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Fabric Painting Techniques

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wanted to decorate a T-shirt or add colorful designs to a pair of jeans? Did you know there are many ways to paint on fabric? In this lesson, explore the basics of fabric painting techniques.

Why paint on fabric?

Have you ever wanted to decorate a T-shirt or personalize a pair of jeans with colorful designs? You can with fabric painting techniques, methods of using paints, brushes and other tools to apply pictures and designs to all kinds of fabric.

People have painted on fabric for thousands of years, and artists in places like Asia and India developed many special fabric-painting methods. For ideas, you might want to visit a local museum and see if they have painted fabrics in their collection.

Playful example of a Chinese silk painting. This one is titled Monkey Posing as a Collector, and it is by Shibata Zeshin, 19th century
silk painting of a monkey

Fabric painting can be used to decorate everything from clothing to home furnishings like curtains and tablecloths. It opens all sorts of possibilities for creative expression, allows you to create unique one-of-a-kind works of art, and it isn't hard to do.

First steps of fabric painting

First, you'll have to choose fabric to paint on. There are many kinds of synthetic and natural fabrics, and some work better than others as surfaces for painting. Good choices include denim, linen, cotton, cotton blends and silk.

Once you've chosen the fabric, the next important step is to wash it. But don't use any fabric softener. Washing removes finishing chemicals and sizing, substances like waxes, starch, or stain resisters. Such substances are added to fabric for many reasons and they can prevent the paint from adhering the fabric. You should then dry your fabric and stretch it so it lays flat. It's not necessary to iron it, but you might find it easier to work on a smooth surface.

If you are painting a design on a T-shirt or any surface where you only want the design on one side, be sure to put a piece of heavy card stock or cardboard under the surface you're painting -- otherwise, some paint may bleed through to places where you don't want it.

Paints used for fabric painting

Today, artists have many choices of paints. Some companies make paint specifically meant for fabric. Examples include Jacquard Textile Colors and Setacolor Fabric Paint. But if you want to explore fabric painting before committing to specialized paint, you can also use regular acrylic paint. You'll just need to mix it with an extender medium, a clear substance that allows acrylics to be painted on fabric. Many companies make them and one example is GAC900 from Golden Artist Colors.

Different techniques of fabric painting

Now you're ready to paint. Images may be created freehand with a paint brush, paint markers or applied by putting paint over stencils, patterns that have designs cut out of them. To stencil an image onto fabric, place the stencil over a section of fabric and then push paint over it. When you remove the stencil, the painted area remains. Techniques like screen-printing are based on stencils.

Another technique, serti painting, is done on silk. Before any work begins, the silk is stretched on a frame to keep it tight and unwrinkled. The process of serti painting begins with a substance called a resist. A resist is a thick liquid that repels paint or ink. You begin by drawing a design on the fabric. Then, using a small squeeze bottle or paint brush, trace the drawing with a resist, making sure to close all the spaces so you don't have gaps in the line. It will look similar to a stained glass window without the glass.

Example of a serti painting in process. Notice how the flower petals and leaves are all outlined in obvious grey lines. Those are the resist.
serti painting

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