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.

To see examples of my wholecloth painted quilts, please visit my website’s “Fiber Art” page. I primarily use two techniques – wholecloth painting and fusible appliqué – when I make art quilts. You can see current projects that may not have made it to my website yet on my Instagram and Facebook pages. I also often post photos of pieces in progress.

What exactly is “wholecloth painting”?
Wholecloth painting is a technique where the artist starts with plain white fabric, and paints the entire surface before adding thread embellishment (such as thread painting) and quilting. There is no fused or pieced fabric in a wholecloth painted quilt. 

PROfab Transparent Textile Paints by PRO Chemical & Dye

My projects nearly always start with photos I take myself. In some cases I sketch from the photos, eliminating or moving elements to create a better composition. I create a black ink drawing on white paper, and go from there. In other cases, I enlarge the photo to 8x10" and print it out on my color laser printer. I place tracing paper on top, and trace the elements I need in my line drawing. Then I scan in the line drawing, enlarge it to the size I want the finished piece to be, and print it out in sections on my black-and-white laser printer. I tape the papers together to create a full-sized pattern. 

Next, I tape white fabric to the pattern, and either trace the lines with a pencil or a black pigment ink pen (depending on the effect I want). Sometimes I simply tape the fabric to the pattern and start painting, without tracing. 

And sometimes I have my line drawings printed on fabric by a service (Spoonflower) and go directly to painting. 

What paints do you use? 

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).

Can you paint lighter colors on top of darker ones?
Yes and no. If you use transparent paints, for example, it’s hard to get a bright white highlight on a dark color. You can use an opaque white to do this. But often I just want a wash of white, such as on this beetle’s shell, and a bit of transparent white mixed with water works perfectly:

When I want bright white, I generally paint it on first, with no other colors below it. In the photo above, I painted white just where I wanted it for the brightest highlights, and used a wash of white on the biggest part of the beetle's shell, where the highlight was not quite as strong. 

Can I mix colors on the fabric, or do I have to mix them beforehand?
As soon as you place your brush on the fabric, the paint sinks in, and you can’t blend colors the way you would with acrylics on canvas. You need to mix your colors separately beforehand in a palette (see the next question). While the paints are still wet on the fabric, you can blend them with your brush or with a finger. I actually do a lot of smearing and blending with my finger... my textile painting technique is part finger painting! You can also brush a darker color, or a different color, on top of what you’ve already painted, and change it somewhat. For example, you can warm up a cool red by painting yellow on top. 

I also use a dry brush technique (with only a tiny bit of paint on the brush) to rub one color on top of another. To add a shadow, for example, I might rub a bit of black on top of a different color. You must use a very firm brush to do this technique. 

What if I want to lighten or darken a big area, like a background, after I’ve finished painting?
I use “washes” to do this. First, I iron my piece to heat set what I’ve already painted. The background needs to be completely dry. Then I mix up a wash – a mixture of the color I want, plus some water and base extender. I use a big brush to wash it over the area I want to ”knock back” – either by lightening it with white/lighter color, or by darkening it with black/darker color. 

Why do I need a palette?
When you paint on fabric, you need to mix all your colors before you apply them to the fabric. 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. I sometimes work for days or weeks on my larger pieces. 

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. I’ve had paint stay fluid and stable for more than a month 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. 

I also don’t hesitate to cut cheap brushes to make them work for my purposes. Get out your little scissors and give them a haircut!

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 you mark your design on the fabric?
When I first started using this technique, I always transferred the design to fabric first. I taped my line drawing under the fabric and traced it lightly with a mechanical pencil (regular “lead”/graphite). Then I removed the line drawing, and taped the fabric down to my work surface and started painting. 

Now, with a lot of experience under my belt, I often just tape the line drawing to the fabric and start painting. This technique has its pros and cons:

1. It is faster (because you skip the tracing step). 
2. If you don’t like to see any pencil lines – and some people, particularly those who are perfectionists, get really upset if any pencil lines show — it eliminates this problem. Pencil lines don’t bother me. Sometimes it adds interest. If they are particularly dark in a light area, I stitch over them to camouflage them. And pencil is an art medium, the same as paint! 

1. If the paint dries before you remove the pattern (which is almost always because it takes me days to paint large pieces), the paper sometimes sticks to the back and comes off in shreds. 
2. If you use diluted paint or really heavy paint application, the moisture will warp your pattern, pulling the fabric with it, resulting in a bubbled, uneven, unstable painting surface like this: 

Bubbled, warped surface

3. Sometimes, it can be hard to see the lines through the fabric, especially if you paint over the lines and then need to go back and refine things and you can’t see the line. If you plan to block in an area with a lighter color and then go back to add darker colors on top, seeing the lines can be critical, and you should use the pencil tracing technique.

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 dedicated “wet studio” where I can leave large painted pieces out to work on, or to dry. For this reason, I often used the peninsula in my old kitchen, which has old laminate countertops that clean up with a soft abrasive cleaner like SoftScrub. I have a bit more room in my new studio! 

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. Recently, I’ve discovered that they are making foam core without the plastic-y coating that made it work so great for this process. Now, it sticks to the paper more, especially if the paint completely dries before you remove it. One solution (for smaller pieces, at least) might be to tape down freezer paper to your work surface first, then tape your fabric down to it. 

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. I wipe it down after removing the dried piece, and use cleaner and water to remove as much paint as I can. 

