Fabric painting tips (mostly for beginners)


Summer is a fabulous time of year to increase your hand-painted and dyed fabric supply for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you can work outside and not get things inside your house messy. Secondly, you can work outside and it’s an excuse to be outside AND working at the same time.

shelley fabric
Here are some tips and things to think on when braving the elements to create textile masterpieces:


  • 100% cotton gives the best results. A high thread count gives crisp lines and good colour. I find that 100% cotton sheeting or quilt backing works fabulously and generally purchase mine in the fabric section of Wal-Mart.
  • man-made satin can be interesting, but iron it only lightly or it will melt! It is therefore not as colour-fast as cotton when finished.
  • Silk is fun and gives a softer texture to the finished work. Iron on the appropriate setting. Silk organza and satin are very rewarding (but expensive).
  • Threads and laces and cording made of natural fibres can also be painted, but their “hand” may be altered. Paint embellishments for a project at the same time as you paint the main fabrics and using the same paint mixes, so that they go together well.
  • corrugated plastic comes in 4 x 8 foot sheets and is great for stretching and pinning fabric in preparation for painting.
  • keep a set of “painting pins” and “painting scissors”, so that your good ones don’t get covered in goop. Consider a painting iron too, especially if your husband regularly uses your sewing room iron to iron his white dress shirts.

Things to remember:

  • Generally, wash your fabric first, dry it in the dryer and iron it to mostly flat.
  • Set-up is very important – protect your home, garden furniture and clothes from splatters!
  • Mix enough paint of each colour at the start
  • Paint a piece bigger than you anticipate needing, if you are painting for a specific work.
  • Water acts as a lightener. Think of it as your “white”.
  • The faster fabric dries, the darker the colours will be.
  • Paint bleeds on fabric, no matter how careful you are. It will bleed more readily into damp areas. To increase bleeding, spray the area with water. To prevent, do not moisten fabric. Resists can help to contain areas.
  • For large quantities of fabric, consider baking the results instead of (or as well as) ironing them.
  • Don’t iron a piece before it is completely dry.
  • Keep your test pieces and label them with a fabric pen for your first few sessions. They will act as your “cheat sheets” in future projects.
  • Fabrics will often turn out radically different from your preconceptions and intentions. Trust in serendipity.
  • What you leave to dry and what results may be different things.
  • Any ripples in the fabric will show in the results.

Skies and water:

  • skies are darker higher up than they are towards the horizon. Paint the top of the fabric, and allow the paint to bleed into the horizon (tilt the board to help).
  • Skies are rarely one colour. Some basic reminders:
    • 1. Summer daytime sky/water recipe:
      • 1 part cobalt to 2 parts ultramarine
      • 1 part ultramarine to 2 parts cobalt
      • water each down to taste
      • use intermingled with sponge for skies and dab
      • use foam brushes for ocean and paint in broad, sweeping strokes
    • 2. Night skies – they may look black, but are more effective when painted blue, black and purple:
      • Paint on hot, sunny days with low humidity for best results
      • Blue with lots of black
      • Purple with lots of black
      • Add rather little water – test on test sheet first
      • Stars can be added when fabric is almost dry using pearl shimmer paint and a dry brush
      • Moons can be added after, or put on first. If put on first, allow to dry before painting the sky
    • 3. Sunrises
      • Paint in cool conditions and dilute the paint more than you think necessary
      • Allow to dry slowly for best results.
      • Muted colours work best
      • Start with yellow, add pink, move to blue. Allow them to bleed into each other. Dry flat.
    • 4. Sunsets
      • Paint in warm or hot conditions. The hotter and drier the weather, the stronger a sunset you will have.
      • Tinge colours with their opposites on the colour wheel. Yellow tinged with purple, blue tinged with orange, etc. Only a drop of the opposite is needed to make the colour richer.

Other Pieces:

  • Sun painting works best in warm, dry weather.
  • Only the Pebeo Setacolor transparent paints can be used for sun painting.
  • Pin leaves down to prevent their blowing away
  • Try other materials for shadows in sun painting – flower petals, grass, etc. all give different effects.
  • Pearl shimmer paint and opaque paints can be used over top of transparent and will cover the lower layers.

ferns fabric

In Canada, order from G&S Dye:

G&S Dye and Accessories Ltd.
250 Dundas St. W., Unit #8
Toronto, Ontario M5T 2Z5
Phone: (416) 596-0550
Ordering: 1-800-596-0550
Mon – Fri 10am-6pm EST
Sat 10am-3pm EST


18 Comments Add yours

  1. Pingback: Anonymous
  2. natalya says:

    Thank you! What awesome information! I can’t wait for the rain to stop so I can go out and play with paint!!!

