With so many airbrush models out there, knowing which one is best for artists, illustrators, or any other project can be difficult. The flood of copycat models can make it especially hard. That is why we created this guide to inform you on what artists, illustrators, and really anyone should look for as well as listing the best airbrush from top manufacturers Iwata, Badger, Passche, and more.
Having used an airbrush for just about everything from adding realistic touches to scale models to artist illustrations on paper, nothing has improved the visual quality and realism more than an airbrush setup. I first became interested in getting an airbrush for the shear sake of curiosity and trying a new medium. I had long used paint and brush along with pens and markers to create illustrations and art and wanted to develop my skills even further.
I started looking for the best airbrush I could find but I quickly realized there was a lot to learn before I settled on one. After much research I had a better idea of what I should look for in the numerous airbrush systems available. This knowledge was invaluable but I needed to know as much about the techniques and styles used with airbrushing as I did the actual airbrush units.
One thing you should know is that airbrushing art takes a lot of time and practice. That shouldn’t discourage you as it is extremely enjoyable and gratifying once you get it down. It is also a ton of fun learning to airbrush and experimenting with the many artistic techniques.
When searching for the best airbrush system there will be many different things to consider. Each of these things, like having the ability to get great coverage easily versus achieving fine detail, will have slightly different requirements. That said, check out the guide below to learn all about airbrush systems as I have covered all of the ins and outs which should make choosing a little easier.
How to Choose An Airbrush: Buyer’s Guide
There are a few types of airbrush systems and numerous attributes and features of an airbrush as well. Not all airbrushes are made with the same capabilities, for instance an illustrator’s airbrush may not be capable of handling all paint readily as it is made for thinner paints and ink. It is important that you get compatible airbrush system for use with your intended paint type whether that is acrylic, enamel, or artist ink.
The other aspect you undoubtedly will take in to consideration is price. The best airbrush models made for artists and illustrators can be among the priciest. You get what you pay for but you can certainly find a very good and capable system for under $200. The three most popular brands you should be familiar with are Iwata, Badger, Paasche, with Harder & Steenbeck as well as Grex also being popular.
Finally, if you aren’t purchasing an airbrush kit including several accessories, you will need an airbrush compressor to power your airbrush system and a few other items. The air compressor however is arguably the second most important pieces of equipment.
There are a few different aspects to how an airbrush will handle. You should understand how an airbrush is controlled, how paint feeds into the nozzle and out, as well as how the paint is mixed with air or atomized before landing on the intended surface.
An airbrush will be manufactured in a combination of different control styles, atomizing methods, paint feed systems. I will detail differences of each and what airbrush may be best for artists and illustrations but ultimately it should be the preference of the artist.
Trigger/Single-Action vs Dual-Action Airbrush
The action of an airbrush simply describes how the paint and air flow are released by the button or lever/trigger. This, in part, determines how much control you might have while painting your illustrations.
- SINGLE-ACTION AIRBRUSH: This type of airbrush only allows users open and close the airflow valve by pressing a trigger or button. There is no paint flow adjustment with the trigger/button on-the-fly. This is instead done by adjusting the needle depth in the nozzle. To make adjustments you must stop painting, or while painting but this can be difficult. The benefit is it is better for beginners since it’s easier to learn with and maintain. I notice some artists usually end up upgrading to Dual-Action pretty quickly.
- DUAL-ACTION AIRBRUSH: This type of airbrush allows control of both both air and paint flow with the trigger/button. The first action of pressing the trigger down allows air to flow through the airbrush. The second action of sliding the trigger back will adjust paint flow. The further you push down or back the increased paint or airflow. This allows for continual adjustment but requires much more practice to perfect this method but is more versatile.
Consider how much air and paint flow adjusting you will need to do when choosing between the two. This is what will most be impacted by the two methods. Either style you choose are just as capable, ultimately the dual-action is just a bit more efficient.
Siphon vs Gravity Feed Airbrush
The important feature when choosing an airbrush is how the paint is delivered. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages but you will need to evaluate your needs and choose the feed style that works best for your use.
- GRAVITY FEED AIRBRUSH: This paint delivery method places the paint cup at the top of the airbrush pen. The paint is pulled into the airbrush atomizing chamber by gravity alone. Gravity fed chambers allow for a lower working air pressure which can be an advantage when painting fine lines and details on illustrations while avoiding over-spray.
A possible drawback to the gravity fed style is the smaller paint cup size. The smaller paint cup may require you to refill your paint supply more often depending on your project.
- SIPHON FEED AIRBRUSH: Siphon fed airbrushes attach the paint bottle below the airbrush pen which feeds a tube into the paint container connecting the supply to the mixing chamber. When air passes across the tube in the mixing chamber it siphons the paint in.
The siphon fed airbrushes usually allow for a larger amount of paint storage. This could be advantageous to painting large areas of the same color. Siphon fed units usually use slightly more paint and require slightly more clean up time.
The amount of your paint supply, as well as how much working air pressure is used which allows for finer lines, and a need for covering large spray areas quickly is what you should consider. Cup sizes will range for around 0.9 ml up to 15 ml with siphon feed.
