Fabric Painting Tip: Don’t Go Near the Water – Quilting Daily

surface design with fabric painting
Surface design on fabric by Maggie Weiss, from Art Cloth.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in the midst of a good surface design session, blissfully working with fabric paint, masks, screens, stamps, etc., to create your own textiles.

Then you decide you want the paint effects to be more sheer, or lighter in color, so you add water.


I’ve done this, and while I didn’t necessarily have a disaster on my hands, I didn’t get the effect I had wanted to achieve. The better way to change the color or consistency of textile paint is to use an extender, as explained by surface design guru extraordinare Jane Dunnewold in her book Art Cloth: A Guide to Surface Design for Fabric, which is one of my all-time favorites.

To alter the characteristics of a paint, it may seem like a good idea to water down thicker paint, rather than investing in another product, but it’s a false economy. Watercolor-weight paints are designed to stay in suspension, which means the pigment won’t separate from the liquid binder and sink to the bottom of the container.

Watering down thick paint leads to separation of pigment and binder resulting from the added water. It’s a fast way to clog a spray bottle and also problematic during printing, when the added water has a tendency to leech away from the printed pigment and halo around it.

Textile paint extender is a product that can be used to make transparent color more sheer, or opaque paint lighter in color. Extender consists of paint base or binder, minus the pigment.

There are several varieties of extender, and each is related to a particular paint type.

Translucent extender dries clear and matte on the surface of the cloth.

Opaque extender dries opaque white.

Metallic extender is a translucent binder with metallic components but no pigment.

surface design with fabric painting
Surface design on fabric by Karen
Harrison, in Art Cloth.

Extender is useful because it can be mixed into any pigmented paint. Adding binder without pigment stretches the amount of pigment over more volume and makes color sheerer (in the case of translucent paint) without actually thinning the paint. If the goal is a sheer glaze of color, extender is a better choice than adding water and running the risk of separation or haloing. Adding extender to opaque paint makes the color lighter rather than sheerer. Adding metallic extender maintains the metallic quality of the surface while lightening the overall color of the original paint.

Since extenders are all related, they can be intermixed with each other and with all of the other paints. For example, if the opaque paint on my shelf is too thick for the fabric I intend to print, I can add translucent extender to it. The paint will still be a great consistency for printing, but it won’t be quite as opaque and heavy as it was originally.

Manufacturers specializing in paints other than textile paints sell a “textile medium” and promote adding it to acrylic paint to make the paint suitable for fabric. In general, this is not a good idea. It might be fine for T-shirt printing, but if your interests run to refined printed imagery on high-end fabrics, the effect will be inferior. Choose the best textile paint and paint extenders that you can afford. It does make a difference!

It’s no wonder Jane is able to take relatively simple surface design techniques and create the most amazing textiles. Her expertise is laid out clearly and beautifully in Art Cloth, now available as a downloadable eBook.

P.S. Do you use extender in your textile paints or just go with water? Has it made a difference? Tell me about your experience in the comments section below.

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