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Airbrush Demo - Osprey

Updated on September 14, 2014

Airbrushing an Osprey on a denim shirt

The airbrush is typically known for painting T-shirts in a hurry while the customer waits. But this is not the case. The airbrush can be used as a fine art "brush" as well and I'm going to show you how.

This tutorial will show you how to airbrush on a denim shirt or jacket. I'll take you step by step and show you the supplies you need to get started with the airbrush.

Don't let the airbrush intimidate you. It's like any other tool and just takes practice to get comfortable with it. So get yourself nice and comfy and lets get started.

This is the painting we will be doing.

This was a commissioned piece, painted on the back of a denim shirt.


The first thing you'll need are some airbrush supplies. You can start out simple and inexpensive, but I think you will find the less expensive equipment will only frustrate you and not give you a true sense of what the airbrush can really do. Save up and buy a good airbrush. You can skimp on the air compressor for now, but don't skimp on the airbrush.

There are several types of airbrushes, but I'll just talk about two kinds. These are the single action and the double action. What do I mean by single and double action? If you look at an airbrush you will see a lever at the top. This is your control. A single action will give you air and paint at the same time without any control. The double action will allow you to start the air first by pressing down, then add the paint by pulling back, thus double action. Be sure you get a gravity feed. You're not using a lot of paint at any one time so there is no need for large bottles at the bottom or a large cup at the top. Choose an airbrush with a small cup at the top. Less cleaning between colors.

One word on the single action -
You will never learn with a single action airbrush. It will cause you nothing but headache and you will give up. You won't have the control you need for those details.

Do Not buy a Badger airbrush from your local craft store. They will not give you the results you want. And most of them are single action anyway.

My two favorite airbrushes:

Paasche VJ1 or VJ2 - A really good brush that has a nice small cup.This photo shows the cup removed. It sits on top right in front of the trigger.

Iwata Eclipse HP BS - My all time favorite. I love this brush. I've used my Iwata for years and have never needed or wanted any other.

Compressors come in all sizes and horse power. If you're on a tight budget, you can pick up a small compressor for a little over $100. There will be some drawbacks to these compressors however. First, they stay on all the time. This can become very annoying after awhile. Second, they become very hot. It's a good idea to put down a piece of plywood larger than the compressor. This will keep it off the floor and reduce the risk of damaging it. And third, these compressors gather condensation. If you use if for an extended period of time, you will start to spray water. And that can potentially ruin a painting. Even with several filters on the tube, it will quickly saturate the filters and spray water.

Silent Air makes a very nice compressor that is pretty quiet and in the middle of the road as far as price goes. I bought one of these when I first got into airbrushing and it served me very well. It's a good place to start.

My recommendation is the Medea Hammerhead Shark 1/2 hp compressor. This compressor is extremely quiet. And I do mean quiet. You can have this compressor right under your feet (and mine is) and barely hear it come on. Second, this model has two ports. This can be very handy when you have two different types of airbrushes going at the same time. I occasionally do and I don't have to disconnect one then connect the other just to use it for a few minutes then change back. This compressor can be pretty expensive, but you will never have to buy one again. An excellent investment.

Those are the two main pieces of equipment you'll need other than the paint.


So lets talk about the paint. There are several paint brands to choose from.

My favorite is Golden Fluid Paint. It is readily available, comes in a lot of colors, and has a very nice consistency. There are paints especially for fabric, but I'll show you a way to make any airbrush paint work on fabric. Golden has an airbrush paint as well, but I find, for the fabric the Fluid Paint works the best.

Golden GAC 900 - This is the secret ingredient to make your paints work on fabric.

Golden Airbrush Medium - This is used to thin your paints down 1:1 and to make them more durable and washable.

A word about safety

Safety? What could possibly be dangerous about airbrushing? Picture yourself working a painting. Your concentrating on the details and working close to the board. What do you think is happening to the paint your spraying? Most of it is going onto the fabric, but some of it is getting into the air and your nose is about 2" from your work. Your essentially breathing that acrylic into your lungs. So I recommend wearing a mask.

Ok, I can hear the sighs of displeasure from hear. But if you plan on airbrushing for many years, you will end up with lungs full of paint. That can't be good for you. The cheap paper masks just aren't good enough. They have too much of a gap around your face. But there is good news. I have been using a mask for years that I just love. It was designed for motorcycle riders to wear so you know it's comfortable.

Respro - These masks come from England so there is a bit of a wait for them to get to you, but they are the most comfortable masks I've ever worn. Granted, it's still a mask, but you will find that it won't make your face sweat like the plastic ones from the paint store. Be sure to buy extra filters just to have on hand. I have the Sportsta mask. It's perfect for the types of particles we need it to filter. They also have an allergy mask that's good too.

Golden GAC 900 - This is the secret ingredient to make your paints work on fabric.

