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Fabric painting your own designer t-shirts

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Fabric painting is a very easy craft to learn on your own. You don’t need much in the way of supplies to get you started.

You also don’t need any particular drawing/painting talent, as long as you can make yourself a stencil. It’s a really fun way to personalize clothing.

Fabric Painting Supplies

You’re going to need some supplies to get started with fabric painting. You may already have the fabric you want to paint, so first, let’s talk about paint and brushes.

Fabric painting supplies and a painted fabric design
  • Fabric Paints from Amazon You want to start with some good fabric paints that get high ratings for durability, since they’re going to go through the wash like normal laundry.
  • Ballpoint Fabric Paint Tubes. With regular art brushes, it can be hard to make thin lines or simulate the feel and look of line drawing. Ballpoint Fabric Paint Tubes change all that. These feel like a tube in your hand, but they do “write” like a (very bold) ballpoint pen.
  • Paintbrushes. We’re not going to recommend specific brands here because with fabric painting, you can accomplish a lot with even the cheapest of brushes. The key is making sure they’re in good shape and not ragged. And having a few different thicknesses.
  • Stencils. Stencils are stencils, and you can even cut your own. Use any that have the design you like.
  • T-shirts or fabric. Pick whatever you like. The thicker the fabric, the easier it will be to work with and the longer it will hold up.

With these tools, you can paint yourself a completely unique, awesome-looking t-shirt or other fabric design.

When it comes to paintbrushes, you’ll find most either have a straight edge tip or a rounded tip. If you’re new to painting, play around with them on paper before you paint your design.

Once you get a sense of the different kinds of lines each tip will make, you will know what you need to do the design you want.

You may go through some trial and error here to figure out what works for you, but start with whatever sounds easier to work with for the kinds of designs you want to do.

I liked fine brushwork patterns in lots of colors, so I stuck with little paint pots and smaller brushes, but that’s just me. You may prefer big splashes of color sprayed on with lettering on top in ballpoint fabric paint tubes.

Working with fabric paints

One of the big advantages of working with cheap t-shirts at first is: you can trace a design through the fabric. This enables you to copy some fairly intricate images without having to rely on your own sense of perspective or size or any of those things that tend to screw up those of us who lack drawing skills.

Be aware that the paint can come through the fabric and get on the image, so don’t use something irreplaceable.

If tracing is your preferred method, you just need to put a picture under the shirt and on top of a solid surface (I liked to use a piece of butcher’s block so I could easily move my “canvas” around until I finished it) and start painting on the T-shirt.

Freestyle is another way to go. Just do a Jackson Pollack kind of design, or do a geometrical pattern if that’s more your style.

Make a stencil if you want serious precision. Stencils work best with geometrical patterns that are bold and well-defined. Copy a pattern onto the cut-out side of a grocery bag, and then cut it out along the lines to show you where to paint.

Stamping is like stenciling, except reversed. You cut out the shape you want to stamp onto the fabric, cover it in paint and stamp it on. This can create some really cool “distressed” looking art.

Mixing colors

Your paint set isn’t expected to have every color in the rainbow, so you have to learn a little about mixing paints. The best way to learn this is by doing it, but there are a few helpful tips I can give you:

  • Study the color wheel. If two colors are opposite each other on the color wheel, mixing them will produce a gray or brown shade.
  • When you’re starting out, add a tiny bit of one color to another and stir thoroughly to see what color you get. It’s easy to overestimate how much you’ll need to get the color you want, and sometimes it’s not so easy to get back to where you wanted to be. Or by the time you get there, you’ve mixed far more paint than you needed.
  • Keep little paint jars on hand to store mixed paint. The smaller they are, the less chance the air inside will dry them out.
  • If you’ve been trying to mix a color for a while and it’s just not working, don’t keep adding more paint in hopes you’ll get the shade you want. Just start over and save the first mixture for some other time.
  • The color wheel will also help you think about undertones. For example, mixing white with red makes pink, and mixing yellow with red gives you orange. So what if you want a sort of cream of tomato soup color – a light red with both orange and pink undertones? Mix it with a little of each.

Making it different

Painting a design on the front of a t-shirt is cool, but what about the sleeves? The back? The neck area? You can add designs or little flairs that coordinate with your main design in these areas.

How many commercial t-shirts do you see using those areas for design? It’s rare, because they use machines that are designed to print only on the front or back of a shirt. Painting in those areas will really differentiate your shirt from the usual.

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