Updated: Jun 13, 2021
Airbrushes have a long history. In 1893 Thayer and Chandler Art Materials presented the first modern airbrush at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, this device resembled the body of a pen and functioned similarly to the way the modern airbrushes do today.
The first use of the airbrush for cosmetics was used in movies at least as early as the 1930s. Makeup artist, Monte Westmore is sometimes credited with developing the technique for Gone with the Wind, but his brother, Wally, was known to have been using it at least five years earlier in films such as Murder at the Vanities.
Airbrush makeup is characterized by its unique pixelated application technique. The makeup is dispersed as an extremely fine mist through the airbrush gun. Millions of tiny "dots" are created on the skin creating a smoothness that cannot be achieved by sponging. Certain formulas wear better than others and it is important to choose carefully when deciding what type is right for the job. For mortuary cosmetics I prefer alcohol based cosmetics for their staying power and their ability to be applied lightly or heavily without looking "caked on".
Having been using an airbrush for nearly twenty years, I have some recommendations that I feel will be helpful to you when choosing good equipment. Please note, I DO NOT sell or am I endorsed by any manufacturer of any airbrush equipment. My observations are based on years of use. Remember, if you use good equipment and still can't learn to airbrush, you'll know it's you, not the equipment. That being said, keep in mind that talent is really no more than a passionately pursued interest. Given good training and enough practice, anyone can learn to be proficient at airbrushing mortuary cosmetics. In coming blog posts, I will teach you all you need to know. Then it's up to you.
There are basically two types of modern airbrushes used by professional makeup artists today; the gravity feed double action, and the siphon feed single action. Each has its advantages and limitations. Most carry both types for different situations, as do I.
There is a third type of airbrush that has come about in the last fifteen years or so; the reverse double action. The can be recognized by the fact that air flows through them at all times. Pulling back on the trigger releases the (usually water-based) cosmetic. These are generally not considered professional tools and are mainly used by home users who want to try airbrushed cosmetics. Although heavily advertised and picked up by the funeral profession in many of the chemical company kits (generally accompanied by a tiny compressor and some water-based
cosmetics), these airbrushes have so many limitations that their main contribution to the profession is frustration. I suggest avoiding them at all cost. The picture below shows all three types.
The first is the double action gravity feed airbrush. It is the Iwata HP-CS and is considered the top all-around airbrush in the industry. It works fantastically well at applying any type of airbrush cosmetic; water based, silicone based, or alcohol based. It gives the user very precise control and, when properly used, has an extremely smooth coverage pattern.
The second is the single action siphon feed Paasche H series. It is considered the "workhorse" of the industry, and is very adept at handling all types of cosmetics. It is hands-down the best airbrush, when using the large tip, needle, and cap, for airbrushing thinned NecroPAX.
The final one in the picture is the reverse double action. Forget it. Enough said.
The second important item in mortuary airbrush cosmetology that is extremely important is the choice of compressor. There are many available on the market. From large, multi user units to the tiny little low pressure units found in the reverse double action kits. When choosing a compressor, there are two important factors to keep in mind. One is maximum psi, the other is maximum airflow. You can think of psi like the pressure setting on your embalming machine and maximum airflow as the flow setting.
For our purpose, I like to spray alcohol based cosmetics at 20 psi and NecroPAX at 30 - 50
psi. My favorite all-around compressor is the Paasche DC600R. It has psi setting from 0 - 50 psi, is pretty quiet, high airflow, built in filter, auto shut-off, built in airbrush holder, and a built in 1 gallon storage tank. I prefer compressors with a storage tank because I feel the airflow is much more even. I don't think you can get a better compressor for the money.
There are a couple of 'must-have" accessories that you need also. A good quality hose (I prefer the Iwata hoses) of 10 - 12 feet is needed. I equip each of my airbrushes with an Iwata pistol grip moisture filter. Moisture will build up inside your hose and wreak havoc on your cosmetic. This is your last line of defense against this problem. An Iwata spray out jar is also a good investment to keep vaporized cleaners and cosmetics out of your lungs when cleaning your airbrushes. I always carry a spare needle for my Iwata HP-CS. A bent needle will ruin your work. An Iwata quick disconnect set on each airbrush is a godsend when switching between airbrushes. An Iwata cleaning kit is a good investment also. A clean airbrush is a happy airbrush. You will need to use NecroActivator to clean alcohol based cosmetics from your airbrush and NecroPAX Airbrush Cleaner to clean NecroPAX from your Paasche H series. A good grounded 10 foot extension cord is handy if you move about from place to place.
TIP: The Paasche H series tip assembly is held on by a tiny allen nut. It comes with the little allen wrench used to remove it. You have to remove it to disassemble and clean the unit and then replace it when finished.. If you are anything like me, you will lose the wrench in no time flat. A better idea is to replace the allen nut with an 8/32 thumb screw from Lowes or Home Depot. It makes disassembly much quicker and it is much harder to lose.
That pretty well covers Part 1 - Equipment. Check back next week for Part 2 - Airbrush Cosmetics. We will learn about all the options available and contrast/compare their abilities in a mortuary setting.
Shane A.S. Ritchie, CFSP is the President of NecroMetics®, a three-state licensed embalmer, funeral director, post-mortem restoration specialist, and a SPFX cosmetics enthusiast. He has written many articles for nearly every major funeral profession publication and is a public speaker and educator on topics of embalming, restoration, and mortuary SPFX cosmetics. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org