Learn the art of t-shirt painting with this easy tutorial. The t-shirt had humble beginnings as a navy, all in one, undergarment. It has risen to fame over the years to become one of the most popular forms of clothing. Decorated, printed, or painted, embellished t-shirts are everywhere! Painting your own t-shirt is a great form of self-expression and an enjoyable craft for kids.
Supplies for T-Shirt Painting
- Fabric paint
- Waxed paper
- Cardboard or something stiff to insert into the t-shirt
- Folded paper towel or any absorbent material
Best T-shirts for Painting
Check the quality of your t-shirt. It should be as close to 100% cotton as possible. If you do need to choose a blended t-shirt, a 90% cotton, and 10% synthetic is the best proportion.
White t-shirts are the best to paint as they will result in vibrant clear colors. Keep in mind that colored t-shirts will alter some paint colors. For example, if you paint blue on a yellow t-shirt it may show as green. One way around this is to choose paints that are extremely pigmented and opaque.
Black t-shirts can be used but rely on the careful selection of paint colors. Brighter or lighter colors show up best on black. If you have a dense design, you could paint white underneath it before using colors. When marking your design, use white chalk.
Best Paint to Use for T-shirt Painting
- Fabric Paints - The best paints are specifically designed for fabrics. These fabric paints are vibrant and washable and come in a variety of finishes including opaque, translucent, metallic and even puffy. My favorite brands are Tulip and Jacquard.
- Acrylic Paints - Ordinary acrylic paint can be transformed into fabric paint with the addition of a textile medium which gives it flexibility and durability. Without the addition of the specialized textile medium the paint would crack as well as fade in the wash. Mix your textile medium and acrylic paint together. Read the label for the amount needed. The medium also helps with making the acrylic paint more flexible and easier to work with.
T-Shirt Painting Tips
Painting a t-shirt may seem simple - you have the shirt and you are just going to apply some paint, and that will be your design! However, it is best to consider these tips before starting out:
- PROTECT - A piece of card inserted into the shirt will make sure your paint medium does not seep through onto the other side. If you don't have any cardboard, insert a thick magazine. Be mindful of keeping the surface area clean especially when white t-shirts are involved.
- TEST - The markers or medium you are using to paint with need to be tried out on a scrap or old t-shirt first. Always test before applying it to your new or favorite shirt.
- BE PATIENT - Multi-layered designs need to dry between colors to prevent the bleeding or blending or colors you did not intend to mix.
- IRONING - When heat sealing the paint with an iron, use a piece of cotton fabric over the painted area to prevent the paint from staining your iron. Alternatively, turn the shirt inside out and iron the back.
- PREWASH - Pre wash any new t-shirts to prepare them for fabric painting. New t-shirts can have chemicals in them that prevent the paints from penetrating.
How to Paint a T-Shirt - 4 Ways
There are several different ways to approach t-shirt painting. There is freehand painting, stencil painting, and the option of sketching a design of your own with fabric markers.
Freehand T-Shirt Painting
Here are the steps to take to paint a t-shirt with a freehand design:
Step 1 - Preparation
Get all your materials together and pre-wash your shirt. Cut out the cardboard and insert it into your shirt.
Step 2 - Draw the Design
Find some inspiration for your design. A good idea is to draw it on paper first so you can use it as a guide for the design you are planning to paint freehand. Choose a simple shape or design for your first time.
Step 3 - Outlines
Mix an outline color such as black and begin to draw the outline onto the t-shirt. If you don't want heavy outlines, just mark your design with chalk or a removable fabric pen. You can also do a temporary outline and then a heavier black one after the fill colors. You can see it was done this way in the photo example above. The important thing is to mark your shape.
Step 4 - Fill With Color
Fill in the colors and detail of the design from the inside of the design to the outline. While you are applying the paint, stretch the fabric gently to pull at the weave and let the paint penetrate the fabric. The design can be one color or you can build up to more colors, it is entirely up to you. Adding a little water can help with spreading the fabric paint if it is too thick. Be conservative because if you add too much water and the color is too liquid, it tends to bleed into the fabric. Use a paper towel to help dab or mop up paint that may be too runny.
You may need to touch up your outlines after completing your fill colors. Alternatively, if you just used chalk for the outlines, now is the time to add some contrast.
