In this article, I want to talk about one of the most effective and fun ways to use acrylic paints – painting on fabric.
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Table of Contents
You will also find three articles on acrylic paints on Art Side of Life website, which cover the best acrylic paints on the market today, the best acrylic paint brushes, and the best acrylic paper for painting with acrylics.
Yes, it’s possible to use acrylic paint on fabric, and actually, fabric painting with acrylics is actually pretty simple, easy, and fun. Read my guide to find out how!
Still, some basic techniques and tricks will make the whole process even more effective and fun and avoid some common problems.
In this how-to guide we will try to answer some basic questions:
- Can You Use Acrylic Paint on Fabric?
- How to Paint on Fabric with Acrylics?
- How to use Acrylic Paint on Fabric and Clothes?
- What is the Best Acrylic Paint To Use on Fabric?
- Do You Need a Special Acrylic Paint to Paint on Fabric?
- What Supplies Do You Need to Paint on Fabric with Acrylic Paint?
And at the end, in the Overview section, I will make some specific recommendations for the best acrylic paints and other supplies for painting on fabric.
So let’s get into it, with this complete, step-by-step guide to how to best paint on fabric with acrylic paints. I hope this is helpful, and that you can get the best results possible and have tons of fun exploring this new medium and these new techniques!
What Supplies Do You Need to Use Acrylic Paint on Fabric?
Well, I suppose we should start with some acrylic paint and maybe some fabric. See? Already an enormous help, this guide!
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, here we have to make a basic distinction concerning what type of painting you will do. By this I mean, are you painting on clothing or fabric that might be worn or used, or do you paint on fabric that will be displayed or stay in one place, like a wall hanging or framed painting?
If your artwork will be more stationary, you can use any kind of fabric paint without modification. You will get really strong and beautiful colors, great texture and adherence and easy workability – very similar to painting on good paper or on canvas. The cloth will almost certainly be more absorbent, though, but the step-by-step guide below will address this.
On the other hand, if you paint on fabric clothing which will be worn, or onto maybe scarves, hats, towels or other pieces of fabric that might be used or moved around, you should use a special acrylic paint, or normal acrylic paint that has been specially prepared by adding a fabric medium to it.
Unmodified and unprepared normal acrylic paint will become stiff and unyielding on fabric. It will be quite uncomfortable to wear, and it will crack and break with normal usage, ruining your beautiful art! But adding a medium to any normal acrylic paint – or just using a specially designed acrylic fabric paint – will avoid these problems and allow you to paint on clothing you plan to sell or to wear.
That’s the biggest consideration, and other than that it is all pretty straight-forward, so let’s make a list of the basic items you will need to make painting on fabric as easy as possible and get the best results:
- Acrylic Paint – either acrylic fabric paint or normal acrylic paint treated with fabric medium.
- Fabric Medium – again, only for fabric that will be worn or used. You may find that you like the results better with normal, untreated acrylic paint without a medium if you are making wall art or stationary display pieces.
- Paint Brushes – really this can mean anything you might use to apply the paint, including normal brushes, airbrushes, spray bottles, your hands, a big bowl to pour from, your cat’s tail. Just kidding … never, ever use your cat’s tail. Nor your dog’s. If you learn only one thing from this tutorial, let it be that!
- Normal Household Items – it’s good to have some newspaper or cardboard on hand, and maybe some clothespins or bricks, but we’ll get into that shortly.
Whatever you use to apply your paint, remember to wash it off right after. Acrylic paint is a snap to clean off pretty much anything when it’s still wet, and devilishly difficult once it has dried.
How to Paint with Acrylic Paint on Fabric?
1 – Wash and Iron Your Fabric First
You want to get rid of any dust, dirt or particles that may interfere with the adhesion of the paint, and ironing helps give you a flat and predictable canvas, making your work more controllable, effective and beautiful, and also helps with adhesion.
2 – Stretch Your Fabric
Like with a canvas, a piece of fabric that is a little taut will be easier to paint onto, and the final image will look better. Remember, though, that you want the fabric taut, but not really stretched beyond its normal size – overstretching, or unevenly stretching, can make the image look strange and mess up the geometry and composition when the fabric snaps back to its original shape.
I use heavy bricks, or sometimes clothespins, to provide just a little bit of even tension, and this really improves my results, makes the work easier and prevents little frustrations. Just don’t weigh down the edges with anything you wouldn’t want to possibly splash with a little paint, or anything that may move while you’re working – like, again, cats…
3 – Use an Absorbent Under-Surface
I always put either newspaper (which is becoming a little less of a household item these days, I guess) or flat, smooth cardboard under the fabric. Cardboard is great, as it is nicely absorptive and you can also use clothespins on the edges to keep the fabric in place and provide a slight tension.
This absorptive base keeps paint from welling up or bleeding too much on the fabric itself, or staining, for instance, the back of a t-shirt, and can also protect your work surface.
4 – Select the Right Paint or Prep Your Paint with Fabric Medium
Again, any acrylic paint is great for wall hangings or stationary display pieces. Still, either acrylic fabric paint or normal acrylic paint with medium added is necessary for clothing or any piece that may move around or be used, to prevent stiffness, cracking and damage to the painted image.
As far as actually preparing the acrylic paint with fabric medium, just exactly follow the instructions on the label of the fabric medium you are using. I can say that quite often a 2:1 ratio of medium to paint is recommended, but this may not be true of all paints and all mediums, so please follow the manufacturer’s directions.
