Ten steps to paint an airbrushed portrait

How I paint an Airbrushed Portrait.

It looks so real!?

A question which comes up many times, about my airbrushed portrait painting’s, is ‘How do you make it look so real!?’. Well, depending on whether the question is aimed at technique or the actual ability to paint, this can be a tricky question!

The introduction on how to use an airbrush was a 10 minute ‘have a go’ with my elder brother, Richard, over 20 years ago. An artist and his tools are like mechanics and their tool box, it is ‘do not use unless offered!’ and even then it is grudgingly done with a VERY watchful eye! I was hooked and set about devouring any information on how to use this fine tool, following step by steps in magazines and books. I continued on with much experimentation and self tuition. My education in Art followed through to completing a degree in Special Effects, yet with an airbrush, I am completely self taught.

Planning and composition

home show airbrushed portrait
Working as far in the first colour as possible

Now, let me begin with technique. For an airbrushed portrait commission the final image is discussed with the client, so that I can get a feel for what it is they wish to hang on their wall. Most often this is a quick process and most people have a very good idea of what painting they wish to own. The size, shape and colour scheme of the artwork is also discussed.  I work from photographs of the subject, although the finished image does not all have to be in one photo. I have used reference from different sources to create one piece, such as in ‘Bucklands Best’. In this painting, the master photo was a single car, with other small details requested for alteration and addition. With an airbrushed portrait featuring multiple people, for example, several separate photographs can be matched in a final composition.

Once the portrait images have been collected, the composition is worked out, the client receives either simple sketches or a quick photoshop construction for approval. The image in my head usually forms quickly, during the initial discussion. Providing the mock up is a great way to give the client an outline of my vision for their final airbrushed portrait.


The next stage is where the fundamental basis of the paintings precision comes into play. Again using photoshop, a 4×5 inch printout is made which outlines the major shapes and definitions. I use an Artograph projector to lay up the image onto the surface to be painted and also for refining the composition of the final airbrushed portrait. Finally a hard grade pencil is used to trace the projected image, marking out the essential edges, definitions and transitions only. The ghost image left from the projection stage is knocked back a little by erasing and it is now time to paint!

Time to paint!

Airbrushed Fine Art Pet Portrait Painting

If the main subject is over a background, this is the section which first receives paint. The reference image gets loaded and the lightest colour is picked out, mixing it up if need be. The size of the surface often dictates which airbrush is used in the early stages, the larger the canvas means using my HP-C brush. This brush is most often the blocking out workhorse in my armoury, switching to the HP-AH airbrush for more detailing work.

Once the colour and brush are selected, light coats of paint are applied, checking the reference often, slowly adding more detail with each pass. A great tip which I picked up is to take the initial colour as far as possible before switching up to the next. By using transparent paints the layering effect produces a great amount of depth, as each subsequent layer creates a darkening effect. In this way, one colour can be used to create a lot of depth and carry the first stage of an airbrushed portrait to a recognisable image. Continuing with the colour grades from light to dark, the background is fully completed before moving to the foreground.

When there is a dramatic difference in colour change from background to foreground or if a nice clean edge is needed, stencil techniques are introduced. On canvas I use a great tape called frog tape. The tack has a paint block in it which reacts with water, leaving a wonderfully clean line when removed. In the past paint bleed was often an issue so this new tape is a fantastic addition to the tool box. In most of my airbrushed portraits a minimal amount of tape is used and is removed shortly after the edge is created. The rest of the airbrushed portrait is completed using freehand techniques, as they help create a much softer image.

Once the initial, base colour of the airbrushed portrait has been taken as far as possible, the airbrush is cleaned out and loaded with the next colour. Working from light to dark is a personal preference so the next hue helps to deepen texture and detail in the painting. Again, the image is built up slowly, using multiple passes of light coats to layer up the paint. A great benefit of the transparent paint means that the light penetrates the paint, adding to the perceived feeling of depth to the airbrushed portrait. It is this effect of light traveling through the paint and reflecting off the white canvas base which adds to the luminosity of the portrait.

Another personal preference is for leaving the eyes of the portrait for the last piece of the puzzle. The eyes are windows to the soul and, in my opinion, they carry the weight of a character and persona within them. Perhaps this is why so much time is spent on them in each of my airbrushed portraits.


Airbrushed Portrait Painting
Reuben, Airbrushed Portrait

Once the eyes have been completed, the final stage of an airbrushed portrait is highlighting. There are two methods which I use, erasing and/or painting. This is the one and only time when an opaque paint is used. For erasing, either a fine, sharp xacto knife is used to scratch off the layers of paint or a high speed electric eraser is employed, to carefully reveal the canvas beneath. In using the opaque white I use a fine paintbrush to add little ‘hot spots’ to the areas reflecting light. Highlighting an airbrushed portrait is a delicate process as too much can easily overpower the image, giving the image a waxy and unrealistic look.

Colour or Black and White?

The above description is for painting portraits in colour. Another style of airbrushed portrait, which I presonally love to create, are in timeless black and white. I remember during my early years of self tuition that I picked up a DVD of ‘Noah: Airbrushing on Canvas’. Noah is an incredible airbrush artist from the US. It was his extremely fine and delicate use of gray-scale paint which I found fascinating and began experimenting with. Some of the techniques picked up from the video tutorial have stuck with me and guided my experimentation. In my black and white airbrushed portraiture, a particular shade of grey acrylic is custom mixed with a transparent base. This reducing the hue, making it more transparent, means that many more layers of paint are needed to get the deep shadows. In turn, this creates an incredible amount of depth to the finished portrait.


So the above relates to the techniques I use in creating airbrushed portraits and I hope that you have found it useful. As for the actual ability to control an airbrush in such a way, I cannot fathom, it is a mystery to even me!

Ten Simple steps to follow

  • Find an image

    home show2
    Delivering an airbrushed portrait to its new owner
  • Construct the composition
  • Print out 4×5 image
  • Project onto surface, refine composition
  • Lightly trace and knock back
  • Work from light to dark
  • For colour, work as far as possible with first colour, outlining to detailing
  • Begin working in next colour
  • Finish with darkest colour
  • Return to white for some highlighting, careful not to over do
  • Or scratch in/erase highlights