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Airbrush Demo - Wolf

Updated on September 13, 2014

Painting a wolf portrait using the airbrush

The airbrush has the reputation of being just for t-shirts and motorcycle helmets. That's not the case. The airbrush can be used to paint fine art as well. I'll show you how.

Don't let the airbrush intimidate you. It's just another tool and takes practice to learn. Take your time and keep at it. You will find the airbrush can do things no other painting tool can.

So, make yourself comfy and lets get started.

I'll show you, step by step, how to paint this wolf using the airbrush. I'll give you the paints I've used and any other equipment you'll need. This painting was done on a canvas,but you can paint it on illustration board as well.

The Airbrush

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.

Airbrushes on Amazon

For more suppliers of Air brushes, go to the bottom of this lens

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

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.

Compressors - A few compressors to get you started.

For more suppliers of compressors, go to the bottom of this lens

Medea Comart Airbrush Paint - This paint is very light and goes through any airbrush without the worry of clogging. It doesn't need any thinning either. It just needs to be shaken each time you use it and during your painting session. It's a bit like using inks, very transparent. This transparency can be very troublesome because you can see the mistakes underneath. So if your using this paint, go slow and build up your colors with light layers.

Golden Fluid acrylic paint is another nice paint. This one however will need to be thinned as you use it. It's just too thick for the airbrush. Use their airbrush medium to thin it down. What I like about this paint is it is readily available in my local art supply store and has a larger selection of colors.

TIP: - Thinning the paint can be done right in the cup. Put a few drops of the paint and a couple of drops of the airbrush medium right in the cup. Use a toothpick to mix it and your ready to go. No need to mix up a huge amount of paint only to have to find another container to store it in. Just mix as you go.

A Bit about Safety

Safety? What could possibly be dangerous about airbrushing? Picture yourself working on a painting. You're 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 canvas, but some of it is getting into the air and your nose is about 2" from your work. You're breathing that paint 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.

Transfer your drawing onto your canvas. Use a light touch with your lines. You want to just barely see them.

Burnt Umber - Start establishing the basic shapes. Outline the eyes, nose, muzzle and mane area. No details yet. Your just getting everything in there proper place and sort of "mapping" it out.

Burnt Umber - Go back and begin adding the fur. Follow the direction of growth. Leave the white areas but keep the transition from white to burnt umber soft. Continue with the fur working down the head.

The technique to paint fur is hard to describe in words. The action is this:

1. Air only and begin the stroke

2. Air and paint as you continue the stroke.

3. Air only as you end the stroke.

This action takes place in a matter of a fraction of a second as you paint each stroke. This is very difficult, but with practice you will eventually become good at it.

Tip- Before starting on your painting, do some exercises to get the rhythm of this stroke. Using only water in your airbrush, practice some strokes on paper. This will get your arm and brain working together. It's a good idea to do this every time you work on any painting. Just as a singer or musician will do the scales before the performance.

Burnt Umber - Continue working the fur. Down into the nose and muzzle. Work heavier in the shadows. I'm still just using the Burnt Umber. There are more colors to be added, so don't worry about covering the entire area with fur strokes. Right now your just getting the fur established and getting the direction of the fur down. Another map for your to follow.

Burnt Umber - Work down into the mane establishing the breaks in the fur, but not the layers.

Burnt Umber - The eyes are now worked. Darken around the pupil. A star pattern is worked out from it. The vein in the eyes are painted and a shadow is established.

Use a very light touch here. You don't want to go too dark. The veins in the eyes are subtle. This requires you have control of your air/paint ratio. Start with the air, not too much, then slowly pull back for your paint. All the while moving the airbrush at the same time.

Practice this air/paint ratio control movement above on paper before attempting to work on your painting. If you use too much air you will get "spiders" and drips. It's better to practice on paper than ruin your painting. If you get splotches here, you can't go back.

Yellow Ochre - Around the eyes, mane and muzzle and the eyes. Soften the transition between the yellow ochre and the white areas using just a few very light strokes. Be careful to keep the white areas clean.

Yellow Ochre - Because yellow ochre is transparent, many layers of color need to be applied. Keep working and building the values. (The white area in the nose is a reflection from my camera and not white paint). Keep the white areas light, but lightly warm them up with the yellow ochre.