Internal vs External Mix Airbrush
There are two methods in which the paint mixes with the air or where it is atomized. Where paint is mixed will have some effect on the finish of the paint. Aside from effecting finish, internally mixed also requires an extra cleanup step although this is minimal.
- INTERNAL MIX AIRBRUSH: Paint enters the chamber of an airbrush and mixes with air, this is what is referred to as internal mix. This internal paint atomizing usually produces a smoother and finer finish which is preferable to some artists.
- EXTERNAL MIX AIRBRUSH: Paint does not enter the airbrush when externally mixed. Instead paint flows along the outside of the nozzle and is immediately atomized with air as soon as the air stream exits the nozzle.
The external mixed airbrushes usually produce a flatter finish that isn’t as smooth. This can be remedied somewhat by experiment with your paint mix until you get it just right.
Airbrush Parts and Accessories
Your airbrushing experience can be greatly improved with the right parts and accessories that accompany it or are used on the inside which affect performance. Parts also wear out or can be interchangeable to produce different performance in the airbrush so it is best to choose a reputable brand that will have replacement parts readily available.
Airbrush needles will determine how fine are broad your airbrush lines will be. Smaller needles will allow for finer lines but only to an extent as the effect will diminish the smaller you go.
Fine needles are also more prone to clogging with thicker paint mixes like enamels and acrylic paints if not properly thinned. The finest needles are usually best for illustrators using inks. Typically the best size airbrush needle for illustrators to start with is going to be around .2mm-.3mm as this will allow for versatile lines fine enough for detail while not being too limited.With practice and familiarity you will determine what ultimately works best for you. You can also adjust the needle and keeping in mind the needle and nozzle combination will determine the final effect. A good rule is larger needles (0.5mm and larger) for painting scale models and smaller needles (less than 0.5mm ) for detail but skill can often overcome these limitations.
The nozzle is yet another component that will affect the spray effect pattern. Short nozzles will usually deliver a wider pattern that can cover more area. When you need precision lines the longer narrow nozzles will produce much narrower spray lines. Most nozzles are sold in kits with a compatible needle but if you are purchasing the nozzle alone, ensure compatibility.
There are many sources of compressed air one may use whether it is a large bottle of compressed air, disposable can, or compressor. The most reliable and convenient source is usually going to be an airbrush compressor. This is arguably one of the most important pieces of equipment aside from the airbrush itself.
The airbrush compressor should provide a reliable and steady air supply while maintaining a consistent pressure and flow. This is important in spraying the smoothest and most precise paint line. Any fluctuation, whether in pressure drops or pulses, can cause defects in your painting.
It is also a good idea to use a quiet compressor. Nothing can be more distracting while painting than having to deal with a loud compressor kicking on and off or running constantly as it supplies you with air.
Essential Airbrush Accessories
Cleaning your airbrush thoroughly is one of the most important things you can do to ensure a long working life. Below is a general list of items you will need to ensure you are can maintain your unit and keep it operating for years to come.
Keeping moisture out of the unit via a moisture trap is another important thing to do. This will minimize any corrosion inside the airbrush and breakdown of moving parts.
- Airbrush Cleaner
- Airbrush Cleaning Brushes
- Moisture Trap
- Fittings and Connectors
- Miscellaneous Spare Repair Parts
Aside from keeping the unit clean and having the accessories above to be able to operate your airbrush, having a spare parts kit for airbrushes will ensure minimal downtime should any issues arise. These kits usually have various gaskets, bushings, and springs that make up the internal parts of an airbrush. Highly advisable to have one on hand. Final tip is to buy an inexpensive ultrasonic cleaner to clean the airbrush after every paint session.
The tips in the video should get you on the right path to the basic techniques used in successful airbrushing.
Now you should be ready to make a choice as to what airbrush model and various features will suit you best whether that is illustrations or models.
The 6 Best Airbrushes for Artists and Illustrators
These are the best airbrushes on the market, well suited to panting just about anything. Keep in mind price can be a good guide but you won’t always get twice the performance for twice the money. Balance the price with your important needs which most or all should met with the best model airbrush under $200.
Whatever model you choose, as long as it has the features you desire or are comfortable using you should find success with your art or any other thing you can spray a layer of paint on.
If you want the best and money is no option this is your airbrush. The Iwata High Performance HP-C Plus is the absolutely best airbrush for artists. This is the airbrush for anyone requiring absolute precision, this is where the High Performance HP-C Plus excels, the only Iwata series that is capable of finer detail is the Iwata Custom Micron but the HP-C Plus will handle the majority of artist’s needs.
The need for detail and precision is usually a necessity in artist illustrations which is why the HP-C Plus is one of the best for artists. Every design aspect of this model is built for precision and comfort which allows for extended use and detailing without fatigue.
This is a professional grade model so you can expect the highest build quality and durability and surpasses every other model on the list in all regards. Most folks that have previously sprayed on lesser models who then move to this one are able to notice the difference in the spray immediately. Again, this is a model that may not be for most but if you are a professional or prefer the best this is it.
