Friday, January 24, 2014

FAQs: Wholecloth painting

Want to try wholecloth painting, but don’t know where to start? Here are answers to the questions I get asked most frequently.

What paints do you use?

PROfab Transparent Textile Paints by PRO Chemical & Dye
To paint on fabric, you need soft-bodied acrylic paints.  These paints are the consistency of runny sour cream. The acrylic paints in tubes are much thicker, and will need to be thinned with a medium to make them more liquid, such as fabric medium. (This is a lot of work, and I don’t recommend it!) In craft or art supply stores, look for paints that come in bottles. Some will be marked for use on textiles.

The paints I use most often, and highly recommend, are  PROfab Textile Paints by PRO Chemical & Dye. This company is based in Massachusetts. The quality of their paints is excellent, and the price is better than many other paints I’ve used. And their customer service can’t be beat.

I mostly use the PROfab Transparent Textile Paints and the PROfab Pearlescent (Metallic) paints. They are a nice, consistent texture. The containers are very easy to use, and the paint pours nicely from them. The shape makes it easy to get the last little bit of paint out.

I love their Base Extender, too. You can use it to make a glaze, or a paler or more transparent color. It also helps keep paints more fluid, so I add a dab if my paint starts to dry out, or if I need to keep the paints in my palette fluid overnight. They make different extenders for their Transparent, Opaque, and Pearlescent paints.

If you want to try painting on fabric and don’t want to invest a lot of money right now, I suggest purchasing the PROfab Transparent Textile Paint Sampler (SINK1), which has one-ounce jars of red, yellow, blue, green, black, and white; and a two-ounce jar of Transparent Base Extender. As of January 2014, the price was $6.95 plus shipping.

I also use and recommend Jacquard Textile Color and Lumiere (metallic and pearlescent). They cost more than than paints by PRO Chemical & Dye, but their quality is also excellent. Some of the Lumiere paints have a “halo” effect that makes them look iridescent.

When I taught recently in Australia, we used Texcraft Dual Purpose Fabric Paints and Opulence paints. They were great. The Dual Purpose paints tend to be a bit thinner than either the PROfab or Jacquard paints, and we used a tiny amount of thickener sometimes. 

When I taught in the Netherlands in 2012, I used Stewart Gill paints. These are very high quality paints made in Scotland, and they are available in most of Europe. They are more expensive than most other brands. Colourise is their Translucent/Semi-Opaque paint I use most often. Pearlise, Alchemy and Byzantia are fabulous pearlescent/metallic paints. They make many specialty paints, so if you are looking for a product to provide a specific look – bling, sparkle, crackle or zing – you should check them out.

PRO Chem paints transferred into squeeze bottles
When I teach, I sometimes transfer my large bottles of PRO Chem paints into plastic squeeze bottles. It is easier to dispense paints to students, and to squirt out a small quantity of paint, when you use these bottles. They come in various sizes. I ordered them from SKS Bottle and Packaging. They only sell wholesale, so you have to purchase in large quantities (usually 12, 24 or 48).

What’s the difference between transparent, semi-transparent, opaque, pearlescent and metallic?
For realistic subjects, I prefer transparent paints. I can layer them (usually darker colors over lighter ones) to achieve a lovely sense of depth.  

Opaque paints tend to look flatter, and they more completely cover the fabric. If you are painting on dark fabric, and want solid coverage, go for the opaque paints. Opaque paints work great for stamping, stenciling and screen printing.

Some paints say that they are semi-transparent, which means that they are probably somewhere between transparent and opaque.

Pearlescent and metallic paints have shimmery bits in them that reflect the light. I use them to paint objects that reflect light, or need to appear wet (like my fish below).

Why do I need a palette?
A palette with wells makes it easy to mix multiple colors, shades and tints of paint. It also makes it much easier to store your paint if you need to stop working. There are many types of palettes available. I used coated paper plates when I first started, but soon realized that a palette with multiple compartments was worth the price. You can find a variety of palettes at craft and art supply stores, or online.

