How To Seal Acrylic Paint on Denim (and Other Fabrics)

How To Seal Acrylic Paint on Denim

Painting denim and other fabrics is a lot of fun. I have a 22-year-old twill chair that I can’t bear to get rid of that is going to be updated with paint (once I finally settle on the design). You can also paint clothing of all kinds.

Denim is especially great to paint because it provides a great canvas on which to work since denim and canvas are very similar in weave. Whether you are painting a chair or a pair of jeans, the only way to make that acrylic paint permanent is to heat set it. Yep – you’re going to iron your design.

Related: How To Permanently Shrink Denim Jeans For a Perfect Fit (8 Methods)

Denim Apparel

In the case of denim apparel, apply heat to the back side of the design. You will press directly onto the back of the area where you painted. Your paint must be good and dry before you heat press your design. When you think it’s dry, when it feels dry to the touch, give it another day to cure just to make sure. If some areas of the painting are thick, maybe add another day to that. 

You don’t have to buy an expensive heat press for this process, either. Your regular iron will do. Preheat it to a medium setting then start ironing. After ironing the backside of the entire design several times with the medium-hot iron, I like to go back and increase the heat for one last all-over blast. Allow the denim item to cool before touching it. Denim tends to hold heat, as does acrylic paint.

Denim Upholstry

Obviously, I won’t be able to turn my chair inside out to iron it. If you are painting denim upholstery, you have a couple of options.For one, you just press right on top of your paint. Once again, preheat to a medium setting. Instead of using a back and forth ironing motion, just hold the iron for a few seconds on top of the paint. Be sure to place your iron on all areas of the design. Because I can’t trust myself not to iron once I put an iron in my hand, I like to use a large handkerchief as a pressing cloth. It allows me to iron back and forth and eliminates my fear of scorching the fabric or not keeping the heat on my paint long enough.

Denim Shoes

Applying heat is the best way to set the painted designs on denim shoes. After allowing the heated shoes to completely dry, give the designs a good spritz of waterproofing spray. A little goes a long way, so don’t saturate the shoe.

Fabric Paint vs Acrylic Paint

If you were to squirt a couple of dots of each on a pallet, you can see the difference immediately. Acrylic paint is so much thicker. If you paint denim (or any other fabric) with straight acrylic paint, you will get a very thick, very hard-drying design. To soften the design and to keep the fabric’s flexibility, you must add a fabric painting medium.

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It also helps prevent the cracking that would eventually occur if painted with just straight acrylic paint. The medium does not alter the color of your paint, it just provides a better adherence that pulls some of the pigment into the fibers instead of the paint just lying on top of it. (If you are searching for a fabric painting medium in your local craft store, you can find it in the fabric paint section.)

Many crafters and fabric artists use acrylic paint instead of fabric paint simply because acrylic has a wider variety of color options available. Once you add the fabric medium, you’ve created your own fabric paint but you have much more color variety than you can usually find in fabric paints.

Aen Art Acrylic Paint Set
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Cost-wise, you can buy acrylic paint sets cheaper than many fabric paint sets, especially if you watch for sales. The fabric paint does not require the addition of a fabric medium, but a bottle of medium can be used for all your paints and is not very expensive. Just weigh your options – is color variety more important to you or do you want to skip the fabric medium step. If variety is important, choose acrylic and add your own medium. If you don’t want to deal with that extra step, opt for fabric paints.

Related: How To Wash Fabric Paint Off Clothes (Step-by-Step)

Tips and Tricks for Sealing Acrylic Paint on Denim

  • Don’t rely on a dryer cycle to heat-set your painted denim. I get it. Nobody really loves ironing, but tossing your painted denim apparel into the dryer does not guarantee that all areas of the painted design will get an equal amount of heat. 
  • Adjust the amount of fabric medium  you use based on the weight of the fabric on which you are painting. For example, a heavy denim can hold a thicker paint than lightweight denim. Since the lightweight denim needs more flow, adding a little more fabric medium to your acrylic paint will lighten the density of your paint and allow the fabric to maintain its flexibility.
  • Experiment with your paint on a small piece of denim to see how it dries. You can adjust the thickness by adding more or less fabric medium.
  • If you are painting sleeves on a denim shirt or jacket, or legs on jeans, add a layer of papers between the sleeve or leg to prevent your paint from soaking through to the other side. I use old magazines or advertising circulars that I have around the house. You can also use a sheet of aluminum foil, wax paper, or parchment paper.
  • If you want to add large bleached out elements around your painted design, add them before painting the area. Launder the denim completely before painting. To help plan your bleached areas, pencil a draft of the design you are painting onto the denim, then add bleach accordingly.  If you want to add small bleach elements, you can do that after your painting is complete and heat set. You will need to launder your denim before wearing it.
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