How to Paint a T-Shirt from Freehand to Stencils

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Have you ever wanted a shirt of a specific design, maybe of your fandom or favourite bands, but there isn’t one in the market? You can easily paint a T-shirt to customise it using this guide on how to paint a t-shirt! I will detail all the possible ways you can paint a shirt from freehand to stencils and the best paint for the job!

Read on to find out more!

How to paint on fabric

What you’ll need

  1. Plain T-shirt (You can get cheap ones from Amazon here).

  2. Cardboard (At least A4 size) or rough paper to stuff inside the shirt & protect the work area

  3. Iron to seal the paint

  4. Picture Reference

  5. Permanent marker/Fabric marker (Optional)

    This would be great for outlining the design.

    Paint – Now here you can choose if you want to use fabric paint, acrylic paint or spray paint. Here are the things you should take note when choosing the paint for T-shirts.

Which Paint Can I Use for T-Shirt?

  1. Fabric paint

    This is a no-brainer. The best paint for T-shirt is, of course, fabric paint that is designed specifically for that material. I would recommend FolkArt for beginners who are just trying out fabric paint for the first time and Arteza for those who are embarking on many fabric painting projects.

  1. Acrylic paint with textile medium

    Depending on the brand of the textile medium, you generally will have to mix 1 part acrylic paint with 2 parts textile medium.

    I know you might be tempted to just use acrylic paint on the T-shirt without any textile medium, but hear me out. When dried, acrylic paint becomes stiff and is more prone to flaking off. How the textile medium works is that it makes the acrylic paint more flexible in a way so that the T-shirt doesn’t become stiff.

  2. Fabric Spray paint

    This is great if you will be using stencils for your design! But remember, you need proper ventilation when you spray paint!

Prep your T-shirt

This is the same process as how you prep any other fabric for painting. If you are new to fabric painting, check out my bite-sized guide on fabric painting which will take you less than 10 minutes to read!

Here is an excerpt from the post:

What do I need to do with the fabric before painting it?

  1. Some fabrics might shrink after washing and requires prewashing to prevent that. But how do we check if a fabric needs prewashing?

    Rule of thumb: Sprinkle a few drops of water on the fabric. If the water beads up on the surface of the fabric, it needs prewashing. If the water gets absorbed in the fabric, it’s READY to be painted on.

  2. Don’t add any chemicals to it, such as a fabric softener.

  3. Iron the fabric to get rid of any wrinkles.

  4. Insert a cardboard/plastic/ sheets of loose paper inside the shirt so the paint doesn’t seep through onto the other layers of fabric.

How to paint on T-shirt freestyle

How to draw on fabric

  1. Sketch out the outline of your desired design in pencil.

  2. If you are going to paint on a black shirt, it’s a little more challenging as the base is already so dark. But like what Fall Out Boy said: I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color

  3. So for a black shirt, sketch out the design using a white-coloured pencil.

    trace outline of T-shirt design with white

  4. If you can’t draw it by hand, print out the design on paper and put it under the shirt where you can trace the outline from there. This only works for light-coloured shirt.

  5. Now lightly paint the outline with your desired colour.

  6. Pro Tip: For coloured shirts, paint the design with white first as the base so that the subsequent layers would look vivid.

    paint black shirt with white base

    Here you can see how vivid the white is and how the red paint looks lackluster without a white base underneath it.

  7. If you want to paint a faint colour on your shirt without spamming white, dilute it but make sure not to add too much water to your paint as it will cause the paint to bleed into the fabric.

  8. So to prevent the paint from bleeding into the fabric, you should:

  • Blot out excess water
  • Brush the paint gently on the fabric and don’t press it firmly against the shirt
  1. Wait for at least 24 hours to allow the fabric paint to dry.

How to Paint on T-shirt with Stencils

Stencils are great if you are looking to make a very crisp design or repeat the design several times.

You can choose to either spray paint over the stencils or use regular paint and apply it over the stencil with a sponge brush.

If you are going to make your own stencils, you will need a thin cardboard and a box cutter.

Regardless of what you choose, you must always secure the stencil properly on the shirt with tape. The more secured the stencil is to the shirt, the more crisp the final design would be.

How to make your own stencils

  1. Print out the design that you want on your shirt

  2. Trace it out on a cardboard.

    You can do this by shading the back of the paper with graphite pencil and placing it on top of the cardboard. (Printed side up). Then trace the design over the cardboard with a pencil.

  3. Using a box cutter or an exacto knife, cut out the design on the cardboard carefully.

If you don’t want the hassle of making your own stencils, you can buy ready-made ones here:

How to Spray Paint a T-shirt with Stencils

  1.  Make sure the stencil has been properly secured to the shirt and no other parts of the T-shirt that you want to be painted are exposed.

  2. Now shake the spray can for 30 seconds and spray the design using your desired colour about 10 inches away.

    Keep the spray can moving in a long, sweeping motion.

  3. Make sure not to spray too close as it might cause the paint to bleed through the fabric.

  4. Wait for 10-15 minutes for the first coat to dry and spray over the design once more.

  5. For stencils that are negative space (meaning you are spraying AROUND the silhoutte of the design), spray even further away from the shirt.

    The trick is to spray heavily near the edges of the stencil and lightly elsewhere.

Spraying paint over a negative space stencil

Spraying paint over a negative space stencil. Source: Marco Verch on Flickr

  1. Let the paint dry for 15 minutes and remove all cardboard or loose paper that you used to cover up the shirt.

  2. Remove the stencils VERY CAREFULLY and set it elsewhere to dry. And we’re done!

How to Seal Paint on T-Shirt

  1. Wait at least 24 hours to ensure your fabric painting is dry before sealing it with heat.

    This will make your design permanent enough to withstand repeated washing.

  2. DON’T iron the painted area DIRECTLY.

    You can choose to either iron the shirt on the ‘wrong’ side (inside out) or on a piece of random fabric placed over the painted side.

  3. Set your iron to medium-high setting (according to your fabric type) and iron it around the painted area in a constant movement for 3 minutes or so.

    Make sure not to let it sit on one area for too long.

How to Care for a Painted Shirt

This might arguably be the most important step of all that most people don’t do! You have painstakingly painted a T-shirt with your custom design, only for it to fade after a few wash. For your design to last, you should care for it properly with these following tips.

  1. After setting the paint with heat, wait around 4 days before washing the shirt.

    painted white shirt

    Always hang the painted T-shirt to dry

  2. Always hand wash the shirt and hang dry it. If this is not possible AT ALL, then use the ‘gentle cycle’ on your washing machine and ‘low heat’ on your dryer.

  3. Wash the T-shirt inside out.

  4. NEVER wash it with HOT water.

  5. Keep the shirt out of the sun whenever possible as some paint pigments will fade over time due to sun exposure. Check out the labels on your paint!

And that’s it! Here’s a picture of my painted shirt still going strong after a few years! It survived the sweaty pit at a Fall Out Boy concert!

 How to paint a t-shirt and customise it

I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color
Whoa, whoa, whoa
When they make a darker color
Whoa, whoa

Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)

Wow, I really am a fangirl. I have retired though. This was all back in the early 2010s. I’m too old and weak for the fangirl life, though I still have my moments.

I hope this guide helped to give some tips for those who are looking to paint a T-shirt! Have you guys tried painting on T-shirts before? How did your fabric painting process go? Let me know in the comments below!

how to paint a t-shirt from freehand to stencils

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