Three perspectives on airbrush face painting, pro and con...

We receive so many questions on air brush face painting and I thought I'd give my perspective on air brush face painting. I'll start off, up front, saying that I am very bias toward sponge and brush painting using cake make-up (like Ruby Red Paints). If you look around the internet I'm sure you can find plenty of people that have other view points. No question, if you talk to someone who sells air brushes or air brush face paints, you will find them telling you how their paints and products and services are better and why. With that said, I think it is to your advantage to give this topic some serious research. Now I'll give you my personal perspective...

I'll approach this with a little history, pros and then cons (costs, equipment, product, speed, liability).

(PROS) There are situations, where there are some advantages to using air brush. Taking for granted that all the safety issues are resolved, there are venues where air brushing can be a big hit. The one that comes to mind first is the sports venue. For this you are at the stadium with thousands and thousands of fans that want to support their team. One could make stencils for the team logos and spray them on the face and arm in quick repetition.  The other venue that could be good is when you are doing full body painting with dramatic effect. This can be done with sponge work but not quite as quickly. The third venue is in painting temp-tattoos. Pop on the stencil, paint the arm band (or whatever), collect your money and go on to the next person. You can not hand paint that arm band as perfectly or quickly as you can air brush it.

There are many manufacturers that sell air brush equipment and a wide range of air brushable paints. There is a lot of debate in the industry (not just from me) on which of those paints are actually safe for both the artist as well as the person being painted. These days with the internet you can easily find a wide range of web sites that discuss all of the issues. Here at Ruby Red Paints we even sell Donna Nowak's DVD on how to air brush. If you do some research you will find a number of people that specialize in teaching classes on this topic. One of them is Pashur who is well known in this industry. Do some research on your own and make your best educated decision on if you are better off with an air brush system or you paint using sponge and brush. The final decision is yours so make a calculated risk analysis and do as you please.

(CONS, COSTS) You don't have to look very hard on the internet, at trade shows or in trade magazines to know that a good compressor, a good air brush to find out that you can easily invest well over a $1000. You can buy a cheap compressor and air brush but you will quickly find out the results are terrible. On top of that you need to check out the costs for air brushable face paints. It is undebatable that you can face paint using a quality make-up like Ruby Red Paints MUCH CHEAPER than you can with the air brush paints that are for sale. It is so expensive that you often find professional air brush face painters that apply a sponge/cake make up for the base and then add the detail with their airbrush. You don't need to take my word for it, ask around. Using a make-up like Ruby Red Paints you can paint a full face for 1/2 to 1/3rd of the cost-per-face in compared to the air brush face paints. Add to those cost the many stencils that you have to come up with, store, clean and cart around. These as well as the hoses have to be replaced.

(CONS, EQUIPMENT) If one wants to go out and use a make-up like Ruby Red Paints they can walk to the event and literally set up in two minutes. When they are done they can wash their brushes and sponges in two minutes and pack away in one minute. On top of that you carry around 5 times the weight with the air brush. One needs to figure out either where to plug in that compressor or where to lug that heavy canister of propellant. When you buy your air brush brand new the first use is pretty smooth, assuming you know what you are doing. The BIG downside is the clean up can take from 15 minutes to literally hours. The hard thing to figure out is the balance. If you do a quick job then you risk leaving a small amount of paint in the air brush. Once this happens and the paint dries, clogs are sure to happen and cleaning out the air brush not only can take a lot more time but it can be a nightmare. Nothing will be more frustrating for the face painter than clogs and clogs WILL HAPPEN. Most air brush and paint suppliers recommend that you use an air pressure that is not more than 8 or 9 pounds per square inch (PSI). As the paints clog, AND THEY WILL, the tendency is to up the air pressure a bit to force the paint through better. Even under perfect conditions the paints can thicken in the containers, skim, form lumps and even due to separation, form more lumps. The natural tendency is to ignore the recommended PSI guidelines of the compressor, air brush maker and air brush paint manufacturer. What you tend to do is up the PSI to 20 PSI and above. This, AT BEST, can sting the skin of the child and at worse, force the paint under the surface of the skin. If the PSI is too high and you force the paint under the skin what you have done is take a face paint that is supposedly safe for the skin and put it under the skin. This is medically called invasive. In other words, the paint is trapped under the skin and can not be washed off with soap and water. Sometimes it eventually comes off as your body naturally sheds layers of skin but it is possible that it stays for a log time like a real tattoo. With Ruby Red Paints and other safe sponge/brush make-ups, you can turn your supplies over to the 13 year old girl scout to participate in the fund raiser, you won't be doing that with an air brush. In today's climate when the child opens his eyes and you miss-spray in the eye, you could have a law suit on your hands.

