Step-by-Step: How to Watercolor on Fabric

Traditionally, watercolorists have been affiliated with watercolor paper. However, things are changing as more painters explore new mediums like fabrics. Fabric offers unique opportunities for every watercolor enthusiast to explore, but they need guidance to master the art.

To apply watercolor on fabric, you’ll need to have your art supplies ready, protect your working surfaces, experiment on a small fabric first, draw a pencil sketch-up, wet your watercolor paints, apply paint on your fabric, blend colors on fabric with paint medium mixture, and heat-set your fabric.

This article takes an in-depth look at these steps. For a comprehensive step-by-step guide on how to watercolor fabric, read on.

How to Watercolor on Fabric

Gather the Art Supplies for the Job

  • Watercolor paints (tubes or cakes)
  • Fabric (natural fibers are more absorbent than synthetic fibers)
  • Fabric medium 
  • Water containers (Have 2 small containers)
  • Brushes (Have two brushes so that you don’t have to be constantly washing between switches of paint)
  • Protective covering for your surface (Freezer paper or garbage bags, and masking tape)
  • Black acrylic paint  
  • Drying time extender medium
  • Permanent markers (black)
  • Paint mixing surface (e.g., disposable plates or bowls)

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Prepare Your Paint

Watercolor is water-soluble, meaning constituents of watercolor can “wash” away when exposed to water even after they’ve been painted. The counteractant to this is sealing the colors with protective spray once a painting is completed.

Watercolor paint is generally translucent, making it a powerful force in creating emotive effects and stimulating imagination by layering. Layering occurs when you can see beneath the top paint coat into the underlying paintwork. 

Understanding these qualities of watercolor paints is pivotal to painting well on fabric using watercolors.

How Paints Are Classified

All paint is made up of pigment particles that are essentially the same but are suspended in some carrying/binding medium that allows the pigment particles to spread onto the receiving surface. These include fabric, wood, metal, and wood. These carrying media determine the paint’s classification, i.e., watercolor,oil-based, etc.

Here is a pictorial overview of the different types of paints:

Type of PaintBinding MediumKey Attributes
WatercolorsWater & gum arabicSoluble in water, mostly transparent paint gets lighter as it drives requires a porous substance to bind to Dries faster but is easily wettable.
AcrylicsPolymer emulsions/resinsMostly opaque. No solvent is needed to paint but can be thinned in water, but dilution is limited to 20% Paint gets brighter as it dries more durable than watercolors.
OilLinseed oilIt needs a thinning solvent such as turpentine to work deep colors that maintain intensity when dry low drying.
PastelClay binderBinds well on abrasive surfaces; Dries quickly.

Designate Separate Water Containers for Wetting Paint and Diluting Fabric Medium

As part of your preliminary preparation, have two water containers designated for separate functions—one container with water for wetting your paint while the other container is for diluting the fabric medium. 

This distinction is important to minimize the unintended contamination of water with an inappropriate substance, e.g., paint going into a container containing a diluted fabric medium.

Next, you’ll dilute some fabric medium in the second container. 

Protect Your Working Surface Using Freezer Paper

Spread out freezer paper over your working surface to protect it as you paint. Have the shiny plastic part of the paper face up. A garbage bag, too, will do. Next, you’ll spread the fabric on the paper securing its margins with masking tape.

If you’re working too wet, masking tape may not prevent the paint from bleeding beyond the margins on your fabric. Masking tape only gives foolproof protection when working with watercolor paper but not fabric. 

Where feasible, you can remedy this by trimming out peripheral fabric parts and re-hemming to hide the soft bleeds that penetrated beneath the masking tape.

Experiment on a Small Fabric First

This will be useful for tweaking your techniques to what gives you the best possible results. You’ll be able to establish the best dilution levels of paint to produce the intended shades on fabric. 

To be frugal, you may opt to use the student-grade watercolors at this stage to get an idea of the kind of results to anticipate on fabric. You can reserve the professional-grade art supplies for the real action once you’ve had a successful trial run.

Tip: Wrap your brushes in plastic wrap to avoid drying out, especially if you switch between different brush sizes.

Trace Text on Fabric With a Permanent Marker

If your painting entails text, you’ll need to draw text on your fabric to guide you as you paint. You could use a pencil or marker to draw on fabric directly. However, tracing the text is highly recommended for improved precision and style. 

This is how it’s done:

  1. On your computer, type out text, adjusting it as to style and size for your fabric.
  2. Print off the text on paper that’ll be used as a guide.
  3. Tape the printed sheet of paper onto flat glass.
  4. Tape your fabric over the taped sheet that’s on the glass.
  5. Have light-source beaming rays through the glass onto the fabric. 
  6. Using a permanent marker, carefully trace the text (or image outlines) that block the light rays passing through the glass onto your fabric.
  7. Spread your fabric over the freezer paper again once tracing has been completed.
  8. Paint into the traced outlines so that text would stand out. 
  9. For permanence, use acrylic paint, fabric medium, and drying extender to paint the outlines. The fabric medium makes the paint permanent while the drying extender increases drying time, giving you more working time on fabric.
  10. You can now begin your paintwork on the fabric sheet.

