Updated: Dec 25, 2022
Today, let us explore an amazing, highly underrated and not completely understood art material, called fabric medium.
These days what we can find when searching for information about what is fabric medium and how to use it, are some generic articles about turning an acrylic paint into fabric paint or some short descriptions from a manufacturer of fabric medium, recommending it for use when we want to decrease the brightness or color intensity of fabric paint.
I am confident, that there are some experienced people who’ve used this tool in other creative ways, but their practice is hard to come by in the midst of generic web info, thus leaving the majority of interested people without a proper understanding of all the possibilities that fabric medium can add to textile art.
That's why I’d like to give back and share with all of you my findings and skills that I’ve got after experimenting with fabric medium for quite a long while.
This article is part of a Lesson from an open course "Fabric Painting Foundations". If you’re finding it useful, you’ll definitely enjoy the course!
Medium – means that it helps in achieving something, like a moderator. It’s not a stand-alone art material, it’s a facilitator.
Almost all of brands producing fabric paints have a fabric medium in their line of products. It is usually priced the same as a jar of paint. It can be found in various sizes, but don’t go for a big jar just yet, before you’ve got a good idea what you can do with it.
What NOT TO DO with fabric medium
Fabric medium is not a substitution for water in textile art. It means, that we do not dip the brush into a jar with medium at the time when we need to rinse it or to loosen the paint. While it could seem quite possible and logically permissible, there really is no need for it. If you’re already using fabric paint, it has all it takes to create a lasting design. It’s different though if you’re painting with regular acrylics on fabric. But we’ll touch this topic later.
We also do not use fabric medium to freshen up an old paint in the jar. A small amount of water will do a better job, simply because acrylic paint is water based, hence diluting it with a tiny amount of water to achieve more flexibility is acceptable. Just remember that water should be of room temperature, not hot, not cold. Adding fabric medium to a jar with paint will only reduce the color intensity.
Fabric medium does not qualify as a base coat for painting. It’s transparent and completely useless for this cause. Everything about a perfect base coat and when we need it, you can find in this blog post.
While it’s useless as an underpainting, fabric medium can actually interfere with the bond between paint and fabric itself. It acts like a glue which takes the rightful place of a first paint layer in textile fibers. So why do it?
I’m writing all these recommendations from my own experience based on many- failed paintings and quite a few experiments dating back to 2016. So today you’re in luck! No wasted time for you – take this knowledge further and build on it.
Although, the most common word out there is that fabric medium mixed with fine art acrylics will give you a quick replacement for fabric paint, no one actually specifies what kind of quality results you’ll get after using this mix.
You’re most likely familiar already with my paint test on denim comparing acrylics, fabric medium and fabric paints. If not yet, watch it before proceeding ahead, to get some perspective.
Useful things we can do with the help of fabric medium
So the problems which we encounter when mixing acrylics with fabric medium to paint on clothes, are multiple cracks that appear on design after or even before the first laundry (as it’s demonstrated in the video above). The reason is because acrylic paint already has a “body” of its own which isn’t intended to stretch and to be soft on flexible or porous surfaces. Understanding this led me to another idea, which turned out to be a success!
We can use fabric medium to activate a pigment.
Thus, creating some mix with similar characteristics as fabric paint. However, this one will suit only light colored fabrics, preferably white ones, because the base of this mix is fabric medium (mostly transparent with zero opacity).
Below is one of the examples which I tested and found that this pigmented mix remains wash resistant and absolutely lightweight, hence no possible cracks on design.
Bonus| We can also mix medium with glow in the dark powder and cover an entire painting to let it glow at night!
Fabric medium can "turn" acrylic ink into a decent fabric paint.
Next idea will be a gift for those who deliberately wants to avoid buying fabric paints.
As this simple test has shown, Liquitex fabric medium mixed in 1:1 or even 2:1 ratio with Liquitex acrylic ink (see image below), gives soft result on cotton fabric and doesn’t wash off after laundry with regular detergent.
I also checked if it’s possible to use different brands of medium with acrylic ink (water based!). Turned out – yes, we can. I mixed Liquitex acrylic ink with Marabu Textile medium and tried on cotton fabric in different ratio.
Both results survived laundry identically, no fading of the color. Yay!?
Activate Derwent Inktence pencils using fabric medium.
Quite a few textile artists have already discovered that we can activate Derwent Inktence pencils with fabric medium to let the color spread a little and give an effect of painting on fabric. Nice trick!
Create lighter shades of paint using fabric medium.
And now the main idea, which paint manufacturers suggest as a basic purpose of fabric medium and I stand by it too – use fabric medium to help create lighter shades of fabric paint without changing its texture.
In this lesson I’m only familiarizing you with the potential of fabric medium. We will not go in depths with how to achieve this or that effect, since it’s a topic for a separate master class, not always beginner friendly.
Some experienced textile artists don’t see a value in buying fabric medium just to decrease the brightness of a color, suggesting that the same can also be achieved by simply diluting fabric paint with water. However, such opinions can last only until one tries it on practice.
Diluting fabric paint with water vs adding fabric medium into fabric paint. Is there a difference?
When we dilute fabric paint with water, we most likely are trying to achieve an effect similar to watercolor. The problem which fabric artist is facing in such case - is excessive spreading of a pigment outside of intended boundaries. To keep the paint within the lines, we could use a fabