Acrylic paint is a great medium for airbrushing. Since it is a non-toxic water-based paint, it can easily be thinned to help you create various textures and layers using an airbrush.
So, how do you thin acrylic paint for airbrush? There are a few ways to thin acrylic paint for airbrushing. These include using paint thinner, acrylic medium, or distilled water. Each method will have its pros and cons depending on the project you have planned.
This article will discuss those methods as well as what to use when thinning your acrylic paint for a better finish.
What Is Airbrushing?
An airbrush is a small device that uses compressed air to paint. When done right, artists and illustrators can create a highly even and seamless finish that is often seen in realist paintings.
Originally, airbrushing was invented to help automobile manufacturers create an even finish in car paint. Today, it is widely used by artists and illustrators to create beautiful artworks and illustrations. Renowned illustrators like George Petty, Alberto Vargas, and James Rosenquist are most often associated with this medium.
Airbrushing is popular because it doesn’t take much practice to help you achieve a smooth, perfect finish on a canvas. It can also be used to paint on uneven surfaces such as fabric, wood, or furniture, so it’s a highly versatile medium to experiment with.
It doesn’t take a lot of equipment to get started with airbrushing. You only need an airbrush gun, which uses pressurized air to spray paint on a surface. The gun comes with a variety of nozzle sizes (as small as 0.1 mm and as big as 0.5 mm) so that it can be used for painting various types of objects, from miniatures to large surfaces.
Acrylic paint is a very popular medium for airbrushing because it is water-based paint, which means it can be easily thinned using paint thinner or even distilled water to achieve a quality good enough for airbrushing.
Acrylic paint also has a lovely color quality that is super easy to work with. It dries semi-permanent and waterproof, which means the quality of your artwork will be preserved over time. Many artists also love that this is a non-toxic paint that is quite friendly to beginners.
Why Thin Acrylic Paint For Airbrushing?
As we have mentioned above, airbrush guns come with nozzles in various sizes, all of which are very tiny to help you create precise details in your painting. Thinning your paint is a necessary step before airbrushing so that the paint will flow smoothly from the small nozzles without drying up or getting stuck around the nozzle.
Depending on the type of paint and the brand that you are using, you can determine if you need to thin the paint out or leave it as is.
However, if you’ve worked with acrylic paint before, you probably already know that the viscosity of acrylic paint is quite thick. If you use the paint as-is, it can dry and get stuck around the nozzle, making it very difficult to remove.
Sometimes, even if the paint is labeled as acrylic airbrush paint, this does not always mean that it is 100% ready to use in an airbrush. You may need to use a thinned-out paint thinner before you can achieve an even and consistent result.
Most of the paints that are commonly used in an airbrush, including acrylic paint, will require thinning before you can use them in an airbrush. This will prevent the paint from clogging the system and producing inconsistent spray patterns.
Depending on the thinning medium that you use, you can also manipulate the colors (opaqueness or transparency) and the finish of the paint (matte, glossy, metallic, etc.).
Thinning Acrylic Paint For Airbrushing
Although airbrushing is largely dependent on the equipment you use, including the nozzle size and the air pressure applied while airbrushing, the paint quality is also important to help you achieve a better result.
When thinning acrylic paint, it is important that the final result has a milky, liquid consistency. That way, the liquid will be able to flow smoothly through the nozzle and onto your surface.
The size of your airbrush nozzle can also affect the consistency of your paint. The smaller the nozzle (say, 0.2mm), the more liquid your paint will need to be. Otherwise, the liquid paint may get stuck around the nozzle and damage your airbrush gun.
Depending on the type of thinner that you use, the thinner can also affect the drying time of your paint. Remember that acrylic paint will dry to a hard, waterproof quality, so if the drying time is too short, the paint may get stuck around your nozzle. If you prolong the drying time of the paint, it will give you enough time to wipe the nozzle before the paint dries.
There’s a fine balance to thinning acrylic paint, of course, because you don’t want to overdo it. Excessive thinning can really affect the color quality, making the paint too transparent. Depending on the thinner that you use, excessive thinning can result in the paint losing integrity and not adhering well to the surface or peeling when it is dry.
Acrylic Paint Thinners For Airbrush
There are several ways to thin acrylic paint for airbrushing, each with its own benefits. Let’s take a look at some common types of acrylic paint thinners often used for airbrushing.
Paint thinner is a general name for all types of liquids that you can use to adjust the consistency of your paint.
Since paint thinners have no pigment in them, they are best for very opaque colors since more transparent colors may become too diluted, and the colors may not show up well. If your paint is highly pigmented, you can use paint thinner to make the paint runnier for airbrushing.
Paint thinners are often solvent-based (think: turpentine or mineral spirits) that can have a strong odor and give off harmful chemicals, which is why a lot of people don’t love using paint thinners.
When working with these types of paint thinners, make sure to work in a well-ventilated area and wear protective equipment so that you don’t inhale the strong chemical fumes, which can have harmful effects on your health.
A lot of paint companies offer thinners that are specifically formulated to work seamlessly with their brand’s paint. If you are trying to get the best results, you can check to see if the brand also sells paint thinners to match your acrylic paint.
Using acrylic medium is the best way to thin acrylics for beginners. Rather than just thinning the paint, acrylic mediums also affect the quality of the paint itself without affecting the binder that holds the pigment together. Because of this, you don’t have to worry too much about the ratio when mixing since acrylic mediums are fairly forgiving.
