Can You Use Acrylic Paint On Fabric? A Gazillion Questions Answered (Plus An Epic Experiment)

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Welcome, my painting pals! Today’s article will attempt to answer the burning question: Can you use acrylic paint on fabric?

The simple answer is, yes, you can use acrylic paint on fabric. However, using a fabric medium or fabric paints is highly recommended or you run the risk of your artwork cracking, peeling, or chipping.

Listen, this is a question that has sparked debates, caused confusion, and even led to some creative experiments gone wrong. Mostly, because it’s not a simple yes or no answer. There are a ton of variables that go into painting on fabric making it a bit hit or miss.

But, no worries, my creative companions, for I’m here to shed some light on this topic, do a little experimenting, share my personal findings (including any mistakes), and arm you with a ton of info so you can feel confident about slapping paint on a wickedly fun fabric art project.

Let’s dive into the world of painting on fabric!

Painting On Fabric: Your Questions Answered

Fabric Medium: What Is It And Do I Really Need It To Paint On Fabric?

Fabric medium is a liquid that is specifically designed to be mixed with acrylic paint. It helps the paint to become more flexible making it bind to the fabric so that your artwork is durable and lasts longer. Fabric medium can also help to prevent cracking, peeling, and fading.

While fabric medium isn’t absolutely necessary, it’s highly recommended. Acrylic paint on its own can be too thick and stiff for fabric, which is where the cracking and peeling come into play.

In short, using a fabric medium, made for acrylic paint, will greatly improve the quality and durability of your finished masterpiece.

Where Can I Find Fabric Medium For Acrylic Paint?

Acrylic paint fabric medium can be found at most art supply stores, craft stores, and online retailers that sell acrylic paint. Some popular brands of fabric medium for acrylic paint include Liquitex, Golden, and Americana. You can find them in various sizes and forms, such as bottles, tubes, and jars.

Is Fabric Medium And Textile Medium The Same Thing?

Yep! Basically, textiles are fabric before any sewing and cutting have been done. Think of textiles as being the blank canvas and fabric as being the finished painting.

Both are designed for use on fabrics and are intended to improve the adhesion, durability, and flexibility of the paint on the fabric. It’s usually made from a mixture of acrylic polymer emulsion, water, and other additives that help the paint bond with the fabric fibers.

What’s The Best Fabric To Use With Acrylic Paints?

When it comes to painting on fabric with acrylic paint, you’ve got a lot of options but some fabrics are better suited for painting than others.

Cotton and cotton blends are generally considered to be the best fabrics to paint on with acrylic paint. This is because they are absorbent, which allows the paint to soak into the fabric fibers, creating a durable and long-lasting bond.

Cotton fabrics are also widely available, affordable, and easy to work with. Plus, your stretched canvas you bought from the art store? Most likely, it’s cotton canvas (you can also get linen canvas) so it totally makes sense that cotton would be the preferred fabric to paint on.

That said, other fabrics can work well for painting with acrylics, including linen, silk, velvet, and even corduroy (although, corduroy wouldn’t be my first choice, because of the texture, unless it was tightly woven).

It’s probably best to avoid painting on fabrics that are highly textured or heavily treated, such as leather, vinyl, or heavily coated synthetics, as the paint may not adhere well to these surfaces and may crack or peel over time. However, you’re the boss so if you really want to try painting on these fabrics test a small area first to make sure the paint adheres well and to get a feel for what you’ll need to adjust compared to your normal painting practice (absorption rate, vibrancy, etc.).

How Do I Prep Fabric Before Painting On It?

Preparing the fabric before painting with acrylics will give you the best chance for success, and let’s face it, you want this masterpiece to be outstanding! You, my friend, want to be the creator of the next viral fashion sensation…the envy of fashionistas and artists, alike…(too much?)

Wash The Fabric Before Painting On It

Before painting, wash the fabric in warm water with a mild detergent to remove any dirt, or debris that may prevent the paint from adhering properly. Rinse thoroughly and dry completely.

Don’t use any fabric softener! You want to avoid doing anything that would create any kind of barrier between the paint and the fabric.

Iron The Fabric (Optional)

Once the fabric is dry, you should try to remove any wrinkles or creases so that the paint goes on smoothly and evenly.

If you don’t own an iron or, like me, hate ironing, just lay your fabric flat to dry to get the majority of the wrinkles out. The next step will actually help with any leftover wrinkles.

Stretch The Fabric Before Applying Paint

For this step, you can stretch the fabric over a frame or hoop or just use a piece of thick cardboard and some pins.

