Watercolor Paint on Fabric

While paper is the obvious and traditional surface for many art media, it’s far from being the only one! Fabric is a cool alternative surface to work with that can introduce so many surprises and new possibilities, especially with watercolor paint.

However, an inevitable question arises – Will watercolor paint stay on fabric?

Artist painting fabric with watercolor paint

In this article, we delve into the heart of this question, exploring the challenges, techniques, and surprising potential of using watercolor on fabric.

Understanding Watercolor Paint

Egyptians used watercolor paint on papyrus (sort of like thick paper). It’s an incredibly old medium that wasn’t widely used until the 19th century, at which time many papers of differing levels of absorbency and roughness came onto the market. Because of its non-toxic, accessible, and portable qualities, it’s remained an incredibly popular way to make art since then.

Composition: What’s in Watercolor Paint?

To understand how watercolor interacts with different surfaces, we need to get an idea of its composition. Typically, watercolor paint is made from a pigment dissolved in water with a binder such as gum arabic. There aren’t any oils in watercolor.

The composition of watercolor means that it dries fairly quickly and has a lovely transparent and luminescent look, which can be manipulated through the pigment-to-water ratio. Artists often opt for thick and absorbent paper for watercolor since the surface can get quite wet and potentially warp.

For example, one watercolor technique is to pull up water and/or pigment with something like a paper towel while the surface is still wet. An absorbent paper allows for this without damage to the surface.

Will Watercolor Paint Stay on Fabric?

There are definitely some unique challenges that watercolor presents. While watercolor can definitely stay on fabric for a long time, we need to take special considerations.

Not all fabrics are created the same. For watercolor painting, we will want to choose a light-colored natural fabric. Natural fibers—such as linen, muslin, and cotton—generally don’t have the extra chemicals that many synthetic fibers, such as polyester, have. Therefore, the paint will set better because there aren’t extra materials to cooperate with. Many synthetic fibers, like spandex, have more of a stretch, which will distort the watercolor imagery.

Additionally, we want a fabric with enough thickness to hold the paint and tightly woven enough that the pigment can easily spread.

Although artists have long favored paper for watercolor, it is possible to experiment with watercolor on fabric—albeit with a bit more consideration! For example, when using paper, we can use however much or little water desired. On fabric, we need to use more water and will generally have less control over how the pigment spreads on the surface.

Fabric Poses Challenges

Unfortunately, the technique of pulling or scrubbing water from the surface isn’t really possible with fabric. But with those limitations comes a whole new world of experimentation!

Another important factor is that, we normally display paper artwork flat, whether it’s in a sketchbook or on a wall. In contrast, watercolor on fabric could potentially have more wear and tear if used for home decor or even clothes and have a 3-dimensional shape.

No matter the material, it’s a good idea to wash it beforehand. This will help eliminate any first marks, starch, or even some chemicals before applying watercolor—you definitely don’t want random debris or stains on your surface!

We don’t want to use anything other than watercolor, fabric medium, potentially a drying agent, and water when applying (not oils or other media, as these may be completely incompatible with watercolor and cause separation).

Possible Ways to Use Watercolors on Fabric

Generally, watercolor on fabric is best suited for more decorative, low-use purposes. For example,  decorative pillows or tapestries could be lovely fabric watercolor projects.

However, there are ways to increase the durability of watercolor paints on fabric. For example, we can combine with a fabric medium, which is a substance added to paint to make it better suited to fabric. Specifically, it reduces cracking and peeling after washing. It can be used with many different kinds of paint—we highly suggest using some fabric medium as it will allow your project to withstand much more wear!

Often, the fabric medium appears opaque white, but it won’t affect the final color. We suggest having a few different cups set up on a workstation: one for the water for use with the watercolor paint and another for water mixed with fabric medium (2 parts water for 1 part medium is a good rule of thumb). First, create imagery on the fabric using pigment and water, and then go back over with the water-medium solution and let it set in. Use different brushes.

We can also mix your fabric medium with watercolor paint—however, using a disposable palette is a good idea for this approach, as fabric medium can be hard to remove! The downside to this approach is that you need to mix all the colors with fabric paint separately (as opposed to applying them to the fabric and covering it with the water-fabric medium mixture). That’s where personal preference comes in!

Lastly, apply heat using an iron when you’re finished—check the fabric medium for specific instructions for the product you’re using.

Wet-on-wet is a common technique for paper watercolor, and it’s definitely applicable to fabric too. We suggest wetting the fabric beforehand to help the pigment spread and bind with the fabric. Lightly dampening the fabric with a spray bottle is a great way to do this. Getting it really wet beforehand may result in a very blended ombré appearance (the more water used will generally achieve lighter and more blended colors). Leaving it less wet will most likely leave the marks more defined.

Alternatives to Watercolor for Fabric

Although watercolors can be used on fabrics with some attention, there are other options to make beautiful art on fabric.

Acrylic paints and fabric paints are two great options; they can even create watercolor-like effects. For example, we can dilute acrylic paint with water to create a wash, which will achieve watercolor’s transparent look. Using various washes, we can make colors blend into each other in that soft, lovely way that watercolors do. However, using acrylic paint on its own may result in more cracking and peeling over time, so it’s good to think about using some sort of fabric medium with it.

There are also fabric-specific paints. These are generally also going to be acrylic paints but with fabric-friendly qualities—but are more durable to withstand washing, regular use, and light. This is a good all-in-one option. Lastly, there are also fabric markers with finer tips to achieve a more detailed image!

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, while watercolor paint may not be the traditional choice for fabric, adventurous exploration can yield surprising and beautiful results. We believe that experimentation is what makes art fun, and watercolor is one of the most flexible mediums to try new things with! When messing around with watercolor, we can try new techniques and even embrace “mistakes” to discover surprising and beautiful results.

Remember, the key lies in selecting the right fabric, preparing it correctly, and considering using a fabric medium. So, embrace the unpredictability of the process, let your creativity flow, and redefine the boundaries of watercolor art.