When choosing a palette, consider the size and complexity of the piece you will be painting. If you will need to mix a lot of colors, you will need a palette with a good number of compartments. If you are working on a large piece, the compartments need to be large and/or deep so that you can mix enough of the colors you will need.

The palette I use when I will be painting over several days and don’t want my paint to dry out is the one below by Mijello. It is plastic (when I travel, lightweight is good), and has multiple compartments. But the best feature is a snap-on lid that seals out air that can dry out the paint. I got mine from Jerry’s Artarama.

Mijello palette with snap-on lid

A smaller Loew-Cornell plastic palette with snap-on lid
Ceramic palettes are wonderful and easy to clean. But they are heavy, and they break if you drop them. They also usually don’t have as many compartments, and they don’t have lids, so you have to cover your paint with plastic wrap or foil if you have to stop painting for a while.

When you are first getting started and don’t want to make much of an investment in your supplies, you can purchase a cheap plastic palette like this one:

How fast does the paint dry?
Most fabric paint dries in 5-10 minutes on fabric. Pearlescent or metallic paint takes a bit longer. If you need to stop, tightly cover your palette (see the question above) and place it in the refrigerator. Do not freeze paint.
What kind of brushes should I get?
You need a brush with synthetic, short, stiff brushes for detail work. For very large surfaces (such as backgrounds), consider using foam brushes. I’ve tried a ton of brands, and for a long time, I used these (now discontinued) brushes by Loew-Cornell:

Loew-Cornell discontinued my favorite brush, the scrubber #226, in 2016. I am now using these brushes by Tulip:

This 5-pack contains the following small-size round barrel brushes:
  • 10/0 Liner
  • 1 Liner
  • 5 Round
  • 4 Liner
  • 6 Liner
These brushes work pretty well, but I really wish they included a very small brush in this pack. If you need a teeny-tiny brush for extremely detailed work (like cat’s whiskers!), consider a detail brush from a hobby store. They are usually sold in the area with paints for model trains, planes, cars, etc.

Tulip also makes a 3-pack of large-size angled brushes (shaders) with flat barrels, and a 5-pack of multi-size angled brushes (shaders) with flat barrels. All of the brush packs retail in the $8-10 range, and are usually available on

What kind of fabric do you use?
I mostly use these two fabrics:
Style 100 Bleached Mercerized Cotton Sheeting by PRO Chemical & Dye. You can find it here on PRO Chem’s website. This is a very nice quality fabric that is tightly woven and has a high thread count.
Robert Kaufman Pimatex PFD (Prepared For Dyeing) fabric. Look for it, and ask for it at your local quilt shop. They sometimes carry it for dyers. If your local shop does not carry it, you can find it through internet sources. I started painting on Kona Cotton, but switched to Pimatex for several reasons. First, it has a high thread count and tightly woven fibers, so it is smoother to paint on than Pimatex, and leaves less texture after it is painted. Second, it is fairly see-through, which is a must for my process.

Do you wash the fabric first?
Not if I use the two fabrics listed above; they are ready to roll! But if you purchase white fabric other than PFD, you should wash it and dry it without fabric softener. This will remove the finishing chemicals from the surface, and prepare the cotton fibers to accept the paint.

How do I keep the paints from bleeding?
The paints I’ve mentioned in this post should not bleed unless you add water. After cleaning my brushes, I take care to rinse them, and then wipe them on a clean rag until they are pretty dry. If you dunk a wet brush into paint and then start to paint, it will bleed out into the fabric, and you won’t get crisp lines. (Of course, you can add water to get a water-color effect, if you wish.) If you want a sheerer, paler color, you can add base extender to avoid bleeding.

In this piece, I encouraged bleeding by adding more water:

“Pink Phalaenopsis” (detail)
What surface do you paint on?
I don’t have a “wet studio” where I can leave large painted pieces out to work on, or to dry. For this reason, I often use the peninsula in my kitchen, which has old laminate countertops that clean up with a soft abrasive cleaner like SoftScrub.

