What’s the deal with airbrush, anyway?

 In Airbrush, How to, Products, Tattoos, Trends

Temptu airbrush pro kitAirbrush is a makeup tool and application technique that can be amazingly effective, and many makeup artists (myself included) love using it. But airbrush has ALSO benefited from really effective hype. I’m writing this for the benefit of people who want to know exactly what airbrush makeup is all about and why it’s a great choice for weddings, photoshoots & special events, but to ALSO understand that it’s not a magic bullet or a guarantee of an artist’s skill or professionalism. Welcome to the no-spin zone!

What is it?
Airbrush makeup is liquid makeup that is applied with compressed air instead of a brush or sponge. That’s pretty much it! The liquid makeup used in an airbrush gun is generally of a thinner consistency than hand-applied formulas so that it can pass through the airbrush system without clogging. Airbrush cosmetics are typically silicone-based, water-based, or alcohol-based; each base has its merits for different skin types, application types, desired finish, longevity, and coverage. (Water and silicone formulas are mainly used for the face, while alcohol based is popular for tattoo coverage, body work, and special effects). Some artists use specific brands of airbrush makeup (many professional lines now offer their own airbrush formulas), and others thin traditional foundations.

Why is applying makeup with compressed air better than with a brush or a sponge?
It’s not better; it’s just different. The airbrush system is an application tool, much like a brush or a sponge. Some artists make a mess with sponges and prefer brushes; some artists are the exact opposite. (Me, I like everything and I switch things up all the time, but I’m strange that way!)

That said, here’s why I prefer this tool & these formulas for bridal foundation work in particular:

  • Applied correctly, it looks and feels lightweight. Airbrush artists need only a small amount of liquid to achieve the desired effect, depending on the condition of the skin. Of course, the same is true with hand applied makeup – talented artists know how to apply their products judiciously. But with hand applied makeup, you see the product first and then work to blend it into the skin, whereas airbrush retrains your eye to stop when the skin looks perfect, not when you can actually SEE makeup on the skin. Done correctly, this allows the artist to do more with much less. (The mistake that many untrained artists make is to spray and spray until they can actually SEE it wet and heavy on the skin, the way they would with a traditional foundation formula prior to blending, but this heavy application defeats the purpose of using airbrush.) It’s a great choice for people who don’t like the look of heavy foundation.
  • It lasts. The makeup I use for weddings stays on until you remove it, and looks great all day. Now, this wasn’t always the case with airbrush makeup – many early formulas were quite dry and inflexible, and tears or sweat would cut right through them. Newer formulations, including some that are water-based, have polymers in them to ensure much longer lasting wear, and they are water- and transfer-resistant.
  • Touch-free application means thorough-yet-invisible coverage. Ever pat concealer on a pimple over and over again, and still be unable to hide it, even as it gets cakey around the edges? The difficulty inherent in getting product to stick to the smooth raised surface of a blemish is partly because the touch of your brush, sponge or finger simultaneously applies, AND lifts away, coverage. With airbrush, you’re simply not touching the skin. You can spray over the skin without simultaneously rubbing against it. It’s very handy. (This is also why I prefer airbrush for tattoo coverage, since no product from the previous layer is being lifted away or disturbed as I work, and I can achieve opacity without caking.)
  • It photographs beautifully. Airbrush is popular for high-definition film, photography, and television for a reason: the fine mist of color is even and blended, with no harsh lines, making it virtually invisible on-screen and to the naked eye. That means your makeup won’t be obvious in close-up photos, or in person. (Again, you can get this result with any kind of hand applied makeup too, but airbrush was specifically designed to create this effect.)
  • It’s fast. Once again, it’s certainly possible to achieve the same smooth results with a brush or a sponge, but blending full-coverage concealer by hand takes more time. Airbrush, as stated above, is smooth from the moment it hits the skin. This makes it quicker to perfect the complexions of an entire bridal party without making them late for the ceremony!

Is airbrush preferred by celebrities, TV & movie directors, etc.?
Sure, some people will even insist on airbrush makeup, so it’s important for aspiring makeup artists to learn how to use it so they can appeal to a broader base of clientele. But the people who hire makeup artists are generally looking at the portfolio (or the resume) first and foremost, and if they like the work shown, they’re unlikely to worry about whether the artist used a brush, sponge, or airbrush (or all of the above) to achieve it.

Can I airbrush myself at home?
Yes, there are consumer airbrush kits available from a variety of different companies. The consumer versions are simplified considerably, usually so the home user won’t have to disassemble the gun for cleaning each time, or learn how to operate a complex trigger mechanism.

