Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Painting fabric

One of the great pleasures of my life is painting on fabric. It's really a Zen kind of thing to do! You become totally absorbed in the pretty things you're making, and before you know it, time has flown past and you discover you should have been somewhere else half an hour ago. It's also surprisingly quick to do, if you only have a short time available, assuming you remember to set a timer a little while before you need to stop! Finishing that last little bit and washing everything up does take extra time.

My favourite way of painting is making paint rags. OK, so maybe they aren't always strictly speaking paint rags, but the best way I know to start a creative work is to browse my paint rag collection.

For example, Fibrecircle's latest challenge is Forest. Actually, it's my challenge choice and I chose it because I thought it was easy! We've had a few that were fairly challenging, and everyone moaned. But perhaps, with challenge themes, it's necessary to moan about it a bit before getting started, because that's what everyone did about this one, too. I didn't have a plan when I picked the theme, though I did discover, once I went to visit the paint rag folders, that several had been earmarked, at some vague date in the past, for a Forest series. And when I used Forest as a subject tag here, all these other Forest works came up.  Is it clever to work in a series and not even realise it, or does it just show a lack of imagination?

Anyway, I thought I'd share something of the process of making something with my paint rags, to encourage other people to have a go at painting on fabric. So here's my personal "how to paint on fabrics".

First of all, I had some neutral-coloured quilters muslin, which I'd pre-washed. I like quilters muslin to paint on, because it has a fairly high thread count, without being stiff or heavy. That means that my painted fabric can be used in all different ways, in garments, quilts, handbags, wall art and so on, so I'm not limiting myself too much at the outset. It also comes in 150cm width, which makes it economical and useful on a larger scale. You can also use homespun or broadcloth, although I'm not keen on the extra thickness and occasional nubs in the cloth, and mostly it's only 115cm wide. The important thing, with whatever fabric you use, is to wash it thoroughly first to remove any sizing. Most fabrics have been treated with something to make them less likely to crush and crumple while they're being displayed, and some will still have products, like formaldehyde, left over from the printing process.

My piece of cloth was used initially as a paint rag, to clean up after another painting session. It might sound weird to use good cloth for paint rags, but how often have you seem a wonderful pattern on a paint rag, but the cloth is old sheet or shirting or a worn tea towel or some other fabric that isn't suitable for your purpose?  Anyway, here's what my fabric looked like after its first few uses as a paint rag:
OK, pretty boring, right? It's been used at least twice as a paint mop-up rag (see the stronger opaque red over the top of the blue?). The pink-beige colour is probably left over transparent paint from another later project, which has been washed over it to cut back the cream background. It was around in that incarnation for a while, until I decided to add some line, to help it on its way.
I used a mixture of Sharpie and Pigma pens. I started out drawing along lines of high contrast, like around the red and yellow areas and the dark browns. Then I could see there were elements of a forest scene emerging (OK, I admit it, my brain is fixated on forests. So there. ....How weird, several kookaburras just started laughing loudly in my backyard. Dead set. So maybe I am being subliminally influenced by birds?) Anyway, I drew other lines to try to encourage that effect, and stopped when I'd had enough.

Then it sat in my folder for a while longer, until this challenge came up. I mined the folders for ideas and this one leapt out, probably because it was further advanced than anything else and I'm basically lazy. I hauled out my Setacolor paints again.

An aside about paints. You can use a lot of things on fabric and get good, fast effects. Fastness means the way it will stay on the fabric, and there are two main aspects, wash fastness and light fastness, though there are other issues (crocking or rubbing, fastness to perspiration and so on). Wash fastness means it won't wash out the first time you wet it and will tend to stay put over repeated washings; light fastness means you don't have to keep it in a dark cupboard to make sure the colour stays put *over a reasonable period of time*. The *reasonable period of time* can be quite variable for commercial fabrics, and may mean just a few trips through the washing machine or visits to the great outdoors. And wash fastness and light fastness are separate issues, as being fast in one way does not automatically means it will be fast in the other. But I digress. In short, you want to use products that have a reasonable likelihood of staying on your work, long enough for people to enjoy it.