Place the cardboard underneath the fabric you want to paint, smooth any creases or wrinkles out, and pin it in place. This method has the added bonus of protecting the surface underneath the piece you’re going to paint. This is especially helpful if you’re painting on something that has a front and a back (t-shirt, hoodie, tote bag, etc.).

Think About Applying A Base Layer For Good Measure

To be extra special cautious, you might consider applying a thin layer of fabric medium to the entire surface of the fabric that will be painted. It might even help to create a more even surface for painting.

In my experiment, later in the article, I’m not going to do this step. Instead, I’m going to go straight in with either gesso or white paint, both mixed with fabric medium.

Can I Mix Fabric Medium With Acrylic Gesso?

You can mix fabric medium with acrylic gesso but you may find that the fabric isn’t as pliable as it would be with just regular acrylic paint.

Personally, I would much rather go in with acrylic paint as a ground. It means there’s one less thing to think about.

I go more into my findings regarding fabric medium and gesso in my experiment so make sure to stick around and see what happened.

What Tools Do I Need To Use Acrylic Paint On Fabric?

To paint with acrylics on fabric, there are a few things you’ll need (but only a few that you might not already have if you’ve been painting for a while):

  • Acrylic Paint: You can choose either a fabric or textile paint or you can use acrylic paints that you already have and mix it with a fabric medium
  • Fabric Medium (if you aren’t using fabric/textile paint): If you’re using regular acrylic paint, you will need fabric medium to improve the adhesion, durability, and flexibility of the paint once it’s applied to the fabric
  • Brushes: Choose brushes with synthetic bristles that are the appropriate size for the area you want to cover with your painting (you’ll probably want to have a few different shapes and sizes on hand)
  • Fabric: If this is your first time using acrylic paint on fabric I would stick to either cotton or a cotton blend but if you want to be more adventurous you can try painting on linen, silk, wool, or even velvet (totally dating myself but I remember when velvet paintings were all the rage)
  • Embroidery Frame/Hoop: This will keep the fabric from bunching up while painting on it OR
  • Cardboard and Stick Pins: This works the same as the frame or hoop but with the added bonus of protecting your surface area (just make sure it’s large enough to protect whatever lies beneath the fabric)
  • Garbage Bags/Newspaper: To protect your work surface from spills or drips

If You Don’t Have An Iron, Can You Seal Your Fabric Acrylic Painting In The Oven Or Dryer?

It’s not recommended to heat seal an acrylic painting on fabric in the oven or dryer. The heat from the oven and dryer can be difficult to control and may cause the fabric to burn, damage the acrylic paint, or even cause the paint to not adhere properly.

The most effective way to heat seal an acrylic painting on fabric is to use an iron. This allows you to apply heat and pressure directly to the painted area while protecting the surrounding fabric. When it comes to sealing your fabric painting with heat, an iron is going to give you complete control.

That said, you should look at the label of your fabric medium. Some don’t require you to heat seal your finished artwork.

How Do I Protect My Finished Fabric Painting?

Because the amount of time it will take for your acrylic painting to dry will depend on both thickness of the paint and general humidity, I always suggest waiting at least 24 hours before you start the sealing process. In fact, you may even want to give it a week just to make sure everything is completely dry, like I do. You can either lay the fabric flat or hang it to dry.

Your best bet for protecting your fabric acrylic artwork is to heat seal it with an iron. Just keep in mind that heat sealing may not be suitable for all fabrics or acrylic paints. Again, be sure to read the label on the bottle of fabric medium. Some don’t require any heat sealing, such as the Liquitex Fabric Medium.

If you do need to use heat, be sure to test it on a small, inconspicuous area of the fabric before applying it to the entire painting. Be careful not to overheat the fabric or the paint may become damaged. Plus, it’s super stinky if you burn it, Peeee-oooo!

How Do You Heat Seal A Fabric Painting With An Iron?

To seal your fabric art with an iron, you’ll need:

Directions:

  1. Put an old scrap piece of fabric down on the ironing board first (you can also use parchment paper for this)
  2. Turn your painted fabric inside out (If you can’t turn the fabric inside out, use a piece of parchment paper over the painted area to protect it from color transfer and scorching)
  3. Set the iron temperature according to the fabric you’ve used and wait for it to heat (Don’t use a steam setting so empty the water out completely just to be safe)
  4. Run the iron over the painted surface for 3-5 minutes but keep it moving so it doesn’t get too hot (just like you would when you use a hair dryer to speed up the drying process while painting)
  5. Check your painting to make sure the heat sealing is working (if the colors are vibrant and everything looks even, you’re good to go. If it seems like some parts are more vivid than others continue to iron and keep checking to see if you’ve got a more consistent look)
  6. Once you’ve finished ironing, you can wash and dry your finished masterpiece as you normally would but wait around 4 days after sealing to wash for the first time

Tip:

  • If your painting is on a delicate fabric, like silk or linen, it’s better to use a low heat setting and just iron for a bit longer

Can You Use Acrylic Paint On Fabric Shoes? (Or, Any Type Of Shoes?)