There are a ton of acrylic mediums on the market, each with a different quality that can help extend the drying time, give the paint a matte or glossy finish, protect the paint from UV light, etc.
There are even acrylic mediums for airbrushing! You can use airbrush mediums specifically for an airbrush application or flow improvers to help the paint flow more smoothly for a pain-free application.
If you wish to, you can use an airbrush acrylic medium in combination with other acrylic mediums to achieve the effect that you want.
Acrylic mediums are arguably the best way to thin acrylic paint for airbrushing since they don’t affect the colors and even enhance the quality of the paint. It’s also quite forgiving to beginners, and you don’t have to worry too much about the proper mixing ratio.
When you use acrylic mediums, the results may also turn out better than other types of thinners. A lot of acrylic mediums are formulated to help the paint stick to the surface so that the paint will last after years and won’t crack or peel after it’s dry.
The only downside of acrylic mediums is that they can be a bit pricey, which means they are only popular among professional artists.
Since acrylic paint is water-based, it is water-soluble, and you can use water to thin the paint for airbrushing!
We recommend using distilled water to thin paint rather than tap water. Since the nozzle of an airbrushing gun is very small, the impurities in tap water may clog up the nozzle.
Keep in mind that water doesn’t add any additional pigment, binder, or properties to the paint, so your paint may become very transparent. If you over-thin your paint with distilled water, the binder also becomes less effective, and the paint may not stick to your surface very well, and if it does, it may flake off the canvas when it is dry.
However, this is still a highly affordable and effective acrylic paint thinner to use with acrylics, especially if you need a quick solution.
Did you know that you can use a lot of household chemicals to thin acrylic paint?
Some common household solutions, such as isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) or acetone (nail polish remover), can act as highly effective paint thinners, especially for water-based paint like acrylic paint.
Keep in mind that these are fairly strong chemicals that need to be used with caution, especially in large quantities.
Similarly to water, rubbing alcohol or acetone does not have any pigments in them and don’t actually enhance the quality of the paint, so it is best to use with highly pigmented paint, and you can expect the result to look a few shades lighter and more transparent than the original paint.
Best Thinner-To-Paint Ratio For Airbrushing
As we have mentioned above, the smaller your nozzle is, the thinner the paint will need to be in order for the paint to flow smoothly out of the gun.
For certain types of paint and certain types of thinners, sometimes it is difficult to achieve the milky consistency that’s perfect for airbrushing. If you have thicker paint, you can use a bigger nozzle and a higher pressure to assist the paint when you apply it with an airbrush application.
A good rule of thumb when thinning paint is to follow the recommended instructions in the thinner or medium that you have bought.
If you are using other household thinners like distilled water, you can start with a 1:1 ratio and test it with your airbrush. If the paint comes out smoothly and isn’t dripping on your canvas, then it is a good consistency to paint with. If it is too runny or too thick, you can gradually mix in more paint or thinner and try again.
Sometimes, if there are impurities in the thinner or in the paint, the nozzle can get clogged. The paint can also dry around the nozzle and causing issues during airbrushing. In these instances, you can simply use water to flush the gun to remove any clogs inside the nozzle.
Since acrylic paint is water-based, you can easily clean the nozzle with soap and water after each use to prevent any paint build up inside.
How To Thin Acrylic Paints For Airbrushing
Once you have your paint and your thinner, you can get to work and start mixing them together. There are two simple ways to thin acrylic paint for airbrushing: mixing your paint in a separate container or using the airbrush itself to mix your paint. Let’s take a look at each of these methods below.
Thin Paint In A Separate Container
The first method is straightforward enough: using the recommended ratio, mix the paint and thinner in a separate container and transfer the mixture to your airbrush paint cup once you are happy with the consistency.
While mixing, you can test the consistency by pulling the mixture up using a paintbrush. If the consistency resembles milk, then it is perfect for most airbrush applications.
This method is the most popular because mixing paint using your airbrush paint cup can cause debris and impurities to get in, which can potentially clog the nozzle of your airbrush gun.
However, if you are only mixing a small amount of paint, this method can be quite time-consuming and even wasteful. In that case, you can use the second method, which is mixing paint inside the paint cup itself.
Thin Paint Inside The Airbrush Paint Cup
To mix the paint inside your airbrush paint cup, you can follow the paint to thinner ratio and mix directly inside the paint cup.
To mix them together, you cover the nose cone of the airbrush, then press the trigger of the airbrush for a few seconds to bubble up the paint cup. The pressure created here will help the paint and the thinner mix together without much effort.
You can repeat this step until the mixture is well-blended together, but make sure to use low pressure and release the air occasionally so that it doesn’t explode!
If you need to adjust the paint to a thinner ratio, you can add more paint or thinner as needed and repeat the “mixing” step to achieve the consistency that you would like.
Then, you can test whether the mixture is ready for painting by spraying the paint on a surface. If the paint is not runny, and if it doesn’t produce a spiderweb pattern on your canvas, then it is ready to be painted.
You should only use this method in moderation and only when you need to mix a small amount of paint. Overusing this method may cause clogs in your nozzle and affect how your airbrush gun will perform later.
Up Next: Is Acrylic Paint Toxic?