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How Does an Airbrush Work? Airbrushes & Compressors Explained

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Of all of the artist’s media out there, airbrushing is about the coolest. You can use them for decorating models, nail art, or even cakes. You can spray body paint or create custom masterpieces on your car. There are few boundaries to limit what an airbrush can do–which is wonderful for creative people.

The only problem with airbrushes is that they require much more equipment than most art tools. They are, in effect, power tools. They need a special paint set, an air source, a power source, and many other bits and pieces to get started. Here’s a look at airbrush basics, how airbrushes work, and a quick start guide to their use.

Table of Contents

How Do Airbrushes Work?

Airbrushes are fairly simple devices. Even though they seem complicated and technical, the inner mechanics are a marvel of simplicity. By pressing the button on an airbrush, you allow compressed air to move through the nozzle. That air comes out pretty fast.

When you accelerate air, its pressure drops. Attached to the top, bottom, or side of the airbrush is the paint cup. The lower pressure caused by the fast-moving air in the nozzle sucks the paint out of the cup. The air and paint meet at the nozzle, which atomizes the paint into the air flow. Atomization is simply a fancy way of saying that the paint gets split into tiny, tiny droplets suspended in the air.

An airbrush works just like an engine carburetor, except instead of spraying fuel, it sprays pretty colors! Using a modern airbrush is very similar to using a can of spray paint. The difference is that you aren’t limited to one color and have much better control over the paint.

Types of Airbrush

There are a few different designs of airbrushes out there. Finding the right airbrush for you depends on what you want to use it for, as well as the air supply you want to use. One of the most visible differences in the location of the paint cup. The types of airbrush are:

  • Bottom Feed Airbrush
  • Side Feed Airbrush
  • Gravity Feed Airbrush
  • External Mix Airbrushes
  • Internal Mix Airbrushes
  • Dual Action Airbrush

Bottom Feed Airbrush

The cup can be below the nozzle. These are known as bottom feed or siphon feed brushes, and in these, the airflow must create enough suction to draw the paint up and out the nozzle.

Side Feed Airbrush

The cups can also be mounted on either side of the airbrush. Many artists like the side-feed setup best because it doesn’t block their view of the artwork.

Gravity Feed Airbrush

Many times, the cup is mounted above the brush. These are called gravity feed airbrushes because gravity pulls the paint down and into the air stream. These airbrushes require less pressure to operate than other types.

External Mix Airbrushes

External mix brushes have the mixture of the air and paint occurring outside of the nozzle. These external mix airbrushes are not the best, since they result in coarser atomization of the paint.

Internal Mix Airbrushes

A better system external mix is the internal mix airbrush, which has a single nozzle for air and paints to exit. Internal mix airbrushes have the best control over the paint flow and the spray gun pattern.

Dual Action Airbrush

Another difference is the amount of control you can have over the flow. Some high-end airbrushes have switches that not only allow the air to come through but also allow you to control the amount of paint let out of the cup. This is known as a dual-action airbrush.

Parts of an Airbrush

The airbrush itself doesn’t have a lot of parts. The airbrush body is a pen-sized object with an activation button. The air valve controls the flow, just like a can of spray paint. When you squeeze the trigger the air and paint mix and are fired out of the nozzle creating a fine spray.

Paint Cup

The cup is to hold paint, ready for spraying. Depending on the type of paint you’re using, you likely will have to mix it with a solvent to allow it to spray evenly and consistently. It’s also sometimes called the paint reservoir.

Spray Pattern Nozzles

Most airbrushes have a removable and changeable nozzle, allowing you to select the spray pattern and paint flow you need for a project. The size of the nozzle also has some bearing on the types of ink and pigments you can use. If your nozzle has a wider opening, you can use thicker paints. You should always purchase nozzles and needles from your airbrush’s manufacturer. After-market parts rarely fit right.


The trigger controls the paint volume applied to any surface you’re painting. The trigger can be opened to different amounts allowing less or more paint to be applied.