Yellow Ochre - Work the shadows in the eyes and around the vein and star around the pupil.

The area to the right of the eye looks like I've added blue, but it's just a trick of the camera. I've only used Burnt Umber and Yellow Ochre so far.

Black - Starting back at the head, work short strokes following the direction of the fur. Leave areas of brown showing between the black strokes. Fill in the pupil, but keep it soft, no hard edges here. Around the eye. Leave some brown showing on the lower lid and inner eye area. Work small strokes into the light areas. In the very dark areas of the head, such as the temple area and inner eye, you can spray more black to darken them.

Be very careful with black. It can really kill a painting. Sneak up on it slowly. You can always go back later and darken areas, but you can never go back and lighten them up. Go slow.

Black - Outline and shade the nose, keeping some brown showing. Work the inside of the nose. Add soft spots where the whiskers come out. Paint the sides of the muzzle and add small strokes on the chin. Work the mane further, but keep it soft. Deepen the shadows. The shadows in the white area can be done using smoke instead, or a more watered down black.

Again the trick of the camera makes it look like I've added purple. I have not. So far only three colors have been used. Burnt Umber, Yellow Ochre and Black.

White - Start with the small wisps on the upper muzzle a few under the eye and at the tips of the side mane. Using short curved strokes, add fur to the muzzle and chin. Make soft dots on the nose fading them out as they go into the darker areas. Add a few tiny strokes just above the nose.

White can be a hard color to use with the airbrush. You need it thin enough to go through the brush, but not so thin that you can't see it. It's a matter of trial and error to get just the right consistency. Because you have to thin it quite a bit (white tends to clog the brush more) you will have to apply it in layers.

White - Add small white strokes in the black area. Keep these sparse and follow the direction of the fur. Eyelashes, highlights in and around the eye and strokes in the white areas. Following the fur in the mane, add white just at the tips. Here you need to do each layer separately. Don't try to do all the layers at once or you will lose the effect.

We'll come back later and tone these stark white stokes down a bit.

Yellow Ochre - After you finish the first row of white in the mane, go back and cover it with Yellow Ochre. Make sure there is no white left.

Sienna - Leaving just the tips of the fur, blend up with the sienna.

Burnt Umber - Leaving a row of sienna, blend up with the burnt umber. Lightly spray over the highlights on the lower eye lids to tone down the brightness of the white. Spray over the white spots on the nose

Black or Smoke - Finish blending until you don't see where one color starts and one stops.

Now go back and do the next row. Starting with the white, yellow ochre, sienna, etc. Complete each row this way

Violet - Spray over the white dots on the nose and around the muzzle and chin. Be careful, violet is very strong and you want a subtle effect here.

White - Lightly spray the highlights in the eye area. You don't want these stark, so go back with the yellow ochre and tone it down just a tiny bit.

Using a round object such as a bottle lid, spray a light mist for the highlight. Start at the middle and work out in each direction. Go back and lightly spray ultramarine on the outside of this white area. Using a tiny brush, paint a bright spot right on the horizon.

Spray small dots on the highlighted area of the nose concentrating on the highlights point only. Using the brush again, paint dots right on the highest point only. Just a few, don't over do it.

Use smoke to increase the shadow areas.

Now it's just a matter of tweaking and adjusting. Going back and forth with colors.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial.


For All my art demos go to The Natural Gift.

Wildlife art by award winning artist Kathie Miller

Come on over and have a look at all my work.

To see my store, go to Wildlife Art

Other airbrush paintings I've done

You can purchase these paintings on great products such as mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads, key chains, and much more.

I use many different mediums, colored pencil, watercolor, even textiles.

Caribou - Canvas

The Western chipmunk - airbrush on illustration board

Hippo - airbrush on illustration board

Catching Her Breath - airbrush on Canvas

Jungle Queen - airbrush on Canvas

Horse Portrait - airbrush on canvas

Macaw - airbrush on denim

Boxer - airbrush on denim

Books to Get you Started with the Airbrush

A Great Airbrush Magazine

DVD's - Learn, step by step, from the masters


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 online search will give you a lot more.


Respro Sportsra


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