What Paint To Use With an Airbrush: Guide To Using 15 Types

A man holding an airbrush in an art supply store with several brightly colored paints in the background.

Learning how to paint with an airbrush is a skill that can be very rewarding, not only due to the pleasure you derive from creating art but also from the thrill of using paint in a new and interesting way.

Having used an airbrush for many years for my various hobbies, I know firsthand how confusing it can be when it comes to figuring out what paints are compatible with an airbrush and which one will be best for specific painting projects.

Understanding what paint to use and for what purposes is the first step to becoming an airbrush pro.

What paint can you use with an airbrush? There are a wide variety of paints that can be used with an airbrush, including airbrush paints, acrylics, enamels, oils, watercolors, leather and fabric paints, latex, inks, and primers, among others. Creating great results depends on using the correct paint for the designated task.

The technique of airbrushing can be used for creating fine art, detailing automobiles, painting models, applying makeup and temporary tattoos, and decorating cakes, among other projects.

In this article you will learn which paints are appropriate for specific activities, and how best to use them to create remarkable results. 

Types of Paint To Use With an Airbrush 

There are as many different kinds of paint to use with an airbrush as there are projects to apply them to.

When it comes to airbrushing, the key to creating desired results is using the right paint for the right job.

1. Airbrush Paint 

Airbrush paint is paint that is designed specifically for airbrushing. 

  • Best for: Airbrush paint is great for creating fine art. 
  • How To Thin: Most airbrush paint comes pre-thinned, but you may find that they still need further thinning. Use a reducer or thinner created by the same manufacturer for best results. 
  • Suitable Surfaces: Airbrush paint can be used on textiles, glass, wood, canvas, leather, and plastic.
  • Recommended Product: Timbertech Airbrush Paints come in a set of 12 opaque colors with a semi gloss finish. These are a great choice for beginners and old hands alike.

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2. Acrylic Paint 

Many acrylic paints have a thinner consistency, making them an ideal choice for airbrushing. You’ll find tips and safety guidelines here.

  • Best for: Acrylic paints can be used to create fine art and paint models and can even be used on some types of fabric.
  • How To Thin: You can use a commercial thinner to thin acrylic paints, or use an airbrush acrylic medium, or simply add a little water to the paint to create the desired consistency.
  • Suitable Surfaces: Acrylic paints can be used effectively on canvas, wood, metal, glass, clay, stone, and some plastics.
  • Recommended Product: Caliart Acrylic Paint is a high quality 24-color acrylic paint set that won’t break the bank.

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Caliart Acrylic Paint Set, 24 Classic Colors...
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3. Enamel Paint 

Many hobbyists love to use enamel paint because of its durability and glossy finish.

  • Best for: Enamel paints are great for airbrushing models or for outdoor projects.
  • How To Thin: As enamel paints are solvent based, it’s important to wear protective gear when thinning and working with them. To thin enamel paints, use mineral or white spirits or a reducer developed by the same manufacturer at a 3:1 paint-to-thinner ratio.
  • Suitable Surfaces: Enamel paints can be used on wood, metal, concrete, and brick.
  • Recommended Product: Testors Enamel Paint Set comes with a bottle of thinner that can be used for airbrushing.

Testors 9146XT Promotional Enamel Paint Set(...
  • Ideal for use on wood, plastic and paper
  • Enamel-based paints add vibrant color that is durable and long lasting

4. Oil Paint 

Oil paints are known for their rich, lustrous colors and can be thinned to create epic airbrush artworks.

  • Best for: Oil paints are great for painting over surfaces that have already been covered with an oil-based paint.
  • How To Thin: Combine oil paint at a 1:1 ratio with a thinner such as refined turpentine or mineral spirits. 
  • Suitable Surfaces: Oil paint can be used on canvas, fiberboard, wood, glass, and aluminum. 
  • Recommended Product: Winsor and Newton is a well-known name in the oil-painting industry for good reason. This starter set contains 10 tubes of beautifully pigmented color that can easily be thinned for airbrushing. 

Winsor & Newton Winton Oil Colour Paint Starter...
  • Ideal for student and amateur artists or more accomplished painters requiring large volumes of color...
  • A high level of pigmentation provides good covering power and tinting strength

5. Watercolors 

Watercolors are a thin, transparent paint that looks best in airbrushing when applied in multiple layers. 

  • Best for: Watercolors are easily destroyed by exposure to the elements, so they are best reserved for illustrations and fine art. 
  • How To Thin: Thinning watercolors is super simple; whether they come in cakes or tubes, just add water!
  • Suitable Surfaces: When airbrushing with watercolors, use paper or canvas specifically designed for watercolor paints.
  • Recommended Product: Castle Art Supplies Watercolor Paint Set contains 24 tubes of vibrant colors. 

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6. Leather Paint 

Leather paint can be used to describe a range of paints, including acrylic, metallic, and pearlescent paints, and leather dyes. Lots of info on painting leather can be found in this article.

