How to { PAINT FABRIC }- Top tips for best results

At one point of time I was obsessed with Fabric painting. Whatever I sewed I had to paint some design or motif on it.  I have made some horrible fabric paintings on napkins, aprons and bed sheets which may have turned out a lot better if I had read this post earlier.  No use crying over unread posts, which wasn’t even written back then

In addition to this post, you can also checkout the post on the 10 different fabric painting techniques which are easy enough for even beginners.  

fabric painting techniques for beginners

Different types of supplies  you can buy  for better fabric painting

You can make do with 3 primary fabric paint colours red, blue and yellow  and  one or two brushes  and start  painting on your fabric . But it is always nicer to know that you can buy more, even though your cupboard is overflowing with craft supplies with zilch space for even one extra brush and  your husband’s eyes starts to roll with every new purchase. Anything to improve your art.


  • Round tip brushes – You can buy a tiny round tip brush which is great for making small details and a bigger round tip brush
  • Flat tip brushes also called  Shader brushes – These  work great for shading and highlighting.  You can also use this brush for blending
  • Liner brushes -As the name suggests these brushes are used for making lines.
  • Foam Brushes: You can use these brushes if you have large area to be covered. These foam brushes come with a wooden handle
  • Outliners filled with paint especially meant for making 3D outlines- this is invaluable if you are doing liquid embroidery on garments
  • Even Permenant markers for a quick painting tool – great for outlines and black drawings.

Air brushes, dip pens, stamps, sponges, or any other absorbent applicator, all can be used appropriately.For washes and water colour effect choose a soft brush.

Assorted stamps,stencils or designs & transferring materials

For inspirations for fabric painting designs, Checkout this post on 10 inspirations for embroidery designs ; they work great for fabric painting as well.


What paint to use for fabric painting ?

You should preferably be using Acrylic fabric paint/ textile paint ; they consist of pigment suspended in an acrylic medium specially formulated for use on fabric. 

But you can also use all purpose acrylic paint for  hand painting on cloth, provided you mix fabric medium to it to make it suitable for painting on fabric. Fabric medium is a thick fluid that looks opaque when wet but dries colorless.Ordinary Acrylic paint dries hard on the surface of the fabric and may crack after it dries but the medium makes it more malleable/flexible. The medium is mixed in a proportion of  1 part fabric medium to 2 parts acrylic paint. Mix thoroughly and use

You can use the fabric medium along with Acrylic fabric paint as well.

It is used to dilute  acrylic fabric paint without changing the colour of the paint. If you use the medium to dilute acrylic paint instead of water there is less bleeding.

For a watercolour effect with acrylic paint use medium in a ratio of 5:1 with paint

 There is a Matte Medium which when added to acrylic paint creates a dull matte effect if you do not like the glossy look. If you plan to spray paint you can add a special medium which will make the paint to a sprayable consistency and prevent clogging of the sprayer

The puffy medium is usually added in a 3:1 ratio to fabric paint. i.e 3 drops of puffy medium to 1 drop of fabric paint.

Transparent paints which are light and translucent , allow underlying colors to show through, are great for a variety of fabric painting techniques like spray bottle effects, salt effects, stenciling, batik, splatter techniques.If it is mixed with water, in a 1:1 ratio  they act like a liquid dye, and some brands can be used even for tie and dye. You usually use these colours on light coloured fabrics.


fabric painting on clothes

Primary colours of red, blue and yellow can be mixed together and/or with black and white to get many different colours. But it is nice to have some other colours handy.

Some of the colours you may have to buy if you are planning to paint on fabric a lot – Crimson Red, Ultramarine blue , Yellow ochre, Indian red, Burnt sienna, Raw sienna, Raw Umber & Madder brown, cerulean blue, &  Cobalt blue , then the ever useful black and white.