5 – Paint!
This step is all up to you, and you will find your own way – either your normal style in a new medium or a whole new approach. This, to me, is one of the most exciting parts of trying new techniques and new materials.
All I can say here is practice, practice, practice. Use some old (but clean and undamaged) to paint fabric with acrylic first, and play around with different brushes, spraying, pouring, mixing, layering, however your art, inspiration and energy move you. Of course, it will all be a little different acrylic paint work on fabric (and sometimes a lot different) than on canvas, paper or other surfaces, so play around, find your own way and have fun!
6 – Let the Paint Dry
Make sure you leave your new masterpiece in a well-ventilated area, dry and safe from possible rain, dust or wind, and also away from curious cats. Believe me. I would always let my fabric sit for at least a full day – 24+ hours before going to the next step.
7 – Heat Set the Paint
This stage is critical to make sure your paint is fast and will stay on the fabric and stay sharp and vibrant, even after laundering.
Now many will say that you don’t need to do this with fabric paint, but I would heat set any and all acrylic paint that I’ve put on fabric, whether it is meant for fabric, mixed with a fabric medium or just normal untreated acrylic paint.
You can use an iron to do this. Set the iron on medium-high heat, place a smooth piece of cloth over the entire painted area, and either iron on that cover cloth or flip the whole thing over and iron the back of the painted fabric. You can also use a hair dryer on high setting, and this is best for uneven or heavily textured fabric, but it is probably best to use an iron for smooth cloth.
Either way, keep the process up for two or three minutes, checking regularly to make sure the paint is not getting scorched or otherwise damaged.
Here again, practice before you try it on a real project! This step isn’t difficult, but I often get a little nervous the first time I try something like this, and it’s better to make little slips or mistakes on a throw-away.
And that’s it!
You should wait a few days before laundering the new fabric piece, and while images painted on fabric clothing with acrylic paints will never be as durable as, for example, silk screen printing, you should find that they withstand repeated washing and use, and maintain their sharp, colorful and beautiful appearance for a long, long time.
Overview: What are the Best Acrylic Paints, Medium and Brushes to Paint on Fabric?
To close, let’s offer a bit of a guide for some of the best paints, paint medium and even fabric you can get for this process, answering these five specific questions:
- What is the Best Brand of Acrylic Paint for Painting on Fabric?
- What is the Best Brand of Fabric Acrylic Paint?
- What is the Best Brand of Fabric Medium for Acrylic Paint?
- What are the Best Brushes for Painting with Acrylic Paint on Fabric?
- What is the Best Fabric To Use with Acrylic Paint?
What is the Best Brand of Acrylic Paint for Painting on Fabric?
If you are using untreated acrylic paint, and you already have a favorite, you’re probably good to go. Yes, paint does act a little differently on fabric than on paper, canvas, wood or glass, but the things you love about your own brand will probably still be abundantly clear in the new medium, and you will most likely still love it.
That said, if you are new to acrylics, aren’t happy with your current brand or just haven’t yet settled on a clear preference, you may want to check out my article on the best acrylic paints in 2021. Or, to save time and effort, I will include links here to a few of the paints I love using and highly recommend:
Best Professional Grade Heavy Body Acrylic Paint
The basic acrylic painting experience and an affordable introduction to Golden quality
Best Liquid Acrylic Paint
What is the Best Brand of Acrylic Fabric Paint?
If instead you plan to use acrylic paint for fabric, that are specifically designed for fabric, clothes and shoes, here are my favorites:
What is the Best Brand of Fabric Medium for Acrylic Paint?
In my experience getting the best medium can make a big difference, both when you’re working and to the long term beauty and durability of the painted fabric. So I strongly recommend either of these two fabric mediums for acrylic paint:
What are the Best Brushes to Use Acrylic Paint on Fabric?
Again, if you have a favorite type or brand of brush it will probably serve you just as well when painting onto fabric. You can read my recent article on the best brushes for acrylic paint, but here are a couple of my personal recommendations for more affordable choices:
Paint Brush Set Mimik Hog Professional Synthetic Hog Bristle Brushes for Acrylics, Inks, Dyes, Gouaches, Watercolors, Easein & Egg Tempera - [Deluxe 20 Piece Set w/Leather Case]
What is the Best Fabric To Use with Acrylic Paint?
I always prefer to work with (and to wear) natural fabrics, and for acrylic painting I always find that good, high quality, evenly finished cotton works great. However, silk may not absorb or hold acrylic paint quite as well (and may be pretty enough already), linen and silk both may have a bit too much texture for some people, and may make painting a little more difficult or unpredictable, and polyester or blends may also not take or hold paint as well as cotton.
Still, each of these types of fabrics will give different results, and lots of crafters love using each of them for various reasons. So if you have some old fabric of different types lying around, it is super fun to just experiment and see what you like and which type of fabric gives you the best results.
Getting back to cotton, though, it should be said that if you plan on painting and then selling clothing, customers almost always seem to prefer pure cotton – especially over polyester or cotton-poly blends – and having a superior and recognizable brand is also a big selling point. So for t-shirts, as one example, I would recommend:
Thanks so much for reading this latest article – How to Paint with Acrylics onto Fabric: An In-Depth Guide – and please visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for tons of other inspiring ideas, resources, articles, buyer’s guides, and a lot more!