  3. judith rains says:

    Thank you for your helpful info. I am having trouble keeping Pebeo Set-a-Color from bleeding althoug I want the negative affect of applying “stencils”. How can I do this on t-shirts, hats and bags?I have searched everywhere and your site is the only that has someuseful info. Thank you. Judith Rains

  4. Jean B. says:

    Oh! I am new to this world–trying to make gorgeous fabric, and I think your piece with the ferns and the leaves is SOOOO beautiful! And clues as to how you achieved that layered look?

    I’ll be sure to visit your blog often. It’s quite an inspiration!

  5. vickyth says:

    Thanks everyone who visited and left comments!

    Judith, have you tried using a resist to outline the areas that you want to fill in? The less water you add to a setacolor paint, the less bleeding there will be. Dry fabric also bleeds less. Experiment with painting on dry cloth and undiluted paints. Try using a stencil brush and stippling the paint on. A hot summer’s day or a warm, dry house may help to speed up the drying time and, hence, reduce the bleeding.

    If all else fails, you may need to switch to another acrylic-based fabric paint that bleeds less for your purposes.

    Jean – the layered look is achieved by mixing two or three paints and applying them one at a time with a sea sponge, making sure to form a distinct (yet complementary) pattern with each. For instance, paint one is a light yellowy-green. Dab it on randomly throughout, leaving lots of white space. This is the background layer. Paint two is a darker green. Use this to form an irregularly-sponged frame. Paint three is the darkest and is used to highlight certain parts of the frame formed by paint two. Each layer has it’s own colour and is added in sequence.

    Best of luck!

  6. Kat says:

    Thank you for this information, I’m just starting to experiment for a uni course so this will be very handy.

  7. laura .T. says:

    thankyou for the information i cant wait to experoment with my own design when the wether is better.

    from laura

  8. chloe says:

    this website is amazing i love art and textiles but now i love it more i wonder what things i will be able to create


    p.s Thankyou your tips are useful i would hate to make a mistake but i sopose you do ones in a while but thats the fun of it.

    thanks again


  9. sarah jones says:

    the first time i treyd useing fabric pens it all went wrong but after reading this website i did much better thanks

  10. Sally D says:

    This is great I have tried this before and on many occasions ruined it belive this or not while ironing it, I can never get it right and always have the irons that little bit too hot or use it for a little too long, I know it must be my fault but how to you get out creases without damaging it.

  11. jogry says:

    Thanks for the information. I am a newbie to silk-painting. I prefer to paint without Gutta. I do not like the separation lines it leaves between colours.
    At the moment I paint with serti. I like the paint. I love to try the sunpainting as I live in Bali,Indonsia.
    I need for that the transparent paint.
    Your information is such a help, thanks again

  12. crayonsandcanvas says:

    Excellent piece of work. Really. Youve explained it beautifully. Ill visit again. 🙂

  13. What a wonderful blog this is. I just felt I had to leave a comment to congratulate you on the work you have done. I will definately come back and will also let my friends know about your blog.

  14. Becky S. says:

    I do not have a website, ihope that i can still blog here.

    i do have a project to start and am looking forward to doing some of it in landscape and the rest in applique. it is a quilt project to launch a childrens story book line. my husband is the author. the story depicts a trip to blue mountain where everything encountered is quite blue even the food and the visitors become blue. To design a quilt with so much of one color will be challenging, i plan to add opposites for contrast like orange and yellow and will be using blues from cobalt to sky w/lavendar in there somewhere. your hints have been great inspirationa nd your site is getting a bookmark for sure!

    will visit again and keep posting my progress.

  15. Mei says:

    Looks wonderful~ I wonder how stiff the fabric is in the end? My image of fabric paints hasn’t developed since elementary school, so I don’t know how flexible the fabric is at the end!

  16. Suthir Kumar says:

    Hello everybody. Is it possible to start fabric painting as a business from home. I am living in Palakkad district of Kerala state. Any advice how to sell my fabrics? Thanks to all in advance.

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