You can add metallic colours / pearl colours to your kitty for adding some sparkle and dimension. Iridescent/Pearlescent Tinting Medium can be added to regular paints to add sparkle

You may want to check out this post on different colour combinations based on the colour wheel – you can use these 15 combinations for making the right mix of colours in your project.


Which is the best fabric for fabric painting ? This is a very oft asked quesion. A light coloured 100% cotton fabric with a somewhat tight weave is the most suitable for painting with fabric paint.  Which is why I love painting on cotton bed sheets. Buying plain bed sheets and then transforming them into a work of art (me thinks) is very satisfying.

You need not limit your fabric painting to cotton though. You can try your hand at painting on other types of fabrics like satin, silk,  and rayon  cotton/poly blend, quilting fabric, flannel, linen, canvas,  silk organza , suede, terry cloth, velvet, velveteen, leather, and most synthetic fabrics.; try your expertise on scarves , furniture, t shirts, tunics , curtains,  cushions, wall hangings  in different types of fabrics

Check out this post on T-shirt Painting for more details on how to paint on t-shirts and easy techniques you can use with them .

tshirt paintings

 If you are painting broad brush strokes with large design areas it is preferred to work with  a loose weave fabric (Loosely woven fabric allows more of the color to penetrate the fibers), but for small details and intricate designs a tighter weave of fabric is necessary.

Fabric paint is applied to the surface of the fabric and hence a slight thickening on the area is inevitable. You will notice this  on light weight fabric like muslin than on  heavier fabric like canvas, duck cloth

How to paint on coloured fabric

When you paint on coloured cloth the problem is that the colours will look faded – you will have to add many layers for it to look somewhat obvious. One easy solution is to paint a layer of white inside the design and then when it is completely dry paint the design as you wish on top of this . This will make it more visible. So in this case you will need a lot of white paint – if the design is big.

Two or three containers with clean water

Cloth  / tissues to wipe and dry brushes

Plastic sheet to protect your surface from staining

A styrofoam sheet / cardboard sheet covered in plastic which is slightly bigger than your design ( to be placed under the painting area so that paint would not stain the other side of dress.)

Plastic palette for mixing colours


Gel Medium (Optional)

Gel medium can give the paint or the finished painting  a glossy or matte finish.It can give a permanent, water-resistant, UV-resistant, non-yellowing protective coating for your fabric painting

A separate iron – this may seem mandatory after you transfer paint from a recently finished painting project to your daughter’s white school uniform – yes, I did that.

How to do fabric painting by hand – step by step

Step 1 Prewash the fabric

This is a step that is compulsory especially for garments, which you will definitely be washing. You have to remove the sizing/fabric finishes which is applied on the fabric in its manufacturing process. Otherwise, the paint would not coat all fibers and when you wash the painted surface the paint may flake off and show holes where paint should be. So it is always better to prewash 

But for  painting on fabric covered furniture and bags and accessories which you will not wash do not worry about the prewashing.

If you are painting an old garment make sure it is clean and it is without starch or softener

Iron the area where you are thinking of painting. Wrinkles will distort the fabric and hence the painting

Step 2 Prepare workspace

You should preferably start working  on a  flat surface covered with plastic. This way paint will not stain your floor or worktop

Stretch the fabric adequately and keep it on a clean  safe place where it can stay undisturbed till it is dry. 

The best is to keep it on a sheet of thick cardboard sheet covered  with waxed paper, so the paint would not seep and make a mess underneath; the waxed paper also ensure that paint would not stick. you can simply wipe it clean afterwards and use it later.

If you are painting inside a t-shirt keep a plain thick  paper or plastic piece inside. Even newspaper would do. This will prevent paint staining the backside.