Iwata HP-C Plus Key Features
- Gravity Fed
- Dual-Action Trigger
- Optimal Working Pressure: 15-25 psi
- Spray Scale: 0.15 mm to 1 inch
The Iwata Eclipse HP CS is another high-end airbrush that features a special “High Paint-flow” design for the ability to spray thicker & heavier paints like acrylic. This makes it great for scale model builders and others who spray terrain or other media require thick paint. The ability spray these thicker paints allow you to achieve textured appearances if desired which can improve the realism on projects like terrain.
Thicker paints like Medea Textile colors, which are made for fabric, are great for artists looking to create designs on t-shirts or really any other fabric project you might find yourself doing. The ability to spray fine lines with thicker paint is very desirable for some and this brush excels at it. A truly versatile unit with the quality and durability behind the Iwata name.
If you need the versatility of spraying many different paint types and can’t afford something like the High Performance line, the Eclipse is one of the best options at this price point of under $200. The all-around capabilities of it make it a true work horse of airbrushes.
Iwata Eclipse HP CS Key Features
- Gravity Fed
- Dual-Action Trigger
- Optimal Working Pressure: 25-35 psi
- Spray Scale: 0.2 mm to 1.5 inch
Iwata’s Revolution airbrushes are best described as perfect balance of quality, performance, and value. At a price point under $100, the Iwata Revolution is probably one of the best all-around airbrushes for anyone on a budget.
Although this is a dual-action airbrush, users at all levels including beginners intent on getting the hang of the dual-action trigger will excel with this model. The large nozzle and 0.5mm needle combination make this a great all-purpose setup capable of tackling a variety of lines using thicker paints. You can also switch between solvent and water-based paint with no issue since it is equipped with a solvent-proof PTFE packing that is also replaceable. This is great for body painters needing the versatility of switching between non-permanent paint and permanent paint.
If you need an airbrush and only want to purchase just one, this is definitely the airbrush to get. Pair this with a second needle and nozzle set for very fine lines and you can handle any painting need you can imagine. If you are interested in the Revolution but want a bottom feed check out the Iwata Revolution BCR .
Iwata Revolution CR Key Features
- Gravity Fed
- Dual-Action Trigger
- Optimal Working Pressure: 20-30 psi
- Spray Scale: 0.25 mm to 1.5 inch
Manufactured by Iwata, the NEO CN is the cheapest airbrush choice on the list. Anyone not sure about their investment into the world of airbrushing can purchase this unit at a very affordable price and ensure they are receiving a quality product made for the budget conscious consumer.
This is a versatile unit with great value that any beginner can pick up and start learning. The nozzle and needle are capable of spraying the wider end of fine to medium-wide lines which gives artists a versatile spray pattern range. It also has the capability swapping paint cups from smaller to larger capacities.
Finally the NEO is extremely easy to clean up and maintain so beginners aren’t intimidated by maintaining this airbrush. Grab this extremely affordable NEO unit as your first entry into the airbrush world if you don’t need the precisely fine lines of higher-end models and money is any concern.
NEO CN Key Features
- Gravity Fed
- Dual-Action Trigger
- Optimal Working Pressure: 08-20 psi
- Spray Scale: Medium-Fine to Medium-Wide
The Badger 200-20 airbrush is a single action unit setup to spray fine detail. This makes it the best airbrush for illustrators requiring extremely fine detail with a steady hand. You can ensure smooth consistent paint flow while only needing to control the air flow.
The Badger 200-20 is also a bottom fed unit as well so you will be capable of spraying large areas without needing to refill your paint often. Just as with any Badger, this is easy to maintain and only slightly more cumbersome to clean since it is siphon fed. If simplicity is what you require this is one of the best.
BADGER 200-20 Key Features
- Bottom Fed
- Single-Action Trigger
- Optimal Working Pressure: 10-30 psi
- Spray Scale: fine to medium
The Paasche TG is a great airbrush for spraying detailed fine lines. Another American made airbrush, the smooth dual-action trigger is noted by users of Paasche as well as the finish and build quality. The TG2L features a needle stop that will assist with consistent paint release which can be useful for anyone starting out on a dual-action model.
It has no trouble spraying with enamel based paints or other thicker paint mixes despite being setup for finer lines which is good news for textile painters, modelers, and thicker body paints. If you take great care of this airbrush it will last for as long as you own it and you will likely never need to replace any of the parts.
For those already aware of Paasche airbrushes you probably don’t need convincing. For those that haven’t, if you choose to go with a Paasche, it won’t let you down and will perform just as you would expect at a very affordable price.
Paasche TG2L Key Features
- Gravity Fed
- Dual-Action Trigger
- Optimal Working Pressure: 20-75 psi
- Spray Scale: 0.4 mm to 1.25 inch
As always, evaluate your needs and choose an airbrush that fits both your budget and the type of airbrushing plan to express your art with. From there, you should be happy with the choice you make.
Finally, these systems are very durable and as long as you take care of them and keep them clean, they should last forever with minor maintenance and parts replacements. Be sure and let us know if you pick one up and how you like it in the comments, we love hearing everyone’s own experience.