Absolutely, you can paint a pair of shoes with acrylic paint! One of the winning qualities of acrylic paint is that it’s versatile and can stick to many different surfaces (including leather, canvas, and other materials commonly used for shoes).

That said, painting shoes with acrylic paint may require some preparation to ensure the paint adheres properly and is long-lasting.

Tips:

  • Clean the shoes: Use mild soap and water to clean the shoes thoroughly, removing any dirt, oil, or other debris that may be on the surface. Allow the shoes to dry completely before painting (you might need an old toothbrush, nailbrush, or potato brush to scrub out any really ground-in dirt)
  • Sand the shoes: If the shoes you want to paint are not made of fabric, use fine-grit sandpaper to lightly sand the surface of the shoes, creating a rough surface for the paint to adhere to
  • Paint the shoes: Apply the paint in thin, even layers and allow each layer to dry completely between coats.
  • Seal the shoes: Once the paint is dry, apply a clear sealant to the shoes to help protect the paint and keep it from chipping or cracking (Angelus Paint Finisher is a good one)

Painted shoes are a great way to show off your artistry while creating a fab fashion statement. Whether it be skulls, flowers, or paint splatters, you just can’t beat a funky pair of shoes.

To be more specific, most people are interested in painting canvas shoes. This probably has to do with the casual nature of canvas shoes and affordability. The only thing to really keep in mind is that canvas is more absorbent so you’ll probably have to add a few layers to reach the desired level of vibrancy.

How Do I Safely Wash My Fabric Acrylic Painting?

Now that you’ve painted your fabric masterpiece, you’re going to have to know the proper way to wash it so that you don’t ruin it. But before we get into the nitty gritty of it, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Tips:

  • Make sure you haven’t used washable acrylic paint (that will definitely come off!)
  • Wait a minimum of 4 days before washing for the first time after heat sealing (just to make sure everything is good and set)
  • If your painted fabric becomes dull and worn, feel free to repaint it and repeat the sealing process

How To Wash Your Fabric Art:

  1. Wash painted fabric inside out (just like you would with any type of logo clothing)
  2. Wash the fabric in cold water and on the gentle cycle
  3. Avoid harsh detergents or abrasives (no fabric softener, bleach, etc.)
  4. Hang or lay flat to dry (don’t use the dryer as it may cause peeling and cracking)

Can You Use Acrylic Paint On Fabric That’s Dry Clean Only?

It’s generally not recommended to use acrylic paint on fabrics that are labeled as “dry clean only”. This is because the chemicals and heat used in the dry cleaning process can cause the paint to fade, crack, and/or peel.

If you still want to paint on a dry clean only fabric, there are a few things you can try to minimize the risk of damage. Keep in mind that I haven’t tested this myself so this is most definitely uncharted territory (dun-dun-duuuuun!).

Tips:

  • Test the paint on a small, inconspicuous area of the fabric first to see how it reacts
  • Do not bypass the fabric medium (dry clean only is not the time to cut corners)
  • Do very thin layers and build up slowly
  • Maybe try painting on just the sleeves or the back of the clothing where there’s less chance of staining (I’m lookin’ at you, Mister Spaghetti and Meatballs)

WARNING! Even with these precautions, there is still a risk that the paint will not hold up to dry cleaning.

What’s The Difference Between Fabric Paint And Acrylic Paint With Fabric Medium?

The main difference between fabric paint and acrylic paint with a fabric medium is that fabric paint is ready to go straight out of the bottle whereas acrylic paint with fabric medium is about adding a fabric medium to your favorite paint which then turns it into fabric paint. Clear as mud, right?

Fabric paint is specifically designed for painting on fabrics and is formulated to adhere to and penetrate the fibers of the fabric. It’s typically more flexible and durable than other types of paint and can withstand washing and wear over time without cracking, fading, or peeling. The plus side to using fabric paint is that you’ll be certain that the right amount of fabric medium is mixed throughout.

On the other hand, acrylic paint with a fabric medium allows you to use any acrylic paint color you want. This is my preferred method because you don’t have to buy more specialty paints and that means you save money and storage space. That said, there are some pretty amazing fabric paint sets out there if you have the budget and storage space.

