Airbrushing may seem like one of the newer advances in makeup application, but the technique has been around since MGM’s 1959 epic Ben Hur, and has been used by pros ever since for major motion pictures. But it’s really landed squarely in the beauty spotlight recently due to the advent of HD technology.
If applied properly, foundation deposited on the skin via airbrush can appear natural and flawless, and can even mimic the look of pores. For the intense scrutiny of the HD camera, which tends to show every streak and flaw left behind by sponges or traditional brushes, airbrushing can be a blessing.
To get it right, you must have knowledge not only of makeup basics, but also of this new tool you’re adding into your regime. Don’t be intimidated though—I look at airbrushing as just one more trick a makeup artist can have up his or her sleeve for leaving clients looking there best. If you haven’t experimented with it yet, you should! Here’s a breakdown of what you’ll be working with, along with some of my favorite recs for starting an airbrush makeup kit. Get ready to meet your new favorite toy.
You need two basic items to get started with airbrushing: a compressor and a gun. Use this quick guide to help you navigate the offerings and find what you need.
With an airbrush, the compressor controls the amount of product you’re delivering onto the face or body. Its pressure is measured per square inch, and the unit is referred to as PSI. An artist doing airbrush makeup usually only requires about 30 to 40 PSI for the face and 70 to 80 for the body. As far as machines go, there are inexpensive options, but I believe that what you bring on set should be functional and allow full control. My go-to systems are the Temptu Airbrush Makeup Starter System, the Temptu Air Compressor, or the Kett Jett. They cost anywhere from about $200 to $375, and are compact, lightweight, and easy to carry, yet still deliver what you need to achieve a great look every time.
Of the many airbrush guns on the market, I prefer the dual-action (or double-action) trigger gun, the kind favored by most makeup artists. Alcohol- and silicone-based makeup formulas dry at different rates, so if you’re using multiple formulas for one application, you’ll need a different gun for each—or a dual-action. My favorite is the Sparmax SP-35 Series Sparmax Airbrush because it’s easy to maintain and versatile enough to cover large or small areas. They’re available through many makeup brands or at art and hobby stores for around $100, and are easy to clean and use even for most novice airbrush artists. (Read more about airbrush guns here.)
While most people will tell you any liquid foundation can go through a gun, everyone has their favorites for airbrushing. For me, it comes down to what’s the most versatile and what gives me the finish I need for any situation. Here are the three most basic.
While alcohol-based formulas have staying power, they aren’t great to use on the face because alcohol can be drying. However, if you’re doing special designs that need extreme staying power, or using it on an area that isn’t sensitive, these are a great option.
Water-based formulas are well-loved by many, but I’m not the biggest fan. They tend to dry down matte and leave an obvious line of demarcation on the skin. If you want to use one, be sure to apply it all over the exposed skin—not just where you worked—or you’ll see a definite difference between the makeup and the skin. Many brands have water-based formulas that even dry a few shades darker, and that isn’t something I love in my makeup.
Silicones are like magic, and are becoming an industry standard for realistically mimicking the look and feel of skin. They’re also super forgiving and don’t leave hard edges or lines. Some may deepen a little once dry, so if you’re deciding between two different shades, I suggest going a tad lighter.
Choosing the right foundation comes down to preference, but these are some I like to use when airbrushing.
Available in over 70 colors, the product has optimum staying power whether you’re trying to create a flawless complexion or cover fine lines. Type: alcohol-based
Designed and developed in a collaboration between European Body Art and some of the contestants from SYFY’s Face Off TV show, this range of complexion products is diverse and limitless in color options, which makes it work well on any face. Type: alcohol-based
Super light-weight yet high performance, a few drops of this foundation goes a long way and provides unlimited coverage. Type: water-based
Makes its application look like skin and has amazing durability and wearability. It does have some shine, so be careful in high-heat situations. Type: silicone-based
Not only does this formula look incredibly natural when applied, but it’s a bit more matte than others on the market. I love Kett because you can keep it in place with very little effort. Plus, it looks just as good at the end of the day as it did at the beginning. Type: water-based
Developed expressly for makeup artists working in HD TV, film, and beauty, this MAC product offers a full range of skin tones, neutrals, primary and secondary colors, and corrective shades. Type: silicone-based
While I’m not always a fan of airbrushing for eyes or lips, there are some products that are perfect for quick finishes and artistic flourishes.
A truly innovative kit with which you can shape, shade, define, and design an unlimited number of eyebrow styles. It also comes with a brow definer and stencils so that you can achieve very natural or dramatic looks with just a few flicks.
Available in six shades, Kett’s beautiful blushes allow you to contour and create a flush that feels like it’s glowing from beneath the skin. They give a fantastic finish to any application.
A few drops of this super-set product makes your makeup almost bionic. Spray it through the airbrush gun over your finished face (a traditional makeup application or airbrushed foundation) and it’s certain to keep everything in place.
Read every installment in James Vincent’s Building Your Kit series here! Prices approximate and may vary.
As Director of Artistry for The Makeup Show, The Powder Group and On Makeup Magazine, makeup artist James Vincent has touched every facet of the industry with his talent. With specialties in film and theatre, television and celebrity work, editorial and runway work, James is foremast a passionate educator, training for brands such as MAC, Stila, CNN and Lancome. He continues to inspire the next wave of artists with his beauty expertise. Follow James on Twitter @JVincentmakeup.