Customizing 101: Material Selection for the New Artist

by Sommer Prosser

Perhaps it's the battered flea market find that sits in a box. It could be the look of that one Breyer mold that reminds you of the first horse you ever rode. Wherever the seed of inspiration begins, many collectors at one point decide to try their hand at painting a model horse. There are many terrific resources available and anyone (yes, anyone!) with the determination to learn will succeed. The bottom line is this: the true talent of a good artist is not in the material they use, but the work, study and practice that is invested in whatever medium they decide upon. When it comes to painting, there are many styles, tools and paints to choose from. The most important thing to remember is to choose the technique that is right for you. So before you actually begin to paint and customize, let's take a brief look at some of your options.

Hand Painted Acrylic: Quick, Cheap, and Not So Easy
By far the most affordable to the new artist, acrylics are easy to find, easy to clean with water, have no odor and are non-toxic and fast drying. If only they were so easy to paint with! Acrylics dry very quickly, which gives little time for blending colors. These paints also dry darker in color, so seeking that perfect shade can be challenging. Also, acrylics have a tendency to be flat, so good shading and highlighting are a must. Many artists, however, have used nothing more than a few tubes of affordable paint and a small selection of brushes to create national champion masterpieces that can be captured no other way.

Hand Painted Oils: Gooey, Stinky, and Gorgeous
Oil paints are fabulous paints for a beginning artist. Their colors are brilliant, deep and glow with light. Their slow drying time gives opportunity to play with the shade or color as you learn. Once dry, the "shell" of oil paint is extremely durable, and will handle much wear at live shows. Artist oil paints are slightly more difficult to find. They aren't sold in the hardware store or local discount chain like more common acrylics. Also, the smell of turpentine needed for cleaning is annoying. Don't forget, some oil pigments are more toxic than others, a problem with children and pets. Luckily, earth tones like those used for horse colors are less toxic than bright colors, and are also less expensive than red and blue. Use "student oils" which avoid pricey rare pigments.

Airbrushed Acrylic: A Tool, Not a Magic Wand

material selection

Most hobbyists think of airbrushing when they imagine themselves painting a model horse. The airbrush is, unfortunately, the source of much frustration and disappointment for artists who believe it will magically do all the work for them, thus avoiding all that tedious practice. Wrong! You still need to learn color theory and you still need to master delicate control of the brush. Spending hundreds of dollars on expensive equipment does not guarantee success. An airbrush is a mechanical device, which means in addition to learning color, shading, and highlighting, you must include power, air supply and all the ills of a "high tech" painting style along with the bonuses.

Buying an airbrush can be a daunting experience for the unfamiliar hobbyist. With prices averaging around $100 apiece, making the wrong decision can prove to be a costly one. Once used, an airbrush cannot be returned or exchanged and many airbrushes simply aren't suitable for painting model horses. Essentially, a double action airbrush and a reliable air source will ensure you are limited by your skills alone. You will want to avoid super fine illustrator's airbrushes as these are designed for gouache, watercolor and ink, and will constantly clog if used with acrylic. While affordable, single action airbrushes will also disappoint. With prices ranging from $30 to $60, they seem like a good start, but simply will not achieve the fine lines necessary for beautiful, top quality finishes. It is well worth the added money to buy the best, even if it takes longer to grow into it.

No airbrush will work without an air source as well. Unscrupulous or unknowing salespeople will push "canned air," little aerosol tanks of pressurized air to propel your airbrush. You will need lots of time to get used to your new tool, and only hours of practice will better your skills. Don't limit yourself with a tiny can that will wear out before you do.

A small, quiet compressor made just for airbrushing is ideal, and should last years even with heavy use. It is portable and can be used anywhere in the home. Airbrushing uses less paint than most people imagine, and the mist only reaches a couple of feet. With a drop cloth on the floor and a few sheets of newspaper on the table, working indoors with a quiet compressor is pleasant even when it's cold or rainy outdoors.

Large compressors used for refilling car tires or for power tools can be used with your airbrush. Be sure to install a moisture trap, though, to keep oil and water out of the line. A regulator will keep the pressure to the lower 20 psi needed for airbrushing. The only problem with these large, heavy compressors is you are limited to working nearby- usually in the garage or shop where it is stored. Often these areas have inadequate light and are not climate controlled. The more pleasant your work area is, the more likely you are to spend the time necessary to hone your skills!

As for brands of airbrushes, the most common (Pasche and Badger) are among my least favorite models. Iwata, in my opinion, makes wonderful airbrushes. Also, it is helpful to ask for airbrush models designed for T-shirt artists. Often seen in tourist spots and fairs, these artists work in acrylic as well, and must finish the job in minutes while the customer waits. These airbrushes are designed to clean quickly and work reliably under very demanding conditions. Thayer and Chandler of England made the best airbrush I've ever used. An unstoppable workhorse, it had a great feel and could go long twelve hour days nonstop. Sadly, the company changed hands, but if you are lucky enough to find one of these, care for it well!

Also available is the Aztek. Different in design from all others, it is plastic with simple nozzles that unscrew from the tip. Artists either love this brand or despise it. Fans love its simple design and quick-change nozzles. Critics hate its light feel and slightly grainy spray. Be sure to compare it to standard models by holding both before you buy. Take an "extra-fine" (tan color) nozzle home with you if you buy, as these tend to wear out quickly.

To save money, first research brands at a well-stocked fine art or hobby store. Compare prices and hold each one if possible. Then, advertise in the newspaper or on bulletin boards around the fine art area of your local college. Often students buy equipment and give up when it proves more difficult than they imagined.

Be prepared for used equipment to need a very thorough cleaning. Dried paint inside accounts for 99% of all problems. Disassemble and soak all parts in a dish of alcohol overnight, covering with plastic wrap to prevent evaporation. Use pipe cleaners, old toothbrushes, Q-tips and toothpicks to scrub inside and out. The tiniest speck of residue can cause huge problems, and cleaning is the most annoying and critical part of owning an airbrush.

Don't be surprised if you have problems controlling the paint flow when you begin. Unless the airbrush stops spraying paint or is spitting, the problem is probably not the airbrush but the person using it. Fine lines require holding the airbrush very close to the surface and using an incredibly delicate touch of the trigger. This control comes with lots of practice.

If all of this sounds complicated and expensive, it definitely can be at first. Mastering any new skill means commitment, and anyone who watches an expert in sports, cooking, or anything knows they make it look so easy! Hopefully these tips will help you get on the right track. Take your time learning and don't get discouraged. Read lots of books, but most of all, practice. It will happen. Good luck and happy painting!