  • Best for: Metallic and pearlescent paints are often used to paint automobile interiors, while acrylics can be used for leather accessories such as purses or belts. Leather dyes are more durable than leather paints and are used to color larger areas of leather.
  • How To Thin: To thin leather paint, add water to the paint at a 1:1 ratio.
  • Suitable Surfaces: Leather products, including vehicle interiors, purses, belts, boots, and furniture.
  • Recommended Product: This Angelus Leather Paint Set comes with 12 brilliant colors and is a great choice for painting boots, athletic shoes, purses, jackets, and tack.  

Angelus Leather Paint Set of 12 1 oz
  • Set of Angelus Leather paint in twelve colors, 1 oz jars, version 1
  • Ideal for athletic shoes - boots- jackets - purses - tack

7. Tempera Paint 

Tempera paint is a water-based paint that is often used in children’s crafts and art projects. Discover when to use tempera as opposed to acrylics in my article here.

  • Best for: Tempera paint is a temporary paint that is best used for fine art or illustration on paper products.
  • How To Thin: You can thin tempera paint as you would acrylic by adding just a little bit of water. 
  • Suitable Surfaces: Tempera paint is best used on paper, canvas, or poster board. 
  • Recommended Product: Colorations Simply Washable Tempera Paints is a cost-effective set of 11 colors, with 16 ounces of each color! 

Colorations - SWT16 Simply Washable Tempera...
  • Endless Creativity: Our vibrant, creamy, & opaque washable paint for kids is designed for...
  • Washable Tempera Paints: Some kid’s paint sets aren't exactly washable, all too easily leaving...

8. Latex Paint 

Latex paint is a durable, inexpensive paint that is commonly used for painting large, smooth surfaces, such as walls.

  • Best for: Latex paint generally comes in bulk sizes and is great for painting walls or any surface that requires smooth, even coats. 
  • How To Thin: Use water or a paint thinner developed by the same manufacturer to thin latex paints.
  • Suitable Surfaces: Latex paint is often used on concrete, drywall, wood, furniture, brick, vinyl, fiberglass, aluminum, and masonry. 
  • Recommended Product: The price for Rust-Oleum Painter’s Touch Latex Paint can’t be beat; it’s less than $10 for an entire quart!

Rust-Oleum 1974502 Painter's Touch Latex Paint,...
  • Use for a variety of indoor and outdoor project surfaces including wood, metal, plaster, masonry or...
  • Water-based acrylic formula is low odor, resist chips and provides long-lasting protection

9. Fabric Paint 

Fabric paints can have an acrylic, alcohol, or dye base; each type is suitable for a distinct purpose. I cover fabric paints extensively here.

  • Best for: Acrylic fabric paints are a water-based paint that are suitable for most types of fabrics and are often used on shoes. 
    • Alcohol-based fabric paints are more like an ink and are best used for creating tie-dye type effects. Fabrics painted with alcohol-based paints will need to be sealed in order to be washable. 
    • Dye-based fabric paints are often used for tie-dye or to dye large sections of fabric and can be used on almost all kinds of fabric. Most dye-based fabric paints will be designed for use on a specific type of fabric.
  • How To Thin: For airbrushing you will need to mix a fabric additive into your fabric paint. Not only will it lower the viscosity, but it will also help it to better adhere to the material.
  • Suitable Surfaces: You can use fabric paints on cotton, denim, silk, cotton, and polyester, among other fabrics.
  • Recommended Product: The Shuttle Art Fabric Paint set includes 18 different colors, as well as brushes, stencils, and a palette.

Fabric Paint, Shuttle Art 18 Colors Permanent Soft...
  • 18 VIBRANT COLORS WITH STENCILS: Shuttle Art fabric paint set contains 18 colors soft fabric paint...
  • PERMANENT & WASHER SAFE: Easy to blend and cover, stay permanent and won’t crack or peel, durable...

10. Inks 

Inks are a low-viscosity medium that work great for airbrushing.

  • Best for: Inks work well on absorbent surfaces. 
  • How To Thin: Inks are a great consistency for airbrushing on their own and don’t necessarily need to be thinned. 
  • Suitable Surfaces: Ink is good for use on canvases and paper materials.
  • Recommended Product: The Liquitex Professional Acrylic Ink Set is reasonably priced and comes with 6 different colors.

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11. Primer 

Primer is used to apply a preparatory coat before painting. 

  • Best for: Primer helps you to create a better bond for your paints and gives you an even surface to work with.
  • How To Thin: To thin water-based primer, add water. For oil-based primer, add mineral spirits. 
  • Suitable Surfaces: You can use primer on wood, metal, or canvas. 
  • Recommended Product: KILZ KLEAR Primer is a stain-blocking, clear latex primer that can be used on both interior and exterior surfaces. 