Do you have a video on wholecloth painting?
Yes! My workshop 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 now only available as an electronic video download; you can purchase it at Quilting

This is the quilt I work on during the Workshop:

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

Can I wash painted pieces?
I don’t, because I make painted art quilts that hang on the wall. Look at the paint manufacturer’s instructions for washing. In most cases you can wash painted fabric, but it will start to fade with repeated washing. 

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. I do usually press the dry painted piece before layering it with batting and backing fabric before quilting it. 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. 

Why paint, rather than make your pieces with fabric?
1. I can get a lot greater detail with paint. 
2. I can create detailed, fussier, more delicate pieces by painting than I could with fabric. 
3. It’s a beautiful (and easier) way to render things like water, reflections, and skies. 
4. I love to paint; it is very meditative. 
5. Using pearlescent/metallic paints, it’s a great way to get shine. 
6. Sometimes, it’s faster to paint than it is to create a piece using fusible appliqué or piecing. 

Why don’t you just paint on canvas?
I get asked this one a lot. But if you look at pieces that are painted, and then look at them after quilting, you’ll know why I do it. The pieces totally transform with stitching. There’s all sorts of delicious texture achieved by stitching. I could never get exact stitched texture on a painted canvas. 

Is it okay to stitch through painted surfaces like this on my home sewing machine?
Yes. Just make sure the paint is completely dry. You will notice that the needle punches holes in the fabric that don't heal up the way stitching through regular (unpainted) fabric does. It also makes more of a popping noise as you stitch. So you might want to use the finest needle that works with your thread. I love the holes, and think they add wonderful extra texture. But it does look somewhat different. I usually use an 80/12 topstitch needle, and 50-weight cotton thread. 

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

Win a copy of Diane’s “Digital Surface Design” DVD

My friend Diane Rusin Doran has a new Quilting Arts Workshop! It is available on DVD or as a digital download, and is called Digital Surface Design: Simple Techniques for Hand-dyed Fabric Effects and More. Here’s your chance to win a copy of the DVD: keep reading, and then leave a comment at the end of this post.

This post is part of Diane’s Blog Hop Giveaway. There will be six winners. Each of the five blog hostesses (including me) will randomly select a winner from the comments on her blog. That person wins a copy of Diane’s DVD. 

A sixth winner will be randomly selected from all the remaining entries to win four fat quarters of fabric Diane designed using techniques from the workshop (oooooh… aaaaaah…):

Win these fabrics made by Diane by commenting on  blogs in this bloghop--see the link below.

This is the first one of Diane’s quilts that I saw in person, in Houston in 2010:

Return of the Grackle by Dian Rusin Doran
I was absolutely blown away. It is called Return of the Grackle, and was created by collaging elements in Photoshop. Because it was printed on silk before quilting, it shimmers, and the colors look very iridescent. One of the things I like best about Diane’s work is that it has great visual appeal from a distance. Luminuous colors, great design elements, movement, depth, and layering … and then you get up close and you are seduced by the wonderful quilting.

Return of the Grackle (detail) by Diane Rusin Doran
This quilt was awarded Third Place in the Digital Imagery category at the 2010 IQA Judged Show in Houston and Third Place Innovative at the 2011 Pennsylvania National Quilt Extravaganza.

Diane’s quilt below is called “California Dreaming,” and is part of of the Dinner at Eight Artists’ “An Exquisite Moment” exhibition (my piece “First Snow” is also in this exhibition).  

California Dreaming by Diane Rusin Doran
California Dreaming (detail) by Diane Rusin Doran

I've already ordered Diane's first video workshop...this new one has whet my desire to play!Diane’s first DVD is Digital Collage for Quilt Design from Start to Finish. You can see more of her work and read about her process on her blog, Ooh! Pretty Colors.
Diane’s new DVD focuses on how to create digital art cloth that she uses in her work. Just what is “digital art cloth”? Well, it is cloth created on the computer that is designed to look like it was created using traditional surface design techniques such as hand-dyeing, drip-dyeing, painting, low-water emersion dyeing, stamping, stenciling, discharging and screen printing. 

Diane walks you step-by-step through her process, using Photoshop Elements (the inexpensive version of Photoshop), so that even a beginner can achieve great results. I already know a fair amount about Photoshop, but even I learned some new tricks. My biggest revelation: there are things I’ve been wanting to try, but have shied away because of the mess and the chemicals. Watching this DVD made me realize that I can achieve these effects without the mess, a ton of practice, and stress. 

After you design fabulous original fabric, you can either print it out on your own printer, or have it printed at a service like

Want a sneak peek? Here’s a video preview!

I’m giving away a DVD download of Diane’s new Workshop. Leave a comment after this post and tell me a little bit about why you’d like to win. Please leave me a way to contact you! I’ll pull one name at random at noon, Tuesday, Jan. 28. The winner will be announced at the end of this post on that day. I’ll also pick a second person to be eligible to win some of Diane’s custom-designed cloth. (You can read about it on her post). That drawing will take place on Diane’s blog. Note: If your comment does not show up right away, please don’t freak out. Please post only one comment. I now have to moderate/approve all comments, because I was getting a ton of Japanese porn spammers leaving comments on my blog!

Here’s the entire Blog Hop schedule; leave a comment on each blogger’s post about the DVD for more chances to win.
Jan.14 – Candy Glendening - 
Jan. 16 – Sarah Ann Smith - 
Jan. 21 – Deborah Boschert - 
Jan. 24 – Susan Brubaker Knapp -
Jan. 28 – Diane Rusin Doran -

We have a winner!
Cathy in gorgeous Sonoma County has won the Workshop, and Debbie Jones’ name is going into the hat for a chance to win Diane’s fabric!