If you find that you are painting very often prepare a styrofoam screen on which you can stretch the fabric ; this can be attached with pins so that the fabric is somewhat stretched without wrinkles 

Some take the extra precaution of stabilizing the fabric with freezer paper while painting. A freezer paper bigger than the design is attached plastic side down on the wrong side of the  fabric . Iron from the top. This will stick the freezer paper on the fabric and you will have a temporarily stiffened fabric  with no wrinkles free to be painted. After you have finished the painting simply peel off the freezer paper

Fabric paint and acrylic paint hardens when it is in contact with air so keep the containers closed when not in use ; take only as much s needed onto the palette. 

Use different brushes for each colour and under no circumstance dip your brush into the paint bottle with some other paint on it. You will ruin the whole bottle.

Step 3 Fabric Painting types

Draw your design on the fabric freehand or transfer the designs using any of the transfer methods outlined.

Load the paint on the brush and start painting . It is better to use one single brush for one colour so that you donot have muddled colours

Draw the outline first and then starting from the outwards to the inside fill the design. Use firm short strokes to fill.

 how to do fabric painting on cloth

Different techniques  of fabric painting

Fabric painting can be done almost exactly the same way that you paint on canvas ; layers upon layers to create dimension. There are other methods as well that create a beautiful painted effect on fabric using fabric paint 

  • Sprinkle salt to create a beautiful crackled effect
  • Apply melted wax with a brush and then apply paint on fabric . Paint will be penetrating through the cracks of the wax  and result in a  batik print on fabric
  • Stenciling – Stenciling is the most preferred technique with fabric painting. You can take printout of your favourite picture, cut out the inside portion with an exacto knife and use this to paint accurately.  Checkout the post on making easy stencils at home 
  • Stamping  – Paint is applied on a stamp cut in the desired shape . This is then placed on the fabric surface . This is a favourite method. You can make simple fabric stamps : follow the tutorial to make fabric stamps. Or the tutorial to make potato stamps

potato stamp printing

  • Wet fabric before painting for a watercolour effect. Simply damping the cloth before painting is enough
  • Airbrushing
  • Marbling – This refers to the technique in which colours of the paint are floated in swirls and other patterns on a specially prepared bath. When fabric is laid on this bath the paint adheres to the fabric  in a marbled look
  • Splatter paint
  • Sun Painting – this involves using a blue print/ cyanotype fabric and different objects to make impressions.You can try this technique using your regularly painted fabric and found objects life leaves.  Leave the painting to dry with the found object and find the impression object imprinted on your fabric in a sort of negative printing.Learn more about blue printing in the post on Blueprint fabric/cyanotype fabric


When painting, always  take lesser paint than you think you need on the brush . It is possible to increase darkness but decreasing the intensity of paint is difficult unless you paint over it after it has dried

How to shade with fabric paint ?

Most of the guidelines for acrylic painting you do on canvas work with fabric –  like you paint dark colours first and then layer lighter colours on top . You paint background first and then the details. But then there are no set rules and rules are meant to be broken 

There are two ways to work layers and shading with fabric paint . One is to shade after the first layer of paint has dried ( as the paint is permanent when dry when you paint over the first layer it wouldnot come off) and the other is to blend dark and light colours while the paint is still wet on the fabric

The paint can dry very fast on the brush and maybe difficult to  work with or remove; keep it moist all the time. 


Step 4 Colour mixing

Colour mixing is magic. You will be astonished at the range of colours you get by mixing one or two simple colors in varying proportions

 how to do fabric painting on cloth

Red and Blue and Yellow are the primary colours. When you mix them together in different proportions you get secondary colours. When secondary colours are mixed you get a whole gamut of tertiary colours. So you can start with the primary colours and do all the painting you want. 

Red and blue can be mixed to get  violet shade

Yellow and  Blue mixed gives you green.

Red and yellow gives you orange

Violet, green and orange are the secondary colours.

A mixing of the Primary and Secondary  colors provides us with the final level known as Tertiary Colors.

hand painting on fabric

Complimentary colours refers to the colors placed  opposite to each other on the colour wheel . God obviously knew his complimentary colours very well – look at the red rose and green leaves.These are supposed to be the optimal colors to be grouped together.