Can I Make My Own Fabric Medium From Scratch?

Sooooo, can you use acrylic paint on fabric using a homemade fabric medium…A quick google search will show you that, yes, you can. However, should you? In my opinion, I wouldn’t risk it unless you’re just goofing around and don’t really care if your painting doesn’t have any lasting power.

I am a purist when it comes to painting on fabric and trust the experts at the different paint manufacturers with this one. I’m not saying homemade fabric medium doesn’t work but I just question the longevity of it and if I put time and care into creating a piece of art, I’d like it to be around for a while.

If you’re really curious about making your own fabric medium I’ve seen quite a few recipes but Craft Invaders has an interesting DIY fabric medium recipe you can check out. This one has photos showing the results.

The author did say that they didn’t need to heat seal their fabric painting project and they show you what the shirt looks like after washing with one part being heat sealed and the other part not. However, this was said after only one washing so there’s no way of knowing how the t-shirt has fared over time. Maybe they’ll update their results at some point.

Do You Have Any Ideas For Fabric Painting Gifts?

OMG, there are so many gifts you can make that are completely personal, useful, and fabulously fun! I’m sure there are a ton of ideas I’m not even thinking about but here is a list to get you started.

Literally, there are so many options! Keep this mantra in mind: If it’s not nailed down, Imma paint it!

Experiment: Can You Use Acrylic Paint On Fabric To Cover Up An Old Design?

I’ve seen a ton of tutorials where you take a pristine shirt and paint on it but what about giving an old piece of clothing new life? I mean, upcycling is so in fashion…. (did you see what I did there?)

If you’re like me, you’ve got some staples in your closet that you can’t bear to part with but they’ve been around the block a time or two and have been relegated to the “only wear at home” pile.

A well used peach colored hoodie that has lettering on it. It will be used to answer the question "can you use acrylic paint on fabric that has a design on it already?"

I would like to introduce to you my best painting buddy. This hoodie has been with me for quite a few years and has had my back (okay, I’ll stop with the clothing puns now) through many a painting. It’s definitely seen better days but it’s just the comfiest hoodie and I can’t let it go. I WON’T let it go!

Instead, I’m going to give her a little makeover and hopefully, she’ll be around for many more years.

Acrylic Paint On Fabric Experiment Goals

So, there are a couple of things that I’m super curious about when painting on used fabric. Here are the questions I’m hoping to answer:

  1. The most important question: Will acrylic paint stick to graphics?
  2. Do you need to use gesso to cover old graphics or will white paint suffice?
  3. Can you transfer a traceable onto fabric the same way you can on canvas?
  4. How hard is it to paint script (handwriting) onto fabric? Is it comparable to canvas?

As for the design, I want it to be very simple.

  • Paint the background white in a very loose manner (I want to see the brushstrokes as opposed to a perfect square or circle)
  • Mix up a warm yellow, pinkish coral, and turquoise blue (add water to thin for splattering) and, using pipettes, splatter the colored paint onto the white part of the hoodie (random and no overthinking!)
  • Transfer the handwriting traceable onto the sweatshirt (over the splatter and white) and paint it with Carbon Black

Materials Needed To Paint With Acrylics On An Old Hoodie

Tubes of paint, a bottle of fabric medium, paper cups, and plastic pipettes laying on a peach colored hoodie.

This is a full list of the supplies I used to upcycle my hoodie but feel free to change it up and use what you can easily get your hands on.

The Fabric Artwork Experiment Details

Step One:

The very first thing was to wash and dry (either lay flat or hang and don’t use any fabric softener) the hoodie. Then, I put a piece of cardboard inside the shirt/sweatshirt so that the back fabric was protected. I also made sure to pin the fabric to the cardboard so that everything stayed in place and the wrinkles and bunching to a minimum.

Step Two:

To find out whether gesso is needed to cover the graphic design on my hoodie, I painted the left side with gesso mixed with fabric medium. On the right side, I used Titanium White mixed with fabric medium.

As you’ll see in the first image, the gesso didn’t cover nearly as well as the Titanium White and neither covered the lettering as I was hoping. After four coats (total) of white, I was fairly satisfied and ready to move on.

A close up of the graphic on the hoodie after being cover in half gesso mixed with fabric medium and the other half covered with Titanium White acrylic paint and fabric medium.
A close up of the graphic design, on the hoodie, after being covered in four coats of Titanium White mixed with fabric medium.

Step Three:

Next, it was time to have fun with color! I started by splattering the paint, which was a mixture of paint, fabric medium, and water. I used a pipette for each color and I just let the color fall and splat anywhere on the white and a bit beyond.

