At long last I’m back to painting miniatures. I am picking up a project started in January: five new regiments of French light cavalry for my Napoleonic army. More of that another time. But as I’ve resumed work, I am starting to rethink the techniques I use.
I first mulled the use of an airbrush some years ago. I held back because the bedroom that I used for my hobby projects wasn’t well ventilated, and I had been a bit alarmed by some of things I read about the need for good ventilation. Lack of ventilation severely restricted my use of aerosol paints. These fears, as it happens, were probably exaggerated so far as concerns the water-based products that I was considering; the spray coming from an airbrush is pretty limited. But the studio in my new home, which now my new workshop, has much better ventilation, so that obstacle was falling away anyway.
Two things brought the issue to a head. First was the incipient new project of returning to aircraft modelling, which I have already posted about. Airbrushes are very much the thing for this these days, as I found when researching techniques. The second came about with my new cavalry, which needed priming. The primer I have been using in the last few years was Fortress Special Metals Primer, bought in 750ml tins at my local DIY store. This proved an excellent primer, by the way. It sticks well to both pewter and hard plastic while taking acrylic paints well. Better it dries in a nice, tight and thin coating. The problem proved to be the massive tin. This wasn’t designed for regular opening and closing. It was hard to prise open, and over time the repeated opening damaged the seal. Attempts to transfer to smaller receptacles were a bit messy, and these dried out rather quickly. By the time I opened it after about 9 months of non-use the remaining half of the tin was completely solid. Receptacle design is an increasingly important issue with me, having lost a number of artists acrylic paints due to badly designed tubes (one reason that I favour Liquitex and now avoid Daler Rowney). I have now ordered some artists’ gesso – more expensive per millilitre, but easier to use, and hopefully leading to less wastage.
I ordered this from Hobby Craft, who are taking their time to fulfil (this may be a function of having now moved out into the country). Meanwhile I found some white aerosol paint (I found two cans, but one gave up after a couple of minutes use). This reminded me of how just much I dislike aerosol paints. In one way they are an excellent way of applying primer. They don’t swamp the detail, which is the risk with a brush, as well as covering large areas quickly. But they are messy; it is difficult to control the spray and there are clouds of propellant, which is smelly and probably not very healthy. I feel the need to stand well back and put the miniatures in some sort of open box so to as protect my other possessions (or to protect from the breeze, if outdoors); and then there is the business of rotating objects covered in wet paint so that each angle is covered. All this palaver leads to mess, and frequently to missed recesses, especially on 15mm or 20mm figures. An airbrush, however, offers a much more controlled way of applying primer (or varnish – less of an issue with aerosols for me, as it isn’t quite so messy). The product gets on quickly and smoothly and you can give each figure individual treatment.
It was too late for my cavalry project, but my imminent aircraft project offered the perfect opportunity to learn how to use the device. My plan is to start of a single cheap model, before tackling the main part of the project. I regret throwing away my three old models, even after I moved them all the way here – they would have been excellent to practice on. And so I embarked on research. There is a lot of material out there. One particularly helpful blog (tangibleday.com) pointed me towards a US Badger product (the Patriot 105). But as I looked for places to buy airbrushes, I felt the need to go to a reputable dealer; there are fakes out there, quite apart from the need for ancillary products. This drew me to the Airbrush Company Ltd (airbrushes.com), which is based in Sussex, not all that far from my new home, though, of course, my plan was to buy online. Their website is particularly helpful, but their principal product range is Iwata, a Japanese company. The tangibleday blog says that Iwata are one of the three best brands (Harding & Steenbeck being the third), which has the reputation of being excellent but expensive. That blog is American, and written a while ago, I think. The balance of cost may be a bit different here and now – the cheaper Iwata products didn’t look too badly priced, given that they are a premium product. This drew me to Iwata.
There were two main candidates: the Iwata Neo CN (£85.80) and the Revolution CR (£130). The Neo is a new product, clearly aimed at the entry level, apparently subcontracted to a Chinese manufacturer. The Revolution was the entry-level series for Iwata before the Neo, and is more robust, according to the reviews. The critical operational distinction between these brushes is that the Neo CN has a 0.35mm nozzle, and for the Revolution CR it is 0.5mm. There is a Revolution brush, the BN, with a finer nozzle (0.3mm), but I ruled this out. Smaller nozzles are better for fine work; larger ones for wider coverage. Another issue is that I needed a compressor to provide the air supply. I decided to go for one of Airbrushes.com’s kits, with compressor and cleaning products, plus some basic paints. These started at £225 for the Neo plus a very basic (Neo) compressor.
After reading reviews for these two brushes it became clear that the nozzle size was a critical difference. One reviewer said that he found himself using both brushes, with the Neo used for the fine work and the CR for the higher coverage tasks. It then struck me that I wasn’t ready to use the airbrush for fine work. I wanted it for applying primer, and maybe varnish, and for higher coverage jobs on model aircraft and vehicles. The Airbrushes.com guide said that the CR wasn’t suitable for miniatures, but fine for models. I also decided that would spend a bit more on the compressor, as this was a pretty critical piece of equipment. So I decided to splash out on the Revolution CR, paired with the Silver Jet compressor for £306. Along with the kit come some small pots of LifeColor paints and thinner, plus three different cleaning products, which is probably a bit over the top. I also bought a basic cleaning pot – so that you can safely empty the brush while cleaning it. It all arrived in a few days.
So how is it working out? I have had one trial session, so it is much too early to tell. For all the complications you read about in the blogs, the technology is quite mechanical and simple, which is a relief. Still there are a number of variables and quite a bit to learn. Covering large areas with a thin coat is pretty straightforward. Doing fine lines isn’t; this may be bad technique on my part, or it may be that this brush has a relatively large nozzle. But fine work was always going to come much later for me. I’m looking forward to getting started on my first model.