Air Flow Attachments

Finally, there is an attachment point for your air hose. These typically connect to an air compressor, but some connect to air cylinders. We’ll look at some of the sources of compressed air later on. But regardless of where you get it, the air has to get to the airbrush through a hose, and that hose has special fittings.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do You Use an Airbrush for Beginners?

The basic principle of using an airbrush is akin to using a can of spray paint. Airbrush basics are easy to learn, and airbrush painting is a wonderful medium for artists from all walks of life.

It might seem like the hardest part of the airbrush is setting it up, but you shouldn’t have any trouble once you do it a few times. You must load the cup with paint and plug the brush into an air source. You’ll also want to set up the spray gun by selecting the nozzle to give the pattern and paint volume you want for the project at hand.

To start spraying, simply press open the air valve. Most modern airbrushes have a sensitive trigger, and the harder you press, the more air passes and the more paint come out. It’s handy to have a few nozzle sizes on hand, so you’re ready for any project.

Airbrushing is all about learning to control the flow. It takes a practiced touch to make the final product look good. It’s not difficult, but it does require practice and patience. You have to master moving your hand and controlling the spray at the same time.

Artists can create very tiny details, even on big projects like large models, by carefully masking off areas between different coats of paint. The effect can be built up in layers, and the amount of ink applied to each pass can range from translucent and thin to opaque and thick.

Airbrushes are very detailed tools, and they create much less overspray than most other spray guns or canned products. The proper airbrush technique is not very messy at all.

It’s vital to remember to clean the airbrush after every use. Internal mix airbrushes have tiny air passages that you mustn’t allow the ink to dry inside the mixing chamber. Even external mix brushes, which are generally easier to clean, must not be allowed to get caked up.

Can I Use Any Air Compressor with an Airbrush?

Air compressors are the preferred way to feed airbrushes the air pressure they need to operate. You could also use an air tank or even compressed CO2 cylinders.

Airbrushes don’t require very large air compressors. As a result, they are usually small and quiet compared to those that run power tools. Since they run often while painting, getting the quietest one you can find is essential.

As with other types of air compressors, getting a compressor with a built-in tank is a great upgrade. It keeps the compressor from cycling on and off constantly and gives you immediate access to air pressure for the easiest operation.

Moisture traps are critical on airbrush compressors since any amount of moisture in the air will affect the paint’s thickness and spray pattern. All airbrush compressors should have a moisture trap built-in.

Your airbrush will have specific CFM and PSI requirements, so make sure the compressor or air tank meets those.

What Kind of Paint Do You Use for airbrushing?

The only requirement for the paint you use is that it has to be thin enough to pass through the airbrush without clogging it. You can thin many paints and inks with the proper thinning agent. 

Any art store will sell airbrush paints, pre-mixed and ready to put in the cup. That’s by far the easiest method.
The beauty of airbrushes is their versatility. People use airbrushes for spraying everything from cake decorating to fine artwork. Airbrushes are also commonly used in painting models and nail art. All of these activities would require a different type of paint.

By far, the easiest pigments to use are water-based paints. Having unlimited and free access to the paint solvent and cleaner comes in very handy. Plus, most water-based paints are safer than the alternatives.


Airbrushing is a fantastic hobby, and painters and artists can use them on pretty much anything. And while they do require some know-how and special equipment, none of it is very restrictive. So unleash your creative side and start spraying! Simply press the trigger and air passes right through the airbrush adding a spray of wonderfully color to anything it touches.

New comment? New question? Please add it here, along with photos, to help others help you with your compressor and equipment problem!

By Bill Wade

About Air Compressors has been helping folks with their Air Compressor Problems since 2002 online. We're a community of DIY and Compressed Air professionals who are keen to support everyone across the globe with their air compressor issues and troubleshooting. Whether you're trying to identify an old air compressor, or troubleshoot an error code on a sophisticated new industrial air compressor - the community at About-Air-Compressors.com is here to help you

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