The color recipes I used were:

  • Yellow (Liquitex Basics Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue and Golden Titanium White)
  • Coral (2 parts Liquitex Basics Quinacridone Magenta to 1 part Liquitex Basics Cadmium Yellow Medium Hue mixed with Titanium White)
  • Turquoise (1 part Liquitex Basics Phthalo Blue to 2 parts Liquitex Basics Phthalo Green mixed with Titanium White)
Three paper cups, filled with diluted paint colors of yellow, coral, and turquoise, resting on top of the peach colored hoodie.

When I finished splattering the different colors, I decided that they looked too stark against the white background. So, I took a piece of parchment paper, laid it over top of the splatter, pressed it down, and gently pulled it off (straight up).

Then, I took a dry brush, and with a feather-light touch, I blended the colors together in a very random pattern. When my brush was getting too loaded down with paint I wiped it off to stop my colors from getting too muddy looking.

Once this new background was dry, I did more splattering with yellow, coral, and turquoise.

The upcycled hoodie with splattered paint added to it. Colors used were yellow, coral, and turquoise.

Step Four:

The final step was to transfer some writing onto my hoodie and then paint it. This was an experiment to see if I could transfer and trace onto a hoodie in the same way as I would on canvas.

A printable of the blog name "Squishing Paint" in a red handwriting font laying on top of the hoodie being painted.

The process was pretty straightforward:

  1. I found a font I liked and typed out the writing large enough to cover the newly splattered design on my hoodie (lucky for me, this was just about the size of a regular sheet of printer paper)
  2. Next, I made a traceable and transferred it onto my hoodie using a watercolor pencil (if you don’t know how to transfer a traceable, make sure to check out my article that will teach you how to trace anything and transfer it to your canvas)
  3. Lastly, I took Golden Fluid Carbon Black, mixed it with my fabric medium, and used a small round brush (with a sharp tip) to paint the transferred letters
The finished upcycled hoodie complete with a coral, yellow, and turquoise splatter effect and the blog name "Squishing Paint" in a handwriting font added using black acrylic paint.

Experiment Findings: Can You Use Acrylic Paint On Fabric That’s Been Well Used?

To sum up the experiments, here’s what I learned:

  • Be prepared to apply multiple coats to cover the existing graphic design work (how many coats will depend on the color of the design, if the design has any metallic properties, etc.)
  • Fabric medium is fluid like craft paint so you’re better off using fluid paints (to get the right ratio between paint and medium)
  • If you decide to splatter as I did you might notice that your paint splatters are raised quite a bit. Don’t worry, once they’ve had some time to dry, they do level out and become flat
  • Although you can transfer a traceable in the same way as you would for canvas, the tool you use to transfer the watercolor pencil to the fabric may rip through the paper (it’s nothing too serious but be aware and take your time because if you’re using a ballpoint pen to transfer, it may break through the paper and get onto your fabric if you’re not careful)
  • My fabric medium specifically says that I don’t have to heat set my design so make sure to follow the recommendations on your bottle of medium and, when in doubt, go ahead and heat seal your artwork
  • The paint mixed with fabric medium will soak into the fibers of whatever fabric you’re working with so make sure to plan ahead for that

Update After Washing The Painted Fabric

Friends, unfortunately this experiment was an epic fail. As you’ll see in the image below, the acrylic paint didn’t adhere to the graphic lettering. After the very first wash, and hanging to dry, it was pretty obvious that things hadn’t gone as I had been hoping.

That said, no experiment is a complete waste. We learned that the techniques, themselves, worked but it’s best to stick with repurposing fabrics that don’t have any graphics to begin with. Live and learn, right?

The painted hoodie after washing with red arrows pointing to where the paint had peeled off the graphic lettering that was painted over.

Final Thoughts On Painting Fabric With Acrylics

There you have it, the answer to the age-old question “can you use acrylic paint on fabric?” would be a resounding YES! If you’re upcycling, though, make sure your fabric doesn’t have any graphic designs that would need to be covered.

With the right materials and techniques, you can create gorgeous, unique designs on a variety of fabric items, from T-shirts and canvas shoes to tote bags and blankets. Painting on fabric opens up a whole new realm of creativity that’s not only fun but totally functional!

Just remember to choose the right fabric and paint, prepare your surface properly, and use a fabric medium to help the paint adhere to the fabric and stay vibrant through washes. Because, believe me, you’re going to want to wear your new one-of-a-kind clothing over and over again.

More Articles To Help You With Painted Fabric Artwork:

Sara

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