(CONS, PRODUCT) All air brushable face paints are much more expensive when you consider the cost per face. As we said before, your costs with Ruby Red Paints can be anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 of the price. All air brushable face paints when exposed to air can skim, the "skim" causes small lumps that WILL CLOG your air brush. Most brands of air brush face paints settle and separate. If you don't shake your bottle or use them frequently the pigment will settle. This results in poor coverage for the top of the bottle and clogs toward the bottom. Many of the colors such as yellow also have a short shelf life. Even when stored under perfect conditions (cool, dark area) these colors can go bad after a couple of months. Some air brush paints when applied to the skin are difficult to remove. It can take a VIGOROUS cleaning to remove some brands. It is widely know that air brushing face paints it should be done in a well ventilated area. At the recent FABIC Face Painting convention in Florida they had a room where they were teaching classes. Due to the nature of the classes people came and went but it was common to be in that room for well over an hour. MANY PEOPLE that attended those classes were having some pretty severe respiratory problems. Some of these lasted well into the next several days. If it is that bad after one or two hours of exposure what would the results be if you were face painting all day long? Some brands tout that their face paints are waterproof and the child can go into the swimming pool and the face paints not come off. That might sound good at the pool party but have you given any thought how angry that mom is going to be when she sees how difficult the paint is to later remove at home? Many of these airbrush paints need special removers to get the paint off. Are you planning on handing out a bottle of this remover to everyone you face paint?

(CONS, SPEED) When comparing apples to apples in painting full faces you can not match the speed of a talented face painter using a sponge and brush. At a recent all day event I watched as an experienced face painter painted side by side with an experienced air brush face painter. They both did good work. The sponge/brush painter was charging $ 5 per face and the air brush painter was charging $ 8 per face. There were endless lines the entire day. I'll admit some of the air brush designs were more dramatic but the sponge/brush painter offered a much greater variety. At the end of a 9 hour day the air brush painter had painted 60 faces. 60 X $8 = $480. The sponge/brush painter painted 185 faces. 185 x $5 = $925. Add to the top of this the higher costs of the air brush paints and it is easy to see who came out on top. An experiences sponge and brush face painter can paint two or three designs in the same amount of time as the airbrush painter.

A BIG factor is your cleanup at the end of your event. A sponge and brush painter can clean up in a couple minutes. It is going to be close to one hour to clean up your air brush equipment and that is if you are very experienced.

(CONS, LIABILITY) I mentioned earlier the hazards and frustrations that can come from clogging and the concerns with a high PSI or possibly spraying the paint in a child's eye. You can buy a good professional set up with Ruby Red Paints for under $100. The base costs for a good air brush set up is closer to $800 (can be as high as $2500). You are putting a lot of money on the table for something that might or might not work. With the sponge/brush set up you are justified in accepting one and two hour events which is by far the majority of bookable painting opportunities. With an air brush, when you consider the set up and clean up, it is very unlikely that you would want to accept any events that are not AT LEAST 3 hours long. Ruby Red Paints displays its products at the IAAPA Show (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions) each year. We hear time after time after time where people bought the air brush sets up and used them less than 3 times because the set up, clean up and clogging was just too much for them. They literally get angry with frustration about throwing away their money.

So you have spent twenty minutes or so hearing my professional opinion. Don't just take my word for it, go ask others. Different perspectives can only help you make a better and more intelligent choice to answering your face painting decisions.

If anyone would like to give a constructive different opinion to this feel free to send it to me for posting to this same page.