Step 5 - Optional Background Colors
An optional feature is to add a pale background color wash. Add some color to the background by watering down the paint and lightly brushing it over the t-shirt design. It is important that the original color is dry first. The wet brush must move very lightly over the design. It is advisable to try this out on a scrap before applying it to the painted t-shirt.
Step 6 - Heat Setting
After the paint is completely dry, iron the painted area following the directions on the label of the textile medium or fabric paint. Generally, you will use a hot iron and a pressing cloth in between and repeatedly press down. The pressing cloth is important as touching the paint directly with the iron can cause some transfer and can mark or ruin your iron.
Stencil T-Shirt Painting
Another technique for t-shirt painting to use is a fabric stencil. A stencil may be store-bought or you may cut out your own stencil. Either way, a stencil is useful for the beginner who does not feel quite so confident to transfer a freehand design onto a t-shirt and paint it.
Supplies for T-Shirt Stenciling
Have the same supplies ready and a stencil you have made or bought. You will also need a stencil brush to put the paint into the stencil. An alternative to a brush is a piece of sponge to dab on the paint. Masking tape and a roller could be useful depending on the design.
Step 1 - Choose a Design
Choose your stencil design. A simple one is best for a starter. If you are making your own, draw and cut out your design from paper or special stencil paper. Artists' vellum or cardboard works well too.
Step 2 - Preparation
Decide on where your stencil is going to fit on your shirt. Prepare your shirt with a piece of cardboard inserted inside to prevent paint from seeping through to both sides. Coat the stencil with some re-positional spray adhesive and this will enable you to use the stencil multiple times. Masking tape may also help to position the stencil and keep it secure.
Step 3 - Apply Paint
Apply the paint in the stencil by dabbing it into the design with a sponge or a stiff stenciling brush. Move the stencil if your design has repeats. Rolling over the stencil with a sponge roller is another way of applying the color to the stencil design.
Step 4 - Heat Seal
Heat seal your design in the same way you did for the freehand painting. Don't forget your pressing cloth!
The beauty of using a stencil is you can repeat the design several times and create continuous patterns and overlapped effects. A stencil allows you to cut out letters and shapes and personalize your t-shirt too.
More Ways to Paint a T-Shirt
Freezer Paper Stencils for T-Shirt Painting
Freezer paper is useful for transferring designs because it is translucent like tracing paper and it cuts very well with a craft knife. Freezer paper may go through your printer to transfer a computerized design onto the paper.
- CUT THE DESIGN - Cut out the design using a small, sharp craft knife. A good quality cutting board makes this process easier. Once you have cut out the design, iron the freezer paper onto the t-shirt. A second piece of freezer paper ironed onto the back of the T-shirt prevents the paint from seeping through to the other side of the shirt.
- TRANSFER THE DESIGN - Transfer the design onto the t-shirt using a soft pencil or removable fabric pen. You could even outline the design with a fine tip fabric pen. This outline gives you the boundaries to color in after removing the stencil. Color in your design or letters with paint or fabric markers.
- HEAT SEAL - Heat seal the design with an iron using a pressing cloth. Make sure the paint is dry before adding the heat process.
Fabric Marker T-Shirt Painting
Another alternative to acrylic paints is to use fabric markers. The markers are easy to use and are specially designed for t-shirt painting. Remember to choose fabric suited to fabric pens and in the case of a t-shirt, 100% cotton in a light or white color is best.
Steps to create a t-shirt painted with fabric markers:
- PPREPARATION - Pre-wash your t-shirt ready to receive the markers. Prepare your working area at the same time and place cardboard inside the t-shirt so the design does not transfer through.
- DRAWING - Choose and plan your design. There are many designs to choose from online or draw freehand if you feel confident. Freezer paper makes a good basic stencil. The shiny side sticks to the fabric when it is ironed and the transparency of the freezer paper makes it easy to trace on designs. If you are using a stencil, use the markers to color inside the guides.
T-Shirt Painting - In Conclusion
Your personalized, painted t-shirt, should now be ready to wear. You can spell out your favorite slogan, create a pretty picture or draw an emblem you like. A painted t-shirt can be worn at your favorite holiday destination or just to support your local soccer club. Create something unique, colorful, and trendy today with t-shirt painting.