Super Secret Tech – Altering Airbrushing Commander By James Griffin

Altering Commander: The Sissay Project by James Griffin

Airbrushing.  I use it pretty heavily, and it seems that sets me apart from the other alterers, who don’t lean on this bastion of smooth paint application.  As such, I thought I’d put a few thoughts down on the subject for anyone wanting to look into having a go themselves.

Why bother?

Airbrushing can create really smooth gradation of colour.  You can get this effect with many thin layers of paint applied with a brush, but it’s almost always smoother this way.  It does have it’s downsides though, it’s definitely not the silver bullet of card altering, that’s for sure.  Firstly it can’t do really fine detail.  Secondly it can’t do really fine lines.  Thirdly, it covers the bits of the card you don’t want covered, fourthly, it takes an insane amount of time to learn to use well, and finally it takes an absolute age to clean up.  Why would anyone bother?  Well on the up side, it gives some really smooth gradations such as in the sky here:

And here:

…and with many many hours practice, the right kit and the right technique, it can do so marginally quicker than using a brush.

What kit do I need?

Well an airbrush for a start.  Like guns, they are comparatively simple machines that can be stripped and rebuilt.  They have a simple action, where air is fired out of the nossle and at some point before it hits the card, it is mixed with paint, which is atomised, and hits the page in a diffuse pattern.  It’s important that the air is dry, fired at your choice of power, and mixed with your choice of an amount of paint.  Therefore you need the following:

A dual/double action airbrush (one that controls the air and the paint in one trigger).

A small calibre needle (0.2mm or smaller) in the airbrush, this will enable you to do the small scale work you will need to in order to alter mtg cards.

I would recommend a gravity feed action, where there is a small funnel on top of the brush which feeds the paint into the brush.  Because of the many coats of different colours we are using, having this action reduces the considerable cleaning time that the brush has.

A compressor.  You can use canned air, but you’ll get through a dozen of them just learning to use the equipment, so you might as well do the maths now and drop a little more cash on something that will get you your money back in the long term.  Use a small compressor that has a moisture trap on it.  I know it sounds odd, but until I tried it without I didn’t realise what all the fuss was about with the trap – the moisture in the air is varied, and forms condensation which blows out all your good work and sprays foul smelling water across the card at random moments.  Make sure it has a moisture trap.  If it has adjustable pressure and doesn’t sound like a jack hammer, well then that’s a bonus too!

May I suggest a good beginner set up?  You can pay many hundreds for this kit, but if youre starting out then it doesn’t come much better than this:

Airbrush BD-135 here is insanely cheap given that it is actually a pretty good quality build, and compressor AS18(2), which I’ve been using for a couple of years, although I have had friends who have had this model break down:

Have a look here, and then have a look around elsewhere and you’ll quickly realise that this set up is half the price of its nearest quality competitor.

How do I use it?

With practice. Begin by spraying lines, spots and spirals, try using different pressures and just ‘feel’ the way the paint flows onto the page (use a sheet of A3, or an old cardboard box or something, you’ll need the room!  As you do so, try to stick to these rules:

1.        Thin your paint – use water based acrylic, and thin it with water, or even better with distilled alcohol (like the stuff you can get in some chemists).

2.       Use air from the brush to quickly dry the last layer of paint before laying another over.b  below you can see a picture of the wet paint reflecting the light better than the dry paint:


3.       Less is more, the slower you go the better and smoother it will look later on.

4.       Thin your paint – it deserves being said twice!

What uses does it have?

Well let’s take a look at an actual project and go through it step by step.

To begin with I’ve stripped the cards I’ll be working on this afternoon.  It’s Saffi that we’re most interested in though.

I spend some time looking at the background behind Saffi, and settle on a mix of white and green (much white, a little green) and then some grey to desaturate the mix.  This goes in the funnel on the gravity feed of the brush and I add a thin layer around where I need it just so that future layers will ‘key’ (stick) to the surface of the card.  Below you can see where I’ve just sprayed a little part of the card – it really does need to be done in steps as subtle as this to look properly good afterwards.

I’m using a home made stencil (a rectangle of plastic with a handle, and a rim to stop the paint wicking underneath) to keep the paint from where I don’t want it to be.  You can see these first layers take shape below:

Now we have a good coverage over the part of the card that his background will cover, I lose the stencil and freehand onto the artwork that is already there very lightly to blend the two together.  I clean the title box with a toothpick and then use a brush to add a few thin layers to the edges to keep them looking nice.  You can see the repair at the minute, but when the texture is brushed on later this will be hidden so I’m not concerned.

I clean, strip and reassemble the airbrush at this point (yes it takes ages) and A little black goes in the mix, along with the same recipe that I used for the sky colour.  I use this to get started on the right hand part of the card.

At this point I get sloppy, and decide to keep a record of this as well so others don’t make the same mistake – don’t try to airbrush onto a part of the card that you have had your fingers on, it leaves oil on the card surface and makes the paint slick off parts of it to leave finger print marks when you come to spray over it:

Never fear though, a cloth to wipe it off, and we’re back on track, freehanding the link between the actual artwork and my added border again.

Now it’s time to do the black border around the bottom of the card.  I use my stencil again, and begin to lay down coats of fully black paint.

Between each of these pictures I was cleaning the overspray into the text box and P/T box with a toothpick, so this is a more arduous process than it seems at first glance.  I will also go back by hand and tidy up some of the lines, although this process would be tedious to photograph, so I haven’t bothered, but you get the idea.

Now it’s time to use that same thinned down black paint to add in the detail of the mountains behind her and some texture to the sky:

Looking at the pics I realise I can still just about make out the card frame, well this is less visible on the card its self, so I’ll go back over that and tidy it up at a later date, but for now it looks fine.  Now all that is left to do is to fuss for a bit over any last little details, and volia!  The finished article:

I will sign her and varnish her with the others when I’ve finished the Sisay project.  Also it is worth noting that these pics were taken as it was created, and now the paint has fully cured over the past 36 hrs or so, the difference in sky colour is less apparent.  Overall, I’m pleased with her – I’m sure she’ll be spoiling the cunning plans of my opponents to spot remove or wrath my sisay any time soon!


Finally, and because I know that some of you only read this for the pictures, here are shots of the other cards I did that afternoon, excluding the Kataki, who didn’t come out right, but including a foil enlightened Tutor which  I used the airbrush on to create a gradient as smooth around the border as in the original art:

Finally, some D-forces I did as a commission (pics used with the permission of the client).  There are two sets of pictures here – one after airbrushing, and one after hand painting:

Next time I’m going to be tackling the beat up Unlimited Sol Ring I have just got my paint covered fingers on in an attempt to demo a much more advanced use of an airbrush.  So, until then,

Keep painting!


Ps.  For more information on airbrushing in a hobby context, this article is also good.


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