing on the very basics and some things I’ve picked up along the way. There are a lot of complicated things you can do with an airbrush that I will talk about at a later date.

Airbrush Basics
While this relevant article on Brushthralls is a good base to start with and focuses on wargaming applications, it isn’t particularly detailed. For the purposes of this article, I will assume you have read it. There are other articles out there as well, and a ton of advice to be had on military modeling forums. Also keep in mind that airbrushes are used for all kinds of applications, so be mindful of this if you hit the web looking for more info.

A Cautionary Tale
ArkenTyre mentions getting the best airbrush you can afford. LISTEN TO HIM ON THIS ONE. I didn’t. I went out and got a cheap, single-action airbrush and some canned air. I now have two airbrushes. The one I bought first trying to save a few bucks, and the good one I bought once I realized that the single-action brush was shitty.

The reason I ended up with a second airbrush? Imperial armor Model Masterclass Volume I. I got this for Christmas and then realized that my cheap-o airbrush wasn’t really capable of doing nearly all of the techniques detailed in that book.

Mission: Save money
Status: failed

One good airbursh is cheaper than a good one + a bad one (that you never use)

Some Notes On Your Air Supply
I understand that $120 bucks is a lot of money to spend on something. Try the air if you like (maybe as a low cost test), but if you get serious about your airbrush, get the compressor.

Anywho, canned air will cost you more in the long run at $12 a can. A compressor will also give you a much more constant pressure. Ever had a can of spray primer that’s close to the end of its life? It sprays unpredictably and erratically, doesn’t it? Now imagine that, only while you’re trying to do something detail oriented or trying to lay down a base coat. It happens and it’s super crap-tastic. Better yet, get a compressor with a pressure regulator. With it, you gain even more control over the paint.

Paint Thickness And Surface Preparation
When you use an airbursh (correctly) to lay down a coat of paint, it will be very thin - measured in microns thin. Imperfections on the surface you are painting will be extremely visible. Scratches, glue blobs, hair – everything will show up. Your primer coat and model construction become very important because of this. This is one of the downsides of an airbrush – it’s very unforgiving this way.

In military modeling circles, seems and other imperfections are ruthlessly eliminated from the surface of the model. As much care is spent building the model as is spent painting it. Nothing ruins the illusion of realism quite like visible mold lines and seems. In wargaming land, thankfully, it’s not nearly so cardinal a sin, but still, be mindful.

A Breath Mask May Be Necessary
With regular old spray-paint, you can spray whatever, very quickly and then leave to avoid the fumes. An airbrush will often require you to pay much more attention to what you’re doing. As a result, you’ll be up close and personal with what you’re working on. Inhaling paint is bad, so is inhaling your thinner. Be careful

I admit, getting your paint thinned for an airbrush can be tricky. It’s also completely necessary. At some point, you will decide that there is only one blue for your Ultramarines and it probably won’t come in an airbrush ready form.

There are many liquids you can use as thinner for airbrush applications. The old hats might tell you to use isopropyl alcohol. For some paints you can use regular old water. I haven’t had good luck with straight alcohol. I found it made things a bit grainy. This is partly due to the fact that some of the paint was drying before it hit the surface. I’ve now switched over to Tamiya’s house brand thinner. It’s basically isopropyl alcohol with a drying retarder added. I’ve had great results with it, with only one real downside:

Do not thin Vallejo paints with Tamiya thinner.

The drying retarder reacts chemically with the paint and ruins it. Not dangerous, but not usable either. I’m told that Vallejo paints will thin just fine with water.

Mixing Paint
As far as how thin to go, the old pros will tell you to thin the paint until it’s about the same thickness consistency of 2% milk. This is not as helpful as you might think. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often paint much with milk or pay that close enough attention to it in the first place.

What I found useful was to get some of the aforementioned Vallejo Air paints and then compare their consistency with what I was mixing. I grabbed a toothpick, dipped it into the paint and then wiped it on a piece of paper. As I was mixing my own paint, I would periodically so the same until I was at the right spot. You can also do small test sprays to see if the paint is behaving correctly. It shouldn’t run, but it also shouldn’t have globs in it.

Lastly, when mixing your paint, put the thinner in the container first and then add the paint. This will help avoid getting a lot of sediment at the bottom of your container. This is especially important if you mix directly in the paint cup like I do as the paint feed starts at the bottom of the cup.

I’m Still New At This Myself And Yet It’s Still Totally Worth It
Using an airbrush is tricky business. There tend to be a lot of variable and it tends to be a skill most of us still don’t have practice with. I have some info to share, but I’m still pretty much an airbrush noob. My base coats have the odd imperfection – overspray, the odd paint glob and cat hairs are just a few of the things I still contend with. Not too good with the whole precision use of the tool either. But damnnit, it beats painting tanks by hand.

Just last week I got two Rhino hulls painted in under 30 minutes – including clean up paint mixing. Even with my noob mistakes, the base coat looks better than if I had spent a few hours doing it by hand. After that, the other things I can do with the tool are just a bonus for me.

Well, that’s about it. Bottom line: airbrushes are mega-sweet but there’s a learning curve and some expense.

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