To get darker colours you will need to mix darker colours of the primary colours or mix black. 

Add white to any colour to make it lighter. A pastel shade is achieved by adding white.

If you want transparent filling add water to the paint . You may have to add many layers to get even coverage.

You can get a brown colour if you mix all the primary colours together. Vary the colours and you get different shades of brown. Add black to this you get a darker brown

Green colour is one which you will find you will use again and again if you love floral designs as I do. Take Yellow and add small bits of green till you get the shade of green you want. For a pure green  mix lemon yellow with some  blue . If you want a olive green shade , add little dabs of red to the mix of yellow and blue . For a  darker shade of green you will need to start with a darker shade of blue.

cloth painting techniques

How to add a dimensional look to your fabric painting ?

If you use one single colour on an object the picture  will look  flat and one dimensionalOfcourse there are instances when you prefer that look. But If you want to add a 3 dimensional look to a picture remember that you will need to add 3 tones of the same colour to the picture. Dark shade, a medium shade and a light shade blended and shaded will make the picture look almost real; ofcourse depending on the way you shade and blend it. 

how to paint fabric

Do remember that acrylic paint and textile paint strokes are permanent so you cannot experiment and hope it will wash off. It won’t. If you find your mistake fast enough you may be able to scrape off the paint immediately with a palette knife, but do not count on it.

Step 5 WAIT

Wait for 24 hours before you wear it or wash it or iron it. Ensure that it is not sticking to any surface.

Step 6 Heat set

The painting has to be heat set after 24 hours for it to be permanent.

The label on the fabric paint  will have instructions on what to do to set the paint . It usually instructs you to iron on the reverse side of the work. For a good adherence in addition to the back of the work you can heat set the front of the design using a pressing cloth or parchment paper for protection.Use as high temperature setting on your iron as much as the fabric can tolerate, and press without steam, for 30 to 45 seconds.

Sometimes you can heat set only on the front of the design like in the case of an upholstery cover on a furniture ; you have to use a press cloth. Do not use steam. Furthermore anytime you iron it, never do it directly on the painted surface. 

What if you have a fabric which you would rather not iron ( like leather or textured fabric) – then a simple hair dryer can be used to dry the paint .You will have to apply it for about 30 minutes for it to totally cure the paint.

You can keep a heated iron some distance over the paint to heat set puffy paint. This way the puffiness will not flatten (like it would if you iron from the back)

If you have large painted fabric that you have no time to heat set with ironing and pressing, use a dryer – the heat in the dryer may set the paint.

Apply heat  on every inch of painted fabric,  making sure that all areas of the design come in contact with the heat.

Step 7 Washing the painted item.

You should not wash the painted product for about 5 days – that is the minimum time it will take for the paint to fully cure.

Turn the garment inside out when washing.

I would hand wash or put the fabric on a gentle cycle with mild detergent – that is if you care to keep the painting intact. Drip dry rather than machine dry for the painting to last.

Related posts : 5 easy ways to draw and paint a rose.

rose painting

Comments 32

  1. Hyy…am planning to paint the Georgette fabric as kurti, can a used acrylic colors on will be suitable for Georgette fabric…pls suggest.

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      Hi Komal
      If you are using acrylic colors ( which is not mentioned as fabric paint ) you will have to add fabric medium. And with georgette do not forget to keep paper or plastic underneath.

  2. Very useful knowledge about fabric painting! Was searching frm long time! Solved many of my problems! Let me know why my color bleeds when i paint! Nwat to use so that the fabric doesn’t gets hard?

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      Hi Pasricha
      Sorry for the delayed reply; The bleeding is mostly because you are adding more water than is needed. And fabric gets hard when we put on paint in one layer rather than in layers. Usually fabric paint doesnot need any thing else to be added to it.
      Best wishes

      1. Hi sarina,
        I need your advice. I have painted on my denim pocket with fabric paint but i’m unhappy with the finish as it keeps sticking to surfaces when I sit on a chair. What can I coat it with to give it a smooth non sticky finish?

