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The Air Brush
Is how old?

For those who have been misinformed or, just curious as to just how long the “airbrush” has been in use you should visit the Airbrush Museum  for their  publications about the History of the Airbrush. In brief, the concept of an adjustable atomizer for painting was patented in 1876 (Patent # 182,389) by Francis Edgar Stanley who was most credited with his brother for the Stanley Steamer. A few years later Abner Peeler developed and sold his concept of the “paint distributor” in 1881.

The purchaser, Liberty & Charles Walkup designed the first manufactured air-brush  Patent # 285325 in 1883 and started the Air-brush Manufacturing Company in 1884 where Liberty’s wife Phoebe began teaching the technique to students from around the world at the Illinois Art School. At that time, there was huge demand for retouched and colorized enlarged photographs but the only way to do it was by hand brushing, which was rough and left brush strokes. For an inexpensive price as compared to a sitting, a black and white photograph began at the “grisaille” stage of a painting, where thin tints were sprayed to colorize the picture. One of Walkup’s neighbors and first students, artist Wilson Henry Irvine while in his twenties was a pioneer in this field known as Aqua printing.

Finally, after numerous design improvements in 1896 Olaus C Wold patented today’s version of the internal mix airbrush produced by Thayer & Chandler.The airbrush was used to great extent for photo retouching and illustration, and remained in use to enhance the appearance of  magazine images until the computer had replaced the airbrush for this purpose. Now retired from it’s original means of commerce since the sixties it has gained popularity in the areas of sign painting, custom auto and motorcycle finishing, novelties (T-shirts, tags, etc.) and actually use with fine art paintings.

“Utah”             1925
Mixed media (Aquaprint)
Wilson Henry Irvine

A hand-held siphon sprayer, the air brush sprays atomized liquids as well as solids motivated by compressed air. The air propels the paint through the nozzle, after the vacuum caused by the air flow pulls the paint from the reservoir. Today it’s principal design is used in everything from industrial sandblasting to painting women’s finger nails. If you are considering the idea of using an airbrush for use in fine art,  you may find enjoyment with it’s use once you develop the basics. With this tool you can blend gradients, or paint fine pencil lines creating spectacular realism in record time.

What type of Airbrush you decide to use is entirely  your choice. If you plan to make a serious attempt at this method though, I would recommend to get the best you can afford. The cheaper brands are just not worth the time or money.

Airbrush Designs

Tapered gravity-feed cup

  • Trouble free paint feed

  • Simple construction (less parts)

  • Must clean cup every color change

  • Limited paint quantities

Iwata Custom Micron Series Airbrushes

Bottom-siphon feed cup  

  • Frequent cleaning required for efficiency

  • Quick color changes with premixed color (flush with bottle of solvent first)

  • Larger paint quantities

Iwata HP Plus Series Airbrushes

There are a few additional items required to purchase starting with a strong ventilation system which is important to remove the overspray and the use of a respirator that will prevent toxics from being inhaled. You need to control not only the toxic solvents but also the pigments which are hazardous even with watercolors. Another major safety consideration when working with solvents is that when flammables are atomized  in closed areas in high concentrations they become explosive.

The air compressor you choose should have a pressure regulator to maintain the air pressure in accordance to the design of the brush (usually 60-70 psi). It will become increasingly evident, especially while painting non-porous surfaces like metals, that this constant should be the basis when determining the consistency of your paint.


Iwata Power Jet Pro Studio Compressor Iwata Power Jet Pro Studio Compressor
The Power Jet Pro compressor is equipped with twice the features of the Power Jet Lite, such as a powerful twin-pump, 1/6 HP motor, and two air pressure regulators for precise adjustment of airflow at two individual workstations.


Although some compressors come equipped with one, an inline moisture filter is needed to remove the humidity that the pump pulls into the spray as it compresses it. This is especially true if you are not spraying watercolor. Even with watercolor, not using a moisture filter can still result in unwanted dilution as well as contamination. There are also alternatives for use of a propellant for your paint which will produce a drier spray such as CO2 and N2 from cylinders. However, these methods have a tendency to cool the paint which can also cause problems with plugging nozzles and paint application.

Most problems with this operation are caused by a dirty airbrush. Learn how to disassemble & reassemble your airbrush and  invest in an Airbrush Cleaning Kit  as well as a  Iwata Universal Spray Out Pot to receive solvent when clearing out paint between colors. In most cases when done regularly you can use the solvent for the paint you used to clean it.

If you use water based paints such as Gouache, Watercolor or Acrylics use distilled water as your solvent and cleaner. Tap water has too many contaminates such as minerals, chlorine and calcium that can progressively plug and/or destroy your brush. Acrylics can be challenging because they dry rather quickly clogging the airbrush. If you use acrylics and can’t get your brush clean with water, don’t use corrosive chemicals or soaps for cleaning. Denatured alcohol works well provided you use it frequently.

Although their vapors are hazardous, lacquers adapt well to airbrush. However, Lacquer much like water based paint only dries, it does not cure.  Because the solvent evaporates, lacquers can be dissolved long after the paint has dried. Keep this in mind if you plan to apply multiple layers which can result in the dissolving the under layers. A clear urethane top coat is usually required.

The most difficult to work with would be oils and enamels.  Enamel paint both dries and cures once applied to a surface.  As the solvent evaporates, a chemical reaction takes place making it harder and less soluble than the liquid paint. This is why it is difficult to remove fully cured enamel with solvent when it is dry and it is imperative that the brush be flushed with solvent as soon as the paint cup is empty.

Airbrush Links

How To Airbrush.Com

Badger Airbrush

Airbrush Depot 


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