Gary Cole

HI Gary,

Nice article about the pros and cons of airbrushing tattoos & face painting. It has inspired me to respond back -if I may – wish to add some of my observations and experiences:   Airbrush guns can handle a lot from urethanes to cake decorating.      

Back to your article:  Love to see what others have written you.  Many of the topics are true – glad to see you’ve done some research or just listening to people.  We need to address these needs to make every business avenue a success. Not everyone has the natural ability to paint or hold a gun.  Give them facts, tools to learn and let them try.   It would be get to have both avenues to offer to your clients, customers.  Keep the business in house.

Maybe proper training is needed before investing in the airbrush would be suggested? Below is my article:  It’s only my opinion.  For what that’s worth. 

Donna Nowak
Author of the DVD "How to Airbrush Tattoos" and Owner of Show Offs Body Art

Proper training is important in all business!

Success comes with education/training –  failure comes without it

Time ‘vs’ Material may be the main issue with these two avenues:
Sometimes a persons time more costly than purchased materials?

Investment & Profit earnings:

            Tat’s startup cost averages $600-800
            Face Paint startup kits average cost $200-400
            Training: the operation of tattoos before a paid gig – 4-8 hours. 
                 One training applies to all stencil designs.
            Face – countless hours practicing, perfecting designs, one at a time.     


Tat’s are stencils, always ready to go - you get what you see, no practicing even when new designs are introduced.  No down time. You can earn back your investment in one, two or three gigs. All Paid for.    

Face – newbies have difficulties achieving expectations of copied artist who have spent hour practicing already.  Sometimes customers may not get what they see on display boards. 

New designs need more practicing.  One at a time.  Art of the hand has different levels & abilities.   

Income opportunities & potentials

            Tat’s can produce (skilled) 40-60 tats per hour at average cost of $5 equals $300
 Eight hours $1,800  to $2,000 – just spray and go, always the same routine. 
             Face can produce (skilled) 15-20 faces per hour at average cost of $5 equals $100
             Eight hours $600 - $800  speed slowers due to mental / physical exhaustion.

One hour private gigs are more accepted with face painting – less involved to setup then earning potential is less too.  Smaller audience

Tat’s due to the more equipment -jobs of two minimum is required, which earnings is higher. Can handle large and smaller audience at faster rates.

Airbrush equipment can present other business opportunities if tattoos are down:     automotive market: commercial graphics: custom fabrics ie tee shirts, shoes, hats. : crafts : beauty market : backdrops : murals :  FX makeup : cake decorating and on and on.

Guns don’t have to sit idol.   
Face painting equipment is limited to body artwork.   

       Tat’s is attracted to all ages & venues – unlimited income potential
        Face is mostly practiced on younger customers,  – slightly lower income 
       Tat’s can handle rain or shine.  Even those pool parties.   
       Face works well in good weather only.  Unless you buy that special underwater paint.
       Tat’s last longer
       Face – shorter life & sometimes touchup is needed after eating, etc,, 

 Additional help to increase your income  

Tat’s –newbie can be trained in hours, no real creative skills needed when using stencils.  Train to use the equipment and your ready to increase your profit in just hours.    
Face –newbie will need hours of practice before you can make a profit.  


Tat’s should only take 20 minutes for 8 gun station.  Packing situated in single wheeled tool case and display board in folder.  All stored in trunk of car.  More weight to haul than face. 
Face should take 10 minutes.  Pack into a small luggage style wheel bag / walk-a-bout, chair.  Load on back seat and go. 
Packing is only difficult if not organized in the first place. 

 Added Material

Tat’s – new stencil can be made or purchased.  $2-8 each.    Display the new flash card and go - No additional training, little preparation required.
 Face – new faces designs – practice, practice & practice. (one at a time). 
 Tat’s – replacing a single gun can be $45 average.  Most guns should last years if cared for correctly and maintained.      Proper training.   
Face – Brushs and sponges are inexpensive.  