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          Hi Chetna
          Did you use too thick coats of fabric paint or maybe you used acrylic paint? Acrylic paint is not flexible on fabric and dries like an extra coat. Also ensure that it is throroughly dried for one week atleast before using or washing. Paint takes time to dry. And follow the process of heat setting the paint. Maybe it is sticking because it is too glossy – you can slighltly sand it to make it less sticky. If you want to cover it, you can buy Scotchgard Protector for Fabric & Upholstery available on amazon

  3. Hello Sarina,
    I’m planning to paint a white gown of mine. But it has a white netted (see through) layer .. How do I paint over it without straining the color to the inner layer? If I use paper underneath it, it sticks..

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      Hi Shilpa
      Have you tried to use plastic sheeting or thick cardboard as a layer instead of paper? And use water to the minimum ?
      Best wishes

  4. Thank you!
    I’m painting a vest for a science fiction convention..I’m learning lots about using straight up acrylic paint…or with water..or even a small amount of hair conditioner added to it…I’m having fun figuring things out 🙂

  5. I am trying to paint 7.5ftx4ft. Sheets of basic fabric from Fabric Store. I think it is muslin? They will be screens used to put in front of the marching band for visual effects and to hide equipment. Do you suggest adding gel medium to any basic paint so that we could spray paint the whole surface? Then do the same thing with hand painting everything on the screens? And last question, how would I heat cure the paint on these large fabric surfaces. Do you actually think that the dryer would work?

  6. hi please I’m willing to start clothes customization, can someone help me with how and where to obtain the paints and other necessary requirements?

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      Hi Umme
      Are you using acrylic paint and not fabric paint- acrylic paint will be dry hard. Use fabric medium to dilute the paint. Do not lay it too thick or make multiple layers – these are things that come to mind now which may have caused the paint to feel hard.

    2. Are you adding a medium to it meant to be added to paints for use on fabric? It helps the paint stay on the fabric even when washed & helps it dry softer to the touch. However, there are some fabrics that just don’t take the paint (even with the medium added) as well as others & may need to be lightly sanded. You can also add a bit of flood floetrol (or other extender) to make the paint spread better & softer when dried.

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  7. Hi, thank you so much, this is really helpful as I am about to start my first fabric painting and embroidery project. Can you tell me if this method will suit machine embroidery after the paint has set?

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      Hi Beverley
      So many people use fabric painted surfaces as background for embroidery – If you are wary of metal presser foot rubbing off paint use a plastic one – though that is not likely. Remember to heat set and wait for some days for the paint to set properly. Best wishes.

  8. At last, I found a website that teaches fabric painting from start to end. Thank you so much for sharing your fabric painting knowledge. I truly appreciate it. I am trying to start on a new project in making macrame keychains and thinking to use fabric paint to it.

  9. Thank you for this well written study as a How To.
    I have use Flotrol as a medium on a large canvas painting( 8 x 16 feet).

    Cannot use oil paints any longer; so developed a method to have acrylics handle like oils and thin layering.

    Question: what is the difference between artistic and textile acrylic paints?

  10. If I paint fabric for a quilt what happens to it when it needs to be washed. Will the design disappear? Hate to do all that work for the paint to fade.

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      Hi Mary
      If you use fabric paint meant for this purpose it does not fade in the wash – you will have to heat set from the back after the job is done though

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      Hi Kouser
      In my experience the same paint you use on cotton and natural fabrics work on nylon and such synthetic fabric, though you have to be more careful – do not add too much water as the cloth is too thin you will have bleeding ; one thing I have seen is that if there is any treatment/finish done on the nylon the paint won’t stick on it.Then you have to heat set paint – make sure your nylon can take heat – some fabric will melt in heat. SPray paint (for fabric) is a good option

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