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The Basics of Airbrush Equipment

Airbrushing is a fabulous way to apply makeup and can be used for various applications, including bridal, film, SFX and high fashion. However, airbrush makeup application is an art form – it takes practice and experience to get proficient. So before rushing in, take time to understand the kit and how it all works. With that in mind, here’s an introduction to the equipment used to airbrush makeup.

Airbrushing is simply a method of applying cosmetics using specialised airbrushing equipment. It is an alternative method of application to the more traditional ones like brushes, sponges or fingers. Airbrushing is also popular for lots of hobbies and jobs, for example cake decorators, model makers and nail artists.

Airbrush equipment consists of three main pieces of kit – namely an airbrush gun, compressor and hose.

Airbrush Gun

An airbrush gun is the tool used to spray fine mists of makeup onto someone’s skin, hair or prosthetic appliances

Airbrush guns have two main variations in design. The first relates to how the makeup is fed or supplied to the gun. The second is the type of trigger used on the gun. Whatever the design, the gun is held and moved a bit like a pen.

Types of Feed

There are three ways to supply makeup to the gun:

  • Gravity-fed airbrush – has a little cup situated on top for the makeup product to go. A combination of gravity and air pressure sucks the makeup down into a mixing chamber, where it is atomised to a fine mist. This type of gun must be held fairly upright in order to work properly and for the makeup product to stay in the cup.
  • Side-fed airbrush – has a cup attached to the side of the airbrush. It works in the same way as the gravity-fed cup, except it’s positioned at the side rather than on top. 
  • Bottom-fed airbrush – has a plastic bottle attached underneath for containing makeup. This type of airbrush is used more for spray tanning or bodywork, as the bottle holds more makeup than the gravity-fed cup. Also, the makeup is sucked into the gun by negative air pressure. This means that the gun can be used at all angles, which is also useful for bodywork.

Types of Trigger

There are two types of trigger:
  • Single-action trigger – pressing the trigger releases the airflow and a pre-set amount of makeup together. Ultimately, it is easier to use than a dual-action trigger. However, there is less control over the amount of makeup released.
  • Dual-action trigger – this mechanism that controls the flow of air and makeup separately. Pressing the trigger turns the airflow on and releasing it turns the flow off. When the trigger is pressed and then pulled back, the makeup is also allowed to flow. Therefore, pulling the trigger further back releases a little more makeup. This type of trigger allows for more precision application and fine detail work.
airbrush makeup and gun
The main components of an airbrush. This is a gravity-fed airbrush gun.

Compressor

An airbrush gun has no power of its own. Therefore, it needs to be connected to a supply of pressurised air. 

This is usually provided by an air compressor – a mechanical device that compresses air to create pressure. Canisters of pressurised air can also be used but you constantly have to replace these once they are emptied. 

However the air compression is sourced, it is this pressure that pulls the makeup into the gun. It then forces it through the airbrush and out of the nozzle, creating the fine mist of makeup.

Features on a Compressor

Compressors come in different sizes and weights, providing options for personal and professional uses. They also come with varying features, including:

  • Adjustable PSI – this allows for a variation in air pressure, which is important if you want to do varied work with your airbrush. For example, working on the face needs a much lower PSI than spraying the body. An adjustable PSI means that you can work at the optimum pressure needed for that application.
  • Auto shut-off – a compressor is a noisy bit of kit. Some compressors have a feature that will shut off when the compressor is not in use, giving your ears a well-needed break! 
  • Water trap – some compressors come with one built-in. The more basic units will, most likely, not have one. The water trap does exactly that – it traps water droplets contained in the air and prevents them from getting mixed in with the makeup. This can lead to distortion in the makeup pattern. In a word, a water trap provides clean and dry air.
  • Carry handle – handy for larger models, especially to make it more portable.
  • Gun holder – some compressors have a little holder for the gun to sit while you work. This keeps the gun safe and secure. If the compressor doesn’t have a holder built-in, you can buy them separately.
 
There are lots of compressors out there. Go for one that meets your needs, like portability, what sort of work you will be carrying out and how often you use it.
airbrush makeup compressor
A compressor from Iwata that is popular for professional makeup use. It has a water trap, variable PSI, holder and a carry handle.
Dinair airbrush makeup
A smaller compressor from Dinair that is handy for home or ocassional professional use.

Air Hose

This bit of airbrush equipment connects the gun to the compressor. It is a long rubber or braided hose and is attached to the underneath of the airbrush gun. 

The connector fitting and thread can vary from brand to brand. Therefore, a hose from one brand might not fit on a compressor from a different brand. Airbrush equipment kits will come with a suitable hose for that particular compressor and airbrush gun. The fitting is just something to remember when replacing hoses.

Airbrush Makeup Products

Makeup Colours

A wide variety of airbrush makeup products are available, including everything from foundation to eye, cheek and lip colours. Some products are matte, while others have shimmer. There are even metallic colours available.