        Most risk are equated to poor training or product design.    
Tat’s – improper training can result in overspray on ones clothes. 
Drop bottles of ink can stain carpet if not protected.
        Needle tips can poke someone’s skin if used to close.
        (I've never heard of air pressure cutting into someone's skin - PSI would have to be set for sand blasting. Physical contacts cut skin.
        PSI set to abnormal high then spray into ones face would be startling & reacting.
        Poor execution & training in that situation.
        Skin reactions. 

        Face -   staining skin
                        Glittler gets in eyes & mouth
                        Skin reactions.
                        Transmitting germs if not practicing clean hygiene. 
                        Water spilling onto carpets and staining.
                        Customer disappointed with result – not same as picture (if one was used)

Face painting offers the uniqueness of originality –   the skill of creating something different.
Tattoos offer that quick and easy result, yet it’s what the guy next to you also has.
Airbrushing is greater investment cost yet earns greater income and opportunities.
All can be successful if education is provided & learned when entering a new profession.

I love them both – keeps you fresh with interest.
The art & people has always been the driving force in my book

I personally have 5 employees – 4 stations

Donna Nowak
Author of the DVD "How to Airbrush Tattoos" and Owner of Show Offs Body Art

And another opinion by Pashur...


So many times I have heard the debate of airbrush vs. traditional face painting. I always say use the right tool for the right job. For kid venues I use traditional face paints. For teen venues (such as bar mitzvahs) or concerts I do airbrush tattoos. For adult venues I use the airbrush because mainly I am doing body painting. You don't want to use an airbrush at a kid's party because the kids will think they are about to get a shot. You don't usually want to use traditional face paint at a club because they think you are doing kid oriented stuff. There are always exceptions to the rule. Also, for photoshoots, videoshoots and stage performances I use the airbrush for more premium and elegant face and body painting results.


 Many times, I will use both. I will airbrush a base coat and then add details with a paint brush. No one said it has to be one or the other. The airbrush is best suited for fast base coats with a smoother finish, smoother and finer gradients, lighter coverage, certain effects and also for a more hygenic application. Here is a breakdown.


 The airbrush is more hygenic than traditional face paints. When rinsing out your paint brush, you get germs on it from other kids that you have painted. With the airbrush, the only thing that touches their skin is air and make up. If doing tattoos, then a stencil does touch their skin. The airbrush make up goes on lighter than traditional face paints. Many times people forget they even have it on because they can't feel it. If people can feel it then it is probably applied to heavily. With the airbrush you can create layering effects. A good example of this would be, if you wanted to paint an alien leopard and you wanted the model to appear to have leopard spots UNDER the skin instead of on top of the skin, as if you could see through the skin. Or if you painted a zombie and you wanted the veins to show under the skin instead of on top. With the airbrush you can paint on hair so it looks like the hair is dyed with the design you paint, whereas with traditional paint it looks slopped on with a brush or sponge. Airbrush make up dries instantly. No waiting time to dry. If it looks wet, it is probably applied to heavily.


 Many times people will spend $1000 on an airbrush, try it, fail at it and get frustrated with it and stick it in a box and it collects dust. Most of them though didn't take the time and patience to learn the airbrush by reading how to airbrush books or videos. Most of them also did not take the time to practice using the airbrush. You can't play a piano until you learn the notes and practice. The same goes with the airbrush. The first cost of an airbrush set up can seem high at first, but you will make your money back and them some because you can charge more for airbrush services. With the knowledge or a few troubleshooting techniques, clogs can be dealt with in usually less than 30 seconds if you maintain your airbrush equipment properly. If it takes you an hour to set or tear down your airbrush set up; you should re-think your set up. I can set up or tear down in 10 minutes and you should be able to do the same. As for noise, I use a silent compressor that makes no noise so I don't have to worry about hearing a loud compressor. At the FABAIC there were fumes in the air from the airbrushes. Things to keep in mind are that there were 25 people or so airbrushing at the same time. Many of them spraying too much out of their airbrush causing the heavy fumes as is to be expected being that it was their first time picking up the airbrush. Good thing it was non toxic. ;) Bottom line... if you prefer traditional face paint, great. If you prefer the airbrush, great. If you like using both, even better. Try them both and then use what works best for you.


 Pashur the Body Painter

 321-278-6668 cell


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