Ordinary acrylic paints actually have quite good wash fastness, as anyone who's ever tried to get paint of their clothes will tell you! But, if you want to use up those acrylic paints you have lying around, it's safer to add the same brand fabric additive, to ensure the medium is going to stay where you put it, even if the work goes through the washing machine. I never know what my rags will be used for, so I tend to err on the side of caution.

Specialist fabric paints are really the best, though. They have come a long way since they turned everything you painted into cardboard. I personally like Setacolor, made by Pebeo, because the painted fabric has a nice hand, they last well without going gluggy, they mix well, come in transparent, opaque and metallic, and I can buy them easily, in person and online. I'm also partial to Lumiere paints from Jacquard, because they have a fabulous range of metallic ones that are different to the Setacolors, and they have lovely dense coverage over all manner of sins. But they are more expensive than Setacolor, so I tend to focus on the ones that are different to Setacolor's range. For screen printing and stamping, I like Permaset, since it's water soluble until it cures and is heat set, making clean-up a doddle. But there are many other products around. The best way to decide which you like the best is to try out a few different ones and see what appeals to you.

The essential thing to know about fabric paints is that they are usually heat-set. That means they are not necessarily wash-fast on your fabric, unless you heat them to the specifications listed on the product. Usually a few minutes of ironing is all you need. Fabric paints will air-cure over time, but it's best not to rely on it.

OK, back to our Forest piece. I decided it needed some areas to be enhanced to make it really forest-like. So I painted some areas in green.
OK, that's a lie already. I painted it in many greens. Basically, I put red, blue and yellow transparent paint on my palette and mixed different greens as I went along. "Red?" you say. "But isn't green made from blue and yellow?" Well, yes and no. Try it sometime. Take equal amounts of standard mid-range blue and yellow and mix them into a green. OK, that's definitely green. Now take a little bit of red and mix it in. Is it still green? Usually, the answer would be yes, a slightly browny green but still green. You can add a surprising amount of red to your 50/50 green before it become a definite brown. Remember how red, blue and yellow mixed together make brown? Yeah, I figured you knew that one, because murky brown is the easiest colour of all to mix!

I also wanted to add some strong browns to my forest. Forests are not all green, least of all Australian forests, which can be surprisingly colourful. That wasn't my only reason, though. One thing guaranteed to make your painted fabric look blah is to have everything in a medium value/tone. Tone is generally an undervalued thing in the textile world. Quilters call it Value, because, hey, we've got to be different. If you look at a quilt with real wow factor, usually it has some strong tonal contrasts happening. Some areas are light and some are dark. Tone is always relative, so your darks don't have to be really strong or your lights equivalent to white. But, just as in a quilt, you need some of that contrast to give the painted fabric life. You probably can't see them in the photo, but this fabric also has a few tiny areas of bright white, which add a little zing and stop it all falling into medium tone.

The browns I mixed for this fabric tended towards blue a little, because I wanted them to be mostly greyed and muted, in keeping with the palette that was there. I didn't want my forest to be autumnal. There are a few very small areas of red-brown, again, to add a bit of zing.

When I finished, I used up the rest of my paints on the palette on these paint rags:

and this was the clean-up rag:
Yes, I've noticed that I generate more paint rags than I use! Actually, this project is also using up a couple of other paint rags from the folders, so I don't actually get smothered by pieces of cloth.

All these paints are transparent. That doesn't really mean you can see through them; it means that when you paint them over the top of another colour, the result will be a different colour to the one you painted with. So if you paint transparent yellow over blue, you won't get yellow, you'll get a greenish-yellow. I really like using transparent paints for this kind of purpose, because it results in very interesting, complex pieces of cloth. Sometimes, when I'm doing a final paint, as for this Forest piece, I would use opaque paints instead, because it would really matter what colour I ended up with. I'd want my yellow to stay yellow, no matter what was underneath. In this context, it didn't, and having the paint change colour according to the underneath colour actually added something to the forest scene, since things in nature are never just one colour. It's something worth experimenting with, because, after all, you can always overpaint with opaque paint if you don't like the result!
More about Forest soon...