What’s better for painting miniatures, airbrushing or regular brushwork? The best answer for this question is that it depends on what you’re trying to do with your miniature painting project. Airbrushing is a powerful tool and adds other more technical options for miniature painters. For best results, regular brushing will always be useful for finishing a miniature painting.
In this article, I highlight the pros and cons of airbrushing as compared with regular brush techniques on miniatures. For another take, see this fun piece.
A very popular airbrush for scale modelers and painters:
Badger Patriot 105
As a gravity-fed, double-action airbrush, the Badger Patriot 105 is a classic design. This is one of the most popular airbrushes for beginners and veteran miniature painters.
Continue reading on to see the differences between painting miniatures with an airbrush as compared with a regular brush.
Is airbrushing miniatures worth it?
The best reason to airbrush miniatures is to speed up two core techniques: priming and base coating. Using an airbrush allows you to spray these art media evenly and quickly over miniatures and models without a lot of hassle.
For more about primers and the best way to apply primers, check out this primer article.
Because airbrushes provide the versatility to spray different types of media, e.g., paints, varnishes, and primers, you can buy a single airbrush and complete a lot of different tasks.
In regards to applying primer, the best way to coat a model with a primer is to spray it on. This provides an even and smooth coat. Airbrushing also saves primer with little wasted on a palette, or over-coating a surface.
This can either be completed with an airbrush or a spray can.
Remember to spray at least 6″ away from your working surface and keep each layer of primer thin. Let each layer dry before applying the next.
In contrast to aerosol spray can primer, however, airbrushes are more environmentally friendly, safer (due to less harmful vapors), and you don’t need to dispose of empty aerosol cans.
If you are speed painting miniatures, an airbrush will speed up the painting of the first layers of your paint job. Also known as a base coat, these first layers of paint are the foundation colors for the rest of your painted miniature.
Applying this first layer of paint in a smooth and even fashion is an important foundation for painting the rest of the model.
In a nutshell, the best reasons for painting miniatures with an airbrush is to efficiently prime and base coat models.
Why use a regular brush for painting miniatures?
The answer to this question is simple: you can’t really paint anything without a proper paintbrush. I mean the kind of paint brush may not matter so much. But, you’ll need a regular brush no matter what to get paint applied to your models.
So, what do I really mean?
Okay, well, what are the advantages of using a regular brush over airbrushing?
With a regular paint brush, you can approach paint blending with a number of advanced blending techniques. With good practice, you will build up your skill painting miniatures really fast if you rely entirely on a single paint brush.
For this reason, regular paint brush use leads to a mastery over your miniature painting hobby.
Nothing beats time in the saddle!
In contrast to airbrushes, a regular paint brush will require less maintenance. There are less moving parts (obviously), and less things can break. All you have to do to upkeep your brushes is clean them with a good brush soap and warm water.
Because regular brushes don’t require electricity (no air compressor required), these tools are portable. Take them with you wherever you want to paint.
Finally, high-quality brushes that are well-maintained can last years. So, the long-term cost of ownership is lower for paint brushes as compared with airbrushes. Airbrushes have many parts that wear out over time. Things like nozzles, needles, and gaskets wear-out and the cost adds up.
Airbrushing Versus Regular Brushing Miniatures and Models
Here are the 4 best reasons for airbrushing miniatures:
- Faster primer application
- Smooth paint coats
- Paint blending over large surfaces
- Special effects
Faster Primer Application
You should prepare every model and miniature with a good coat of primer.
Airbrushing atomizes most surface primers (those you can apply with a brush, too) into a mist that adheres in thin layers on metal, plastic, and resin model surfaces.
You can control the amount of air pressure and primer viscosity (by mixing it with some water) to regulate the thickness of your primer layers. I always recommend keeping your layers thin.
Compared with a paint brush, you can apply thinner layers more quickly. If you use a hairdryer, you can speed up the drying process even further.
As a result, priming with an airbrush is not only fast, but provides you with greater control over how smooth those first layers will be on your model.
Smooth Paint Coats
Similar to priming, airbrushing paint provides you with a great way to apply thin and smooth coats of acrylic paint on your models.
By applying low-pressure, low viscosity paint through your airbrush, you can create buttery smooth surfaces and finishes. It’s almost like cheating!
The reason you want smooth paint coats on your miniatures is because it allows you to blend transitions and create that more realistic finish.
Paint Blending Over Large Surfaces
When you are first starting out painting miniatures, blending different colors or values across large surfaces is difficult. This is true if you’re using a regular brush.