A piece in progress on my kitchen counter.
For smaller pieces, I often use foamcore. This is available at craft and office stores, and comes in different thicknesses and sizes. I tape my fabric down to the foamcore so that it is taut, and paint. One of the advantages to using it is that you can turn your piece around to avoid dragging your hand through the paint.

For slightly larger pieces, I’ve found that I can use the back of an old cutting mat. I now have one that I use only for painting. 

Do you have a video on wholecloth painting?
Yes! My DVD about wholecloth quilting is a Quilting Arts Workshop called Dynamic Quilt Design: Paint Meets Stitch. I cover the tools you will need, and walk you through every step of my process. Learn how to choose the right photo, trace the design elements, enlarge your drawing and print it out. There is also information about basic color theory and instruction on mixing paint colors, shades and tints. The last section covers free-motion stitching on painted surfaces.

It was produced by Quilting Arts/Interweave, and is available on my website for $19.95 plus shipping. If you live outside the U.S., and don’t want to pay for shipping, consider an electronic video download; you can purchase it from Interweave.

This is the quilt I work on during the Workshop:

and this is me on the set, shooting the Workshop:

Do you heat set your pieces?
I don’t, because I’ve found that they are very permanent after a few days. But I don’t wash my pieces, as they are art that will hang on the wall. If you are planning to wash yours, you should definitely follow the paint manufacturer’s instructions and heat set your piece. This usually involves ironing for a fair amount of time, or putting your piece in a clothes’ dryer for a long time.

I don’t like the way paint changes the hand of the fabric. What else can I use?
You can use acrylic inks; brands to try are Daler Rowney’s FW Artists’ Acrylic Inks and Liquitex Acrylic Ink. These can be used at 100% strength to paint on fabric. They work great in calligraphy pens for writing on fabric, too. Or they can be diluted (which causes them to bleed out into the fabric, acting more like dye). I used them to color the sky in this piece:

“I See the Moon” (24" x 60")
Tsukineko All-Purpose Inks are very fluid inks that can be painted on fabric, or used with a sponge applicator for more sheer, subtle effects.

Dye-Na-Flow is a Jacquard paint product that acts like a dye or ink. It bleeds out into fabric, and can be used to create the look of hand-dyed fabrics without using dyes.

Have a question I haven’t answered here?
Please e-mail me at, or leave me a comment after this post!


  1. Great info... practically a tute! Thanks!!!!

  2. Great info, I bookmarked this page. Thank you for sharing, Susan. It's like having a private instructor in your own home.

  3. Thank you so much for your excellent questions and answers. Your specifics in brand news, and explanations is so helpful! Thank you! I so appreciate your work! I can't wait to try this.

  4. Wow, great tutorial. Will be in touch to get the dvd. Thank you for such great information.

  5. So full of information and details, thank you!

  6. Wow! What a great post!!!! Thank you so much for the information!!!!! I'm on my tablet now but am considering purchasing your DVD (download)....again, thanks for the wonderful info!

  7. Susan, I think I'm going to take the plunge and start painting on fabric. Your blog post is a great starting point primer - thank you so much!

  8. I thought your blog was excellent. The depth of the information was informative without being overwhelming. Keep up the good work. I will be sure to read your blog again.

  9. Can you use Aloe Vera Gel to dilute Pro Fab paints if you are out of extender?

    1. I have never used anything but the extender and a tiny bit of water. The question about Aloe Vera Gel is probably one for ProChem's chemist.

  10. OMG I was looking for the same post. Wonderful blog, I must say. It's gonna help me a lot. Thanks for sharing

  11. Really Informative post. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Can you still use flow improver on acrylics suitable for painting on fabric?

  13. Hello Susan, Amazing post ...Appreciate the way you have shared your knowledge.Very useful tips provided for the artists community.

  14. I read your post. It's really very informative. Thanks for sharing information.


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