KILZ L220101 KLEAR Multi-Surface Stain Blocking...
  • This high-performance clear primer is formulated to bond and seal porous and chalky interior and...
  • KILZ Klear is an alkali-resistant clear primer and sealer. It helps protect topcoats from "hot"...

12. Airbrush Makeup 

Airbrush makeup is a hygienic option that makes contouring and blending a breeze. 

  • Best for: Airbrush makeup is best for professional makeup artists who want to improve their makeup application process.
  • How To Thin: Airbrush makeup should come in the correct consistency, but you can always add a little water as needed. 
  • Suitable Surfaces: Airbrush makeup is made for the skin.
  • Recommended Product: The Belloccio Airbrush Makeup System has everything a makeup artist needs, including a makeup airbrush and compressor, blush, bronzer, highlighters, and 17 shades of foundation.

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  • An ideal system for those looking to get started in the world of cosmetic makeup airbrushing....
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13. Automotive Paint 

Automotive paint is a weather-resistant, highly durable paint that is used for car exteriors.

  • Best for: Use automotive paint on vehicles of your choice.
  • How To Thin: You can use thinners with automotive paint to create a milk-like consistency.
  • Suitable Surfaces: Automotive paint can be used on hard surfaces such as metal or plastic.
  • Recommended Product: Speedokote is a high quality urethane automotive body paint.

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14. Food Coloring 

Airbrush food coloring has a thinner consistency than regular food coloring. 

  • Best for: Airbrush food coloring is an excellent choice for decorating cookies, fondant, and dry icing.
  • How To Thin: Airbrush food coloring is premixed at the correct consistency and does not need to be thinned.
  • Suitable Surfaces: Airbrush food coloring is made specifically for decorating food.
  • Recommended Product: U.S. Cake Supply Airbrush Cake Color Set comes with 12 edible colors, including metallic gold and silver. 

U.S. Cake Supply Airbrush Cake Color Set - The 12...
  • Airbrush Colors are highly concentrated edible airbrush food colors with superior strength and are...
  • Colors come in sealed bottles with easy-to-use flip-top dispenser bottles

15. Body and Face Paints 

Body and face paints are paints specifically designed to be applied to the skin.

  • Best for: Body and face paints are perfect for face painting and temporary tattoos.
  • How To Thin: Airbrush body and face paints come ready to apply without the need for thinning.
  • Suitable Surfaces: Whenever you are painting on skin, you want to make sure that you are using a professional-grade body or face paint, not regular acrylics (here is why). 
  • Recommended Product: Custom Body Art has a set of 16 different colors that are ready to apply to face and body.

Custom Body Art Set of 16 Colors 1-oz Bottles of...
  • Safe for use on skin as it's water-based, non-toxic & FDA compliant
  • Applies very easy by airbrush and easily washes of with soap and water

How Do You Prepare Paint for Airbrushing?

The most important part of preparing paint for airbrushing is making sure that it is the right consistency.

You can either purchase paint specifically designed for airbrushing that is ready to go out of the bottle or you can mix your paints with a variety of thinners, mediums, and reducers to create the desired viscosity.

Airbrush Paint Consistency 

You want to make sure your airbrush paint consistency is milk or ink like. It needs to be able to flow and to be free of lumps or debris.

Surface Prep for Airbrushing 

Some surfaces will benefit from priming them before you apply paint.

If you are painting something that will be outside or will see a lot of wear and tear, it’s always a good idea to apply a coat of primer first.

How To Clean Your Airbrush 

1. Paint Flush

Remove the cup from the airbrush and empty the paint. Spray an airbrush cleaner, like this excellent cleaner from Iwata-Medea or water through the airbrush until it sprays clear.

2. Clean the Needle

Remove the needle and use an airbrush cleaner to wipe it clean. Reapply the needle and spray water through the airbrush to ensure that it is working properly.

3. Clean the Nozzle

Remove the nozzle and soak the nozzle, needle cap, and nozzle cap in airbrush cleaner. Use a pipe cleaner or small cleaning brush to remove excess paint from each part.

4. Clean the Paint Passage

Use airbrush cleaner and a brush to clean the paint passage.

5. Clean the Outside of the Airbrush

Wipe down the outside of the airbrush with a small amount of cleaner.

Related Questions:

Can You Use Wall Paint in an Airbrush? 

Latex and enamel paints are often used to paint walls, and when properly thinned and used with appropriate protective gear, they are perfectly fine to use in an airbrush.

Is Airbrush Thinner the Same as Reducer? 

While the terms “thinners” and “reducers” are often used interchangeably, there are differences between the two.

Thinners are designed to be used with lacquer-based paints, while reducers are made to work with urethane-based paints.

Wrapping It Up

Airbrushing is a fun and versatile technique that anyone can learn.

Understanding the best paints to use for your intended purposes will save you a lot of time and trouble in experimentation and cleanup. 

Last update on 2021-12-03 at 10:39 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Rich

Rich

I'm a hobby enthusiast with a real love for painting miniatures. I also happen to run this site and write the majority of its content!