It takes a lot more skill and knowledge about acrylic paint behavior to blend with a regular brush.
But, with an airbrush, it’s simple! This is why.
With an airbrush, the paint layers are sprayed in thin layers. Each applied layers is semi-transparent because they are so thin.
This provides you with an easy way perform the “layering and glazing’ technique to blend paint. You can see an example of this technique here.
There are a wide-range of special effects that are best applied with an airbrush. A regular brush would have a difficult time with some of these techniques.
Things you can do with an airbrush that are unique to this tool include the use of stencils. If you’re looking to paint faux marble on your models, an airbrush will also be a useful tool.
The use of stencils is easy to learn with an airbrush, but hard to master. There are even mini-stencils that are designed specifically for airbrushing patterns on small surfaces.
Lastly, and as you can probably tell already, airbrushing is really fun. Playing around with an airbrush in the past few years has added a different level of excitement for the miniature painting hobby.
An airbrush is a great tool for experimenting and developing your personal miniature painting style.
Here are the 5 best reasons for using a regular brush to paint miniatures:
- Less expensive
- Easier to master
- More paint blending techniques
- Low maintenance
Simple as that. Using regular brushes will be less expensive for you in the long run than operating and maintaining an airbrush (even a budget version).
Take care of your good-quality paint brushes and they will last months, even years. Want to know more about high-quality paint brushes for painting miniatures and models? Check this awesome brush guide!
A good budget airbrush may cost only about $100, but you’ll also have to add-in the cost of an air compressor (another $100-500), as well as hoses, stands, and other accessories.
Then, consider the cost of upkeep, i.e., cleaning fluids, spare parts, etc.
Well, all is said and done, you can use cheap brushes for the heavy-duty priming and base-coating steps. And, for more detailed work, use your valuable kolinsky sable brushes.
Easier to Master
An airbrush is easy to use. Let’s face it. For simple primer or base-coat application, all you need to do is pull the trigger.
As long as your primer or paint is thin enough, and your air pressure is calibrated, airbrushing primer and base coats is fail-safe.
But, if you want to use your airbrush for more advanced techniques, including the special effects I mentioned, it’ll take a lot of practice! Like, a lot…
With a regular paint brush, you will need to practice (of course!), but the learning curve isn’t as sharp as the airbrush.
For example, you can quickly learn how to blend paint using one of two simple techniques: dry brushing or layering.
You can even use Games Workshop’s painting system to achieve tabletop-level (or better) quality paint jobs on your miniatures.
More Paint Blending Techniques
The use of paint brushes is ancient.
Millions of artists throughout history have relied on the paint brush to create art. The Masters of old used paint brushes with all kinds of medium, e.g., oil, acrylic, watercolor, and developed a huge library of techniques.
We can now draw upon this history when we paint miniatures. Sure, we rely primarily on acrylic paint (I’ve used watercolor with good success), but there are so many cool approaches to painting miniatures with a regular brush.
Take a look an overview of the must-know techniques for blending paint. Most of these require a good ol’ regular brush.
A regular paint brush is travel-ready. Do you enjoy painting in different rooms of your home? Or, maybe you want to travel more with your painting hobby?
Just throw your paint brushes into a bag and go!
There’s no need for an air compressor, electrical power, and spray mitigation that you would want with an airbrush.
With a regular brush, your art travels with you! Need I say more? There are some nifty brush cases and roll-up travel solutions, too, for you guys who want to bring your tools with you.
You don’t need to fiddle too much with regular brushes.
Make sure you keep paint out of the ferrule. Clean off paint with brush soap and warm better. Don’t let paint dry on your bristles.
If you keep up with proper care of your brushes, they will last a long time.
Airbrushes clog and, over time, will trap dried bits of paint that will require a full disassembly. You need to keep your needle straight and sharp. The list of things you need to do with airbrush use, care, and maintenance goes on.
Overall, regular paint brushes are simple tools that only require simple care after each painting session. They aren’t complicated and nearly maintenance free. And, if one gives you trouble, you can toss them out.
There you have it. What is better for painting miniatures, airbrushes or regular brushes? Neither. You can learn to use both.
Airbrushes and regular brushes have their purpose in miniature painting.
I will say, however, that you can paint all the miniatures in the world with regular paint brushes. But, you will never be able to do so with only an airbrush.
If you’re on a fence about getting an airbrush; consider that it will cost you time to learn and money to maintain.
If you want to learn more about airbrushes, check out this complete overview of using airbrushes for painting miniatures.