Hand painting your own custom graphic tees
March 16, 2012 12:47 PM   Subscribe

What are the best paints and other supplies for creating your own graphic tees/t-shirt art? Where can I buy the soft, plain tees for it?

I want to hand paint my own graphic tees, and want to know the best supplies to use, and cheapest sources for them so that they look professional. The ideas and artistic design part is easy for me, but I'm totally inexperienced working with fabric!

I bought some Deco Sosoft fabric paints and a couple of fitted cotton tees, but am wondering what the cheapest way of obtaining these supplies is, whether I could be using better quality paints (i.e. paints that remain soft on tees, paints that don't chip in the wash, more vibrant colors, etc).

Also, I'm wondering what the different techniques and media are that people use to get certain looks. There's a watercolory wash look that stains the fabric that I'd like to be able to do. I can't get that sheer, delicate effect with matte fabric paints, right? Suggestions for techniques to explore would be appreciated.

Finally, I have some specific questions about supplies:

1. Where can I get a super shiny, smooth-looking metallic paint? Is it possible to get that wet, glistening look of a silver screen print using a fabric paint? The silver metallic paint I got was not very reflective or smooth looking when I tried it on a cotton shirt.

2. Where can I buy soft, fitted tees for cheap? I found some fitted cotton tees at the craft store, but the cotton feels a little rough and sturdy vs the tissue weight feel of a graphic tee. And the seams were noticeably shoddy and uneven.

3. Which brushes/sponges/stencils for transferring the paint on to the fabric are the most useful? What about fabric markers/dyes/etc?
posted by sunnychef88 to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (2 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Yay! T-shirt painting is fun! I have done a fair bit (not so much recently, sadly) of shirt stenciling, and there are a few tips/preferences I've picked up...

Kind of paint
My favorite fabric paint is Jacquard brand. It comes in a whole lot of colors, blends well, is opaque, and not fussy to use. They also have a whole line of metallic colors, but I've never used them myself. (Based on my results from the stuff I've used, though, I have to assume they're pretty good.) Make sure you follow the instructions carefully (e.g. pre-wash and dry the shirt so it won't shrink up later, heat-set the paint, etc). You can find it at pretty much any art store (like Blick), but craft stores like Michael's and Jo-Ann usually have it, too.

Sourcing t-shirts
I would not buy your t-shirts at a craft store. Of course they're going to be crappy quality--they're there as an impulse buy to crafters. If you want clothes, go to someone who sells clothing. There are a lot of online shops that bulk-purchase t-shirts and piece them out to single buyers for cheap. This way, you can get wholesale prices without buying a lot of 500. My old favorite site no longer exists, but I think the same folks run blankapparel.com. Back in the day, they had American Apparel shirts on there (say what you want about the shadiness of the brand, but the t-shirts are quite nice), but that seems to no longer be the case. I understand wanting to be able to feel the fabric and check the quality in person before you buy, but when they sell for 3 bucks or less a shirt, you're not investing too much if it turns out to be something you don't like.

I strongly recommend only getting 100% cotton, as synthetics and blends don't always play nicely with the paint.

My personal suggestion for how you should proceed is to find a style/brand of shirt that you like, and then just buy a bunch of white ones. Dyeing fabric is extremely easy and a whole lot of fun. I have boxes of basic blue, red, and yellow RIT powder dye, and from those I've mixed a whole rainbow of colors, tailored to fit whatever design I'm putting on the shirt.

I would also suggest getting a few in a variety of sizes so if you need to knock out a quick birthday present or something, you don't have to go shopping and buy a shirt at full price.

The process
I'm not sure what exactly you're planning to do (stenciling? hand painting? both?) but I've had a lot of great results using freezer paper stencils. You can't reuse them, so if it's a design you plan to put on multiple shirts you should look into other options, but they can produce stunning results for very, very low cost. There are a number of good tutorials online for freezer paper stencils; here's an excellent one.

If you're stenciling, use a stenciling brush. I have two sizes: one half inch diameter, for big areas, and one small one (maybe a quarter inch), for edge work. When you're stenciling, you want to dab up and down, and never brush it on, so you get a solid coverage.

For hand painting, I just use a set of mid-quality paintbrushes, nothing fancy, and it seems to work out just fine.

And have fun! Feel free to memail me with any questions.

A few of mine!
posted by phunniemee at 1:57 PM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

one of jacquard's fabric paint lines is called 'dye-na-flow', which you can use to get more of a watercolor wash effect. if you're using cotton fabric, their procion mx cold-water dyes are also very nice.

the jacquard website also has good, fairly active forums.

another technique you may be interested in is heat transfer vinyl, which could be a good way to get the metallic effect you mentioned.

(disclaimer: the art supply store i own sells a lot of jacquard's products.)
posted by jimw at 3:13 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

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