Airbrushing Water-Based Artist Colors:  Watercolor, Gouache and Acrylic Paint


Airbrushing Water-Based Artist Colors:  Watercolor, Gouache and Acrylic Paint

Water-based paints are well suited for use in the airbrush for several reasons:

  • They are easily reduced for spraying.
  • They are low in toxicity when sprayed as opposed to solvent-based paints.
  • They dry fast, allowing artists to work quickly, specifically when utilizing frisket film, stencils and masks.
  • In most cases, they are colorfast for permanency, making them the paint of choice in the fine arts.
  • They are easy to clean from the airbrush with a simple solution of soap/water or airbrush cleaner.

Artist watercolors were the first mediums employed in airbrush technique.  Early in airbrush history, they were used for photo retouching and illustration; and today they are used in both of these applications as well as fine art painting.  Watercolor is especially good for use with the airbrush because it doesn’t tend to clog the tip.

Both pan watercolors and those in tubes can be thinned with water for airbrushing.  When using pan watercolors you can lather the paint with a paint brush and then transfer it via the brush to the airbrush color cup (or reservoir) for spraying.  Tube watercolor, the type most commonly used, can be thinned with water in a cup or jar and then poured into the color cup.

Beware! Watercolor in pans or blocks can easily turn into “mud” when intermixing colors.  Mixing and thinning tube watercolor in a container makes cross-contamination of colors less likely.  Once the watercolor is dry in the container, it can easily be reconstituted by adding water, so there is little waste of paint.

Gouache was originally the name of a painting technique using an opaque watercolor.  Gouache is made of the same materials as transparent watercolor with the addition of precipitated chalk, which makes it opaque.  Today the term gouache refers to the medium rather than the technique.  This paint was preferred by illustrators and photo retouchers alike and years ago it was handmade by artists.  It’s a somewhat easy paint to make and at first was not necessarily designed to be colorfast or permanent.  Illustrators were primarily interested in the speed of application rather than the longevity of their artwork, since the artwork was to be reproduced and not exhibited.  However, years later many renowned illustrators regretted doing renderings that had become valuable over time in a less than permanent medium.

Today, the commercial brands of gouache are referred to and known as designers’ gouache, still manufactured for the commercial field but also as a fine art medium.  Contemporary gouache is lightfast and very durable with a brilliant, extremely opaque color range.  Like watercolor, gouache is easily reduced with water.

Artists who incorporate airbrush technique in their work prefer artist acrylic colors when working on canvas.  Unlike oil paint, acrylic paint dries very quickly.  Therefore, artists are able to easily work with all the different types of stencil materials.  Acrylics are also fairly easy to clean from the airbrush (but not as easy as watercolors) with the use of soap/water or commercial water-based paint airbrush cleaner.  In addition, they are also low in toxicity and somewhat waterproof when dry.  And, like oil paints, acrylic paints are colorfast.  They are also ideal for working on paper, illustration board, acetate, Claybord, etc.

Most artists working in the fine and commercial arts who utilize an airbrush in part—if not all—of a rendering, will use water-based artist colors.  See your retailer and ask.