Apply Paint on Your Fabric

Watercolors are translucent. Therefore, pre-planning is important for accuracy as underlying paint coats will be visible, exposing mistakes committed there. For meticulous execution, you’ll need to draw a light sketch of what you intend to paint before starting the actual job. You’ll then proceed to the actual paintwork as highlighted below:

  1. Dip your brush in the plain water glass and begin to wet your watercolor. Your brush should be abundantly pigmented, ready for spreading onto your fabric.
  2. Apply paint and let it dry. It becomes lighter as it dries. Continue adding paint, leaving it to dry until you’re satisfied with the outcome.
  3. Varying the amount of water on your brush determines the shades of color on your fabric. If your brush is less watered down, your shades will be strong and bold. More water on your brush and you’ll attain brighter shades. The paint will as well spread more easily on your fabric. 

Tip: Try 3-4 drops of drying extender. It extends your painting time by elongating its drying time. This gives you more time on the fabric to bring out the very best in you.

Blend Colors on Fabric With Fabric Medium Mixture

Once you have completed painting the fabric surface to your satisfaction, repaint the whole surface, this time using the diluted paint medium before adding another color coast in your fabric setup.

You can also produce your own inexpensive fabric medium.

Fabric Medium

A fabric medium is an opaque-looking fluid that turns colorless once dry. Adding fabric medium to your paint enhances its ability to bind to the fabric.

Fabric medium is useful in the following ways:

  • Thinning (dilutes) watercolor paints or thickens fabric inks without affecting their intenseness.
  • Prolonging drying time, so you have more time to blend colors even in wet-on-wet situations.
  • Improving the softness and flexibility of fabrics. Acrylic paints and watercolors tend to stiffen fabrics, but fabric medium counteracts this, making clothes comfortable and soft. 
  • Minimizing color bleeding in colors that have been diluted with water.
  • Enhancing penetration of paints into surfaces of rough fabrics such as heavy canvas.

A dilution proportion of 2 parts of water to one part of fabric medium has produced marvelous results for some artists.  

It’s recommended that you work with two brushes to avoid the confusion of dipping a brush into the wrong medium, e.g., a paintbrush going into the fabric medium or vice versa.

Note: Using fabric medium will make it difficult to clean the brushes once used completely. Therefore, consider using brushes you are willing to dispose of once you’re done.

Repeat Procedure for Any Other Color Fabrics in Your Setup

You’ll then proceed depending on the specific technique or a combination of techniques you’d want to apply. We’ll discuss several techniques that are common when applying watercolor to fabrics later in this article.

After you’re done decorating your fabric, you can proceed to wear it. Of course not! Watercolors run when washed since they are water-soluble. The fabric needs one last treatment to fix the colors to the fabric not to wash off when exposed to water.

Heat Set Your Fabric

Heat-setting is the process of applying heat to painted fabric to make it permanent. This helps “fix” the watercolors and ensures your painting doesn’t wash or peel off.

There are several ways that you can heat-set your fabric, including air drying, using an electric dryer, or pressing fabric with a hot iron. Your choice will be primarily dictated by the paint medium you’re using.

The golden rule of heat setting is reading the manufacturer’s instructions on your product and carefully adhering to the given guidelines.

Here are some important tips for heat setting fabric paints successfully:

  • Always ensure that your fabric is completely dry before heat setting it. For a minimum, let the painted fabric dry overnight.
  • Heat setting the fabric must be completed before you can add any embellishments or dimensional paints on your fabric.
  • Heat set fabric in a well-ventilated place.
  • Always check the manufacturer’s instruction manual before you begin the process.

Four Basic Methods for Heat Setting Fabric Paint

These are the basic methods, and you can choose whichever is convenient for you.

Ironing

When ironing, use the highest setting possible for the type of fabric you’ve painted. 

  1. Use a dry iron and a pressing cloth. Don’t turn on steam settings on your iron as dry heat is the best for fabric paints.
  2. Dry press the fabric indirectly by laying the pressing cloth on the painted fabric; this safeguards the transfer of paint to your hot iron. Alternatively, iron the garment inside out.
  3. Iron the painted area for between 3-5 minutes using the highest settings of the iron. But the rule of thumb here is the manufacturer’s instructions take preeminence. That cannot be overemphasized.
  4. Remove the iron and move to another area of painted fabric until you’ve completed the entire fabric.

Oven

An oven? Sure, that sounds rather odd. But that too can be used for heat setting your fabric paint.

