Many artists like to work with paint on fabric, but the question of using acrylic paint on fabric is surprisingly controversial.
Can you paint on fabric with acrylic paint? Yes, you can use acrylic paint on fabric, but you’ll need to make some alterations like adding acrylic medium to the paint first to make sure that it adheres to the fabric and stays for a long time. Otherwise, it will crack when it bends. You’ll also want to use a sealant when you’re done painting your design.
In this article, let’s learn more about acrylic paint and how you can use it on fabric to create the best result.
Fabric Paint Vs Acrylic Paint
What type of paint works best with fabric? Although you can find fabric paint in most craft stores, it is not necessarily the best type of paint for all types of fabric.
Fabric paint is made from fabric dye and a binder, which helps the paint adhere to the fabric. However, one thing to note with fabric dye is that it doesn’t have the same performance for all types of fabrics.
Natural fabrics work much better with fabric paint because of their natural absorbent abilities. When natural fabrics such as cotton or linen meet fabric paint, the fabric dye is absorbed into the fibers, which creates the colorfast results.
However, synthetic fibers do not share the same absorbent abilities, so fabric paint just sits on top of the fabric and doesn’t produce the same result as when you work with natural fiber. So, using acrylic paint is actually a better choice when it comes to painting on fabric.
How Is Acrylic Paint Different From Fabric Paint?
Water-based acrylic paint is mainly composed of pigments dispersed in an acrylic resin emulsion. Acrylic paint is made up of three main components: pigment, binder, and a vehicle.
The pigment in acrylic paint is pretty much the same as all the other kinds of paint out there, but what sets acrylic paint apart is the binder and the vehicle.
The binder, which keeps the pigment suspended in place, is an acrylic polymer that dries hard, which helps acrylic paint become semi-permanent and semi-waterproof after it dries.
The vehicle in acrylic paint is actually water, which creates a polymer emulsion when combined with a binder. When the water evaporates, and the paint dries, the acrylic polymer remains to keep the pigments in place, which creates a better result on all kinds of fabrics used.
Can You Use Acrylic Paint On Fabric?
Yes, but with a few adjustments.
Although acrylic paint is very well-suited to be painted on most fabrics, it tends to become brittle and crack once it dries. This is because acrylic dries semi-permanent and water-proof, so on a flexible, porous canvas such as fabric, the paint cannot hold up on its own.
This is why an acrylic medium is needed to optimize acrylic paint’s performance on fabric. An acrylic medium is kind of like a paint thinner and transforms the acrylic paint’s characteristics to make it smoother and more flexible, making it better to paint on fabric.
After painting, you will need to “seal” the paint using a heat setting process to help the paint become longer-lasting. Let’s learn more about acrylic mediums and heat settings below.
Using Acrylic Mediums
The key to using acrylic paint on fabric is to mix it with a fabric medium.
A fabric medium is an acrylic liquid blend that has no pigments. Adding a fabric medium to your acrylic paint will give your paint more flexibility, which is much-needed when working with a flexible medium such as fabric.
This will help prevent the paint from hardening and cracking once it is dried and help the paint stay better on the fabric for washing, and prevent the colors from bleeding.
Acrylic paint can also be a bit too thick and difficult to work with when it is straight out of the tube. An acrylic medium can double as a paint thinner to help dilute the acrylic paint into a thinner consistency, which makes it easier to work with.
Store-bought acrylic mediums usually have specific instructions on how they should be used. However, mixing acrylic paint and an acrylic medium is very subjective and can be decided depending on the thickness and effects that you are trying to achieve.
For example, when you use fabric medium as a paint thinner, you can experiment with the consistency to create a watercolor or airbrushing effect. Creating abstract patterns and blending colors together is also quite easy to do with a fabric medium.
A thinner consistency of the paint will also help the paint absorb better into the fabric fibers, which provides a stronger bond between the paint and the fabric.
One thing to note when using acrylic paint with a fabric medium to paint on fabric is that it can take a few days to dry, which is much longer than using fabric paint. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as you can take advantage of this time to blend the colors and create different effects in your artwork!
However, if you want to apply several layers of colors, you will need to wait for one layer to dry completely before applying the next layer, which will probably take 3-4 days.
A natural question that everyone has when painting on fabric is: can I wash this after painting?
If you have used a fabric medium to paint with your acrylic paint, then the good news is that your painting will likely survive the wash. However, there’s still another step that you probably want to take to “seal” the paint if you want to wash the fabric later.
Heat setting is a pretty common technique that is used in all kinds of fabric painting and printing techniques. By applying heat, the paint will be able to become fully absorbed into the fabric, which will make sure that the paint quality stays, even after washing.
Before taking steps to heat set painted fabric, you will need to make sure that the paint is completely dry. As we have mentioned, acrylic paint takes a few days to completely dry. If you take this step of heat setting when the painting surface is still wet and sticky, then your painting will be ruined.
After making sure that your paint is completely dry, press a dry cloth on the paint surface. Then, with a dry iron with high heat settings, press down on the cloth for about 10 seconds, and repeat for the entire painting surface. Don’t press the iron on your fabric for too long, because your fabric can become distressed under the heat.
Make sure to use a dry iron, as any kind of steam or moisture will defeat the purpose of heat setting. After this step, your paint should stay securely in place, and you can wash your fabric without the paint budging!