Airbrush makeup is formulated to pass through an airbrush gun, making it different to normal makeup products. This is because only very thin liquids with small pigment particles can successfully pass through the airbrush without clogging it up. 

Several brands manufacture makeup specifically designed for using in an airbrushing. These include Airbase, Kett, Kryolan, Make Up For Ever, Dinair, and Temptu.

There are three main types of airbrush makeup:

  • Alcohol-based – often used when creating temporary tattoos or body art.
  • Silicone-based – creates a smooth application that lasts all day without fading. The skin is unable to break down this product due to the silicone. A silicone base is workable/moveable until it sets.
  • Water-based – a breathable and long-lasting product, though it can eventually be affected by sweat and oil on the skin.
 
A little goes a long way with airbrushing. For example, only a few drops of foundation makeup are needed to cover a whole face.

Cleaning the Airbrush

Specialist cleaning products are used to clean the airbrush between colours or at the end of a work session. Many cosmetic brands make cleaners, including the ones that manufacture the makeup products.

Ultimately, the right cleaner needs to be used for the type of makeup formulation used. For example, use a silicone cleaner after using silicone makeup products.

Airbrush products come in little bottles and are applied with an airbrush gun.

Terminology

Some airbrushing terms that you will come across are explained below.

  • Air hose – the hose that goes from the compressor to the airbrush.
  • Air pressure – the pressure used to push the air through the airbrush. It is created in the air compressor.
  • Back bubbling – by blocking the nozzle of the airbrush, the air is redirected back into the cup creating bubbling. This is useful for mixing colours or cleaning the airbrush.
  • Blending – mixing colours.
  • Bottom-fed – a type of airbrush with a container attached underneath. It contains more makeup than the smaller cups. Therefore, it is useful for spray tanning and bodywork.
  • Compressor – the machine that compresses and supplies the air pressure. They come in various sizes and shapes.
  • Dual-action trigger – a trigger mechanism that controls the flow of makeup and air separately. Pressing the trigger turns on the airflow and releasing turns it off. When the trigger is pulled back, the nozzle opens and releases a mist of makeup. The more the trigger is pulled back, more makeup is allowed to flow.
  • Gravity-fed – an airbrush with a reservoir cup on top. Gravity pulls the makeup down into a mixing chamber, where it is atomised to a fine mist when the air is flowing.
  • Manifold – a small device that allows more than one hose and airbrush gun to be attached to the compressor.  
  • Moisture trap – the glass container that captures any moisture between the compressor and airbrush. This needs to be released after use.
  • Needle – a removable long metal implement that runs along the centre of the airbrush. Needles come in different sizes – the smaller sizes create finer detail.
  • Needle chucking nut – keeps the needle held tightly in place. Loosen the nut when removing the needle.
  • Nozzle – regulates the flow of makeup spray from the needle.
  • Nozzle cap – a removable screw-cap that keeps the needle and nozzle in place. 
  • PSI – means pound-force per square inch and is how air pressure is measured. As a general rule, the PSI for the face is 10-25. For body applications, a PSI of 25-40 can be used.
  • Pulsing – a technique used to create different effects by changing the flow of air through the airbrush.
  • Single-action trigger – when pressed, this trigger controls the airflow and a pre-set amount of makeup. It is easier to use than a dual-action trigger, but there is less control over the amount of makeup released.

Hygiene, Health & Safety

When carrying out airbrushed makeup, good hygiene and health and safety should always be maintained. Here are some things to consider to work safely:

  • Adequate ventilation is essential – especially if you are airbrushing day after day. Do not breath in atomised makeup particles. Face masks that block spray particles are useful. 
  • Use the right PSI – especially when working on the face. In particular, double-check and test the airflow on your hand before you work on sensitive areas, like the eye or under the nose. This is because too high a PSI could cause an injury.
  • The needle is sharp – be careful when dismantling the airbrush for cleaning. The needle is called this for a reason!
  • Position yourself and the client properly – comfort is important, as is good access to the airbrush equipment. Also, correct posture minimises the risk of injury or fatigue.
  • Client preparation – ensure the client’s clothing/costume is protected with a clean towel or wrap. Likewise for bodywork, respect a person’s privacy and modesty.
  • Electrical equipment is safe to use – position the compressor so it is not creating any hazards, like trailing cables. It is also advisable to have all electrical kit checked and tested every year by an electrician. Portable appliance testing (known as a PAT test) is available in several countries, including the UK.
  • Use hygienic working practices – use appropriate methods of cleaning, disinfecting and sterilising to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Likewise, dispose of waste correctly. Read more about working hygienically.

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Sources:

Featured Photo - By Vancouver Film School - Flickr: VFS Summer Intensive Programs 2011, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16488091. Crop edited.
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