This demo was done on the back of a denim shirt. It's very important that you wash the shirt first. I like to start with a faded blue shirt or jacket. It just looks better and more "worn" which is what most people want anyway. So to prevent too much washing by your client, start with one that is already broken in.

After the shirt has been laundered, stretch it over a board. You can use anything, I use a piece of plywood. I have several sizes cut for the various sizes of shirts that I do. Use strong clamps so the shirt doesn't shift. Take your time and make sure the shirt is straight without any wrinkles. Don't worry about all the sleeves and front panels, just wrap them around the back and use some tape to keep them out of the way.

Now you need to tape off all the areas you won't be painting on. Airbrushing will cause over spray, so protect these areas. You can use masking tape. Painters tape isn't really sticky enough and might come off at the worst time.

OK. You shirt is already to go. But there is one more step before we can start to paint. You need to spray a coat of GAC 900 over the entire area to be painted. This will flatten down the nap of the fabric and gives the paint more to grab onto. You don't need to saturate the fabric, just make sure there is a good even coat. Allow this to dry 24 hours. After it's dry use an old pillowcase, cover the area and heat set with an iron. Your now ready to paint.

Transfer the drawing to the shirt. I use pastel pencils for this. Use a color that you can see on the blue denim, but will not show through the paint. Here I've used a light yellow.

I start with opaque white and work around the dark areas. Be sure to leave the blue of the fabric showing. These will be some of the shadows. Don't try to cover the areas completely. You might need to do several coats. You don't want it so heavy that it becomes stiff.

Remember - your paints are thinned with Airbrush Medium 1:1.

Next I work the dark areas with raw umber. Again lightly, building as I go. Work in the direction of the feathers. You notice on the back of the head I've left areas showing through. You can always go back later and darken areas. So don't try to go too dark too soon. There is no going back if you do. Slow and easy.

Black is next. Leaving much of the raw umber showing through for texture. Be very careful with black. I try not to use it at all. I'm just using it to pick out some of the really dark shadows.

Although it's a bit hard to see here, I went back into the shadows and sprayed first violet, then ultramarine in the white areas. Lightly. It should be very subtle.

I go back with white and work the highlight areas. I add white to the tips of some of the dark feathers. These are then glazed with raw sienna. I try to sneak up on my subjects. I go back and forth slowly picking out the highlights and shadows. This allows the under colors to show through and make for a more dynamic painting.

The eyes. First, using burnt sienna, I outline the eye, fill in the pupil and around the eye. Next, I paint the "star" around the pupil and add the veins. Remember, the white you see is already there. So work carefully.

I glazed the iris area again and again using yellow ochre. It took quite a few layers to get the color I wanted. Spray each layer lightly and work up to the color you want. Allowing each layer to dry before adding the next.

Tip - To speed up the drying you can blow the airbrush (air only) on the area. It only takes a few seconds.

Sorry the photo is not in focus, but you can see that I added white. To do the highlight on the right, I used a round device to give a sharp, curved line on the bottom. You can use a cap, or cut a piece of plastic the diameter you want. I also added white at a 45-degree angle from that highlight in a tiny squiggle. I went back into this white and softened it down with the yellow ochre.

I added ultramarine over the top of the right highlight and a tiny pure white spot right in the middle of the "horizon" of the highlight. I also added just a few tiny strokes in the left highlight. I then went back with the black and cleaned up around the pupil and eye.

Tip - When doing tiny dots or details, don't be afraid to use a regular artist brush (a hairy brush). It's not written anywhere that says you have to use just an airbrush on an airbrush painting.

With just a little tweaking here and there the painting is finished. Allow to dry for 4 days. Spray another layer of GAC 900. Make sure this is a nice even coat. If you want, let it dry 24 hours and spray it again. Let dry 24 hours and heat set again as before. The shirt is hand washable.

For all my tutorials go to The Natural Gift

Wildlife art by award winning artist Kathie Miller

Many mediums have been used, airbrush, colored pencils, even textiles

To see my store, go to Wildlife Art

You can purchase these designs on many different products from t-shirts to mouse pads, mugs to key chains. Click on the link above.

Red-Tail Hawk - airbrush on denim

Macaw - airbrush on denim

Boxer - airbrush on denim

Caribou - Canvas

Western Chipmunk - Illustration Board

Hippopotamus - Illustration Board

Polar Bear - Canvas

"Catching Her Breath" - Canvas

Have you ever used an airbrush?

See results

More good books on using the airbrush

Good books on drawing wildlife and birds

Where to find your equipment and paints

Medea Hammerhead Shark Compressor


Check out E-Bay as well. You might find a nice used one there.



Dick Blick Art Supplies

These are just a few on line sites that sell these items. A little on line search will give you a lot more.


Respro Sportsra


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