Here’s how:

  1. Spread out your completed fabric paintwork over a newspaper.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°F (177℃).
  3. Place it in the oven after you’ve rolled it up in the newspaper for 15 minutes (be vigilant to ensure it doesn’t burn).
  4. Remove fabric from the oven and cool it off.

Clothes Dryer

  1. Place fabric inside the clothes dryer. 
  2. Set the dryer to the highest allowable setting for that fabric.
  3. Leave in the dryer for an hour.

Screen Printers’ Dryer

If you have a screen printer’s dryer, place the fabric in the dryer for a minute at 350℉ (177℃).

Washing Your Fabric

  • After heat setting do not wash fabric for a minimum period of two weeks
  • Hand washing would be ideal for this watercolor painted fabrics
  • If you’re using a washing machine, set the washing machine on gentle cycle and use warm water and an attenuated detergent.
  • Turn painted garments inside out when washing
  • Air out in the open to dry
  • Use a dryer only if the garment has no glitter or other embellishments

If you heat set your fabrics well and treat the material with the utmost care, you’ll enjoy the colors for many years.

We have so far covered the process of how to watercolor on fabric. I know that was detailed. But that’s not all. Hold on a little longer as we delve into the specific techniques you’ll need to employ to bring out that Midas touch on your fabrics.

Different Watercolor Techniques

There are various watercolor techniques you can choose from when working with watercolors. It’s good practice to experiment on different painting techniques before deciding the actual technique (or a combination of techniques) to settle on for a particular project. 

Let’s explore them.

Painting Wet-on-Wet and Wet-on-Dry

Wet-on-wet is using a very wet brush on wet fabric. The wetter the brush or fabric, the lighter the color on paper. Wetting the fabric before you paint increases the blending of the colors. It’s important not to straddle that thin line between wet and too wet, as spraying too much water on your fabric may mute the colors on your fabric, messing up your masterstroke.

Using a wet brush on a dry fabric is known as dry-on-wet. Applying paint on dry fabric brings out sharper edges in comparison with the wet-on-wet technique.

Exploit that variation in shades that results from adding water in various quantities to produce tantalizing artwork. By manipulating the saturation of pigments on your fabric using water, you can create a dynamic masterpiece.

Working From Light to Dark

Watercolors are characteristically translucent, meaning that you’ll need to start from lighter values to the deeper shades as you work up your fabric layer by layer. 

Every surface destined to be white or light must remain in such a state throughout the painting process. You’ll develop your painting by bringing in the darker shades as you near the end. 

Layering of Colors

Layering watercolors are also referred to as glazing. It’s quite simple. In essence, this applies multiple layers of paint, one over the other, thanks to the translucent nature of watercolors. You allow a layer to dry before you can apply the successive layer. 

This can create fascinating pieces as the overlapping of pigment layers ostensibly results in entirely different colors.

Splattering Watercolors

This one can be tricky and the results unpredictable. But can bring vitality and character to your fabric when well implemented.

Splattering color creates the notion of a water spray or floating dust. 

You can achieve this by holding your brush between the middle fingers and the thumb. Pluck the bristles backward using your index fingers, then release them forward. As they snap out, they’ll leave a creatively dotted splatter on your fabric.

The method is worth trying as it’s capable of bringing out some intriguing imagery.

Ombre Effect

The fabric has a highly saturated color at the top, but it gradually lightens as you move downwards. This is achieved by increasing the wetness of your paint gradually as you paint downwards on a fabric. The wetter the paint, the more diluted the pigments will be, progressively yielding a lighter shade.

Tie-Dyed Effect

Wonderfully blended, multicolored paintwork resulting from the application of circular strokes on fabric using various colors. 

Muted+Well Blended Effect

You execute this effect by soaking the fabric in water before you spread watercolor on it. Once soaked, the fabric surface becomes highly absorbent as water enhances its absorption properties. This allows for the paint to easily spread on fabric and blend excellently. The resultant artwork is breathtaking, to say the least. 

Final Words

This step-by-step guide on how to watercolor on fabric has comprehensively covered the processes of painting on fabric with watercolors from start to finish, examining the available watercolor techniques in great detail.

You have further understood:

  • The qualities of watercolors and how they affect its application on fabrics
  • Why you should first experiment on a small fabric portion before embarking on your main project
  • How to blend colors with fabric medium
  • Heat-setting the fabric once the painting has been completed to ensure permanence of the designs on it
  • How to take care of your fabric

We have also noted the importance of adhering to the manufacturer’s instructions on art supplies to get the best out of their products. This is especially true if you are a novice in the field or in where you are changing your artwork supplies.

Sources

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Ines

Ines is a self-taught artist based in the UK. Originally from Caracas, she has dabbled in the world of arts and crafts in a diversity of ways participating in city intervention projects, sustainable practices’ open exhibitions, and her illustrations being featured in anniversary editions of literary magazines.

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