My experience, however, is that consumers might find home systems frustrating for the following reasons:

  • Even simplified, the systems are not intuitive to use, and the process of using airbrush is very different than conventional makeup. Remember what I said above about retraining the eye? This is much harder to do on oneself, and it’s not necessarily something you can learn from just reading the instructions on the box or watching a DVD – it takes practice to master. It’s worth learning if you love the results, but be prepared to put the time in, or take a lesson if you can.
  • You can’t see exactly what you’re doing when you’re spraying your own face, you have to close your eyes for part of the process, and you have to stand back from the mirror in order to have enough room – so you have to airbrush yourself partly by feel. I’ve used my (pro) system on myself before, and I have to be really careful to apply evenly and to not spritz my hairline or clothes. I rarely feel like struggling that much with my own face!
  • Consumer kits don’t allow you to blend different colors or correctors together to achieve a good complexion match. Most have makeup locked in a tube or pod-shaped dispenser that attaches directly to the compressor. So unless you precisely match one of the shades available, you’re out of luck. This is why I’m always slightly shocked when I see professional makeup artists using consumer systems – how do they blend colors? I have airbrush makeup from two different companies, Temptu and OCC. Both lines offer 12 skintone shades, as well as blushes, color correctors, and other color cosmetics. I find that most of my clients are a mix of at least two colors (sometimes more), and it changes throughout the year depending on skin type and sun exposure. I would feel very limited using only a single “pod” of foundation to match someone’s skin, even just my own.
  • Simplified doesn’t mean bulletproof… the consumer compressors are generally lower quality, don’t have as good a psi range, and they’re easier to break than most pro systems. I speak from experience: my first airbrush compressor was a portable variety that is also sold as part of the company’s consumer kit, and wasn’t meant to be a standalone tabletop device. One day it vibrated itself right off the edge of a counter and crashed to the floor, splitting the casing in the process. I upgraded immediately after that, and was a lot happier, even though the pro compressor weighs more and takes up more space in my kit.
  • …but it does mean limited. With a makeup brush, you can vary the pressure. motion and technique you use to achieve different results. With a pro (dual-action) gun, you can do the same thing by varying the psi, distance from the face, how much you pull back on the trigger, etc. But consumer guns are stripped down and, as a result, they are mostly push-button. This can result in spotty application because it’s harder to taper the coverage when “off” or “on” are your only options. For that reason, I will only ever use a dual-action gun on a client; I want that range of subtlety and nuance to be available to me.

OK, that sounds like too much trouble; how can I get an airbrushed-looking finish by hand?
It just takes practice. One technique that will help a lot is learning to stipple. Try bouncing and patting your brush or sponge (or fingers) over the skin instead of rubbing, streaking, or doing the old “windshield wiper” motion. Stippling mimics the pattern that airbrush creates, and helps prevent surface irregularities (like pores, lines, and blemishes) from standing out. It also helps prevent streaky lines and noticeable edges. It’s a great technique to try at home!

Is airbrushing a good indication that an artist is skilled & professional?
If only it were that easy! I once had a maid of honor proudly tell me that she insisted that the bride hire me because I airbrush, and that “any artist who doesn’t airbrush doesn’t know what they’re doing.” I thanked her for recommending me, but I also cautioned her that owning an airbrush is no guarantee of skill. Anyone with a little money can purchase a system, after all. Then I surprised her by pointing out that, while I mainly use airbrush for weddings, the majority of my beauty & fashion portfolio was done by hand.

So how do I choose an airbrush artist for my wedding?
There are good and bad airbrush artists out there, just like anything else. The only way you’ll know if a makeup artist is right for you is by looking at their work (does it appeal to you? Does it look flattering, smooth, and well-matched to the subject?), paying attention to their communication style (is it professional, punctual, and helpful?), and seeing feedback from their clients (is it genuine? Does the artist have clients who can speak about their experience?) And if you’re still not sure, that’s what trial runs are for!

The mark of a skilled artist is not the tools they use, it’s how they use them.



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Showing 2 comments
  • rachellisamua

    This is a great article! I love the point you made- just because someone can airbrush, it doesn’t make them a great artist! Well said!

  • janel

    nice article–thanks for this. love how you distinguish the difference between artistry and mechanics! hope you don’t mind–shared on my page. blessings!

Bride with cateye liner and red lips posing with groom at Willowdale Estate