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What Is Spray Paint?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

Spray paint is liquid paint that can be delivered onto a surface through a spray nozzle. The term is usually applied to paints of various colors that are available in inexpensive, easily portable aerosol cans. Paints used in airbrushes and spray guns are also forms of spray paint but, in common use, the term “spray paint” is synonymous with the aerosol-can form, also called “aerosol paint.” The paint can be used wherever paint is used, but it is particularly connected with municipal signage and the underground art form called graffiti.

Aerosol paint is available in a wide variety of colors from any store that carries paint or hardware supplies. The cans are easily stored and transported, and they are popular for a wide variety of paint applications. Pressurized gas forces the paint out of the can in an even stream, usually removing the need for brushes or rollers to distribute the paint across the surface. Most cans include a ball inside to mix the paint, resulting in the rattling sound when the can is shaken.

A can of spray paint.
A can of spray paint.

Spray paint can be used to create signs and symbols quickly and neatly, often by applying a stencil that blocks paint from all but the desired area. This process also lends itself to graffiti, the practice of painting messages or artwork onto buildings, bridges, sidewalks or any other surface, often illegally. Many cities have laws regulating the sale of this paint and other materials because of graffiti. While it is often identified with vandalism, not all graffiti is illegal; some property owners see it as an art form and allow or even commission it.

A man spray painting a car.
A man spray painting a car.

Airbrush and spray gun paints are also forms of spray paint. An airbrush is an instrument that uses compressed air to focus paint into a very precise area. They are often used for detail-oriented work, such as retouching photographs, because of this precision. Spray guns operate on a similar principle, but often employ wide nozzles to cover a greater area. They are used in industrial applications such as the mass production of cars, building materials and houses.

Spray paint is often used to create graffiti.
Spray paint is often used to create graffiti.

All forms of spray paint pose potential health risks, because they release tiny particles of paint into the air. While most of this goes onto the painted surface, some is lost into the surrounding air as “overspray.” Unprotected painters can inhale overspray into the lungs, where it can cause immediate or long-term health problems. Propellants in aerosol cans can pose similar dangers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends spray painting in well-ventilated areas and using respirators, gloves and protective clothing to prevent chemical exposure.

Discussion Comments


I am always disappointed by the selection of spray paint colors that they have at the store. It doesn't go much beyond the primary colors and you can't get any different shades. Where can I find a bigger selection?

I have recently started incorporating spray paint into a lot of my art and I am really jazzed about the possibilities but I am frustrated by the palette.


You can spray paint stencils to make easy but highly detailed images over and over again. This is one of the most popular forms of street art. In contrast to tagging which is usually done free hand and achieves an almost abstract quality, stenciling is all about precision and literal messages (mostly literal).

It is really easy to make a stunning looking stencil out of almost any image. Just take a digital photo and use any photo editor to set the contrast as high as it will go, so you essentially only have light and dark. Then cut out the dark parts, or the light parts if you want a negative effect, and start stenciling. The more you do it the better you will get.


Spray paint is great because it is truly a unique way to paint. There are all sorts of techniques and effects that are only possible with spray paint.

I have been experimenting with spray paint for almost ten years now. I started as a graffiti artists but slowly made my way off of the streets and now I paint metal and canvas with spray paint. I am still discovering new possibilities.

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    • A can of spray paint.
      By: difught
      A can of spray paint.
    • A man spray painting a car.
      By: loraks
      A man spray painting a car.
    • Spray paint is often used to create graffiti.
      By: Katrin Lantzsch
      Spray paint is often used to create graffiti.
    • Spray guns are commonly used to paint cars.
      By: big27
      Spray guns are commonly used to paint cars.