Note that heat setting only works on certain types of fabrics. Sensitive fabrics like rayon or silk can react poorly under high heat settings, and you don’t want to melt the fabric off in the process.
If you plan on heat setting later, make sure that you use a type of fabric that is tolerant of the high heat before moving forward. If your fabric cannot be set with heat, then you should not plan on washing the painted fabric later to protect the painted surface.
What Kind Of Fabric Works Best For Painting With Acrylics?
Acrylic paint, when mixed with a fabric medium, is not at all picky in what kind of fabric it will work well with.
However, natural fibers such as cotton, wool, or silk will produce more colorfastness because of their superior absorbent abilities, which allow the fabric to absorb more paint. Synthetic fabrics don’t perform as well in this case, but the paint will still stay on synthetic fabrics.
Weave textures and colors will likely affect how your painting will look after it is dry. That’s why we recommend using an even weave fabric with a tighter weave, which will create a very smooth surface for painting.
You can also play around with the texture to create different effects for your painting. Felt and wool have interesting textures that can add to the overall look of a painted surface.
You should also avoid stretchy fabrics when painting. This is because the paint, however flexible, will not be able to stretch with the fabric when it’s dry. If you are painting on a stretchy garment, the paint can become cracked when the fabric is stretched out.
How To Paint On Fabric With Acrylic
Now that we’ve gone over the challenges of painting fabric with acrylics, let’s talk about how to minimize the risk of cracking, fading, flaking, and more.
1. Mixing Acrylic Paint With Fabric Mediums
Fabric mediums always come with specific instructions of how much to mix, but don’t take it as a strict guide. Fabric medium and acrylic paint are definitely very forgiving, so you can try mixing as much or as little as you’d like to experiment with the quality of your paint.
Keep in mind that because fabric mediums don’t contain any pigments, the more medium that you add, the lighter your paint will become.
If you are unsure about the result, it is always recommended to test the paint on a scrap piece of fabric first to see if the paint produces the desired result on your fabric. If not, you can adjust the paint as needed.
2. Preparing Your Work Surface
Acrylic paint, after mixing with a fabric medium, can become very thin and soak through your fabric. That’s why it is always wise to protect your work surface with a plastic sheet first before painting.
If you are painting a tote bag or T-shirt, you can insert a piece of cardboard inside the bag to prevent the two layers from touching one another when you paint so that the paint doesn’t soak through to the other side.
3. Pre-Washing Your Fabric
A lot of natural fabrics will shrink after the first wash. Think cotton, wool, felt, etc. That’s why pre-washing your fabric is a must so that the fabric doesn’t shrink further after painting.
That’s because, when the fabric shrinks, the paint will not shrink along with it, which will result in a cracked surface and ruin your work!
Pre-washing your fabric in warm water will get all the shrinking out of the way so that after painting, the fabric will not shrink anymore, and your painted fabric will survive the washing machine.
A lot of synthetic fabric also has some chemical residue that’s left over from the processing. Even if you have a synthetic fabric that you are sure will not shrink in the wash, pre-washing the fabric before painting is still a good idea so that your fabric surface is completely “new” and can welcome the paint layer.
After washing, you can iron your fabric to prepare it for painting. A flat surface always makes painting a lot easier!
4. Getting Hard Edges
If you want your painting to have hard edges, the usual method of using tape will not work because the paint can still “bleed” through the fibers and reach the edges.
When painting on fabric, it is better to seal the edges with wax instead to prevent the paint from bleeding beyond a certain point. After the paint dries, the wax can be completely removed with dry cleaning.
5. Correcting Mistakes
Acrylic paint is water-based, so it can be thinned with just water. If you make any mistakes when you paint with acrylic paint, the paint can easily be wiped away with a wet cloth, as long as the paint is still wet.
That makes acrylic paint a very forgiving medium, so you can totally experiment without worrying about any mistakes!
6. Post-Painting Fabric Care
After all the time and effort put on your painted fabric, you’ll want the paint to stay new for a long time. That’s why proper care of your painted fabric is quite important. But, believe it or not, it is not as difficult as you may think!
7. Minimizing Washes
Although acrylic paint (mixed with a fabric medium) is quite resilient in the wash, a lot of washing still isn’t good for the paint quality.
All the friction caused in the wash can cause the fabric to become distorted, which will make the paint crack. So if you can, you should keep the washing to a minimum to maintain the color quality.
8. Washing Gently
If you must wash your painted fabric, then we recommend hand-washing or using the delicate cycle to wash your painted fabric with cold water.
We’ve established that the friction caused in the wash can be quite damaging to the paint and the fabric, so keeping the movements to a minimum will help maintain the paint.
9. Avoiding Spot Cleaning
A lot of spot cleaners contain bleach, and you know what happens when bleach meets colors? The colors will be gone.
If your painted fabric gets stained, try to wash it out with a soft cloth and water, and avoid too much rubbing, as that can also damage your painted surface.
10. Air Drying
After washing, you should always air dry the painted fabric. The paint won’t be able to survive the tossing and turning of your dryer, so your paint will be cracked if you do put it in the dryer!
11. Ironing On The Low Setting
If you have to iron the painted fabric, always use the low setting on your iron and iron on the wrong side of the fabric so that you don’t touch the paint directly.
If you are ironing a T-shirt, bag, or any painted fabric that has two layers, make sure to use a cushion in between the two layers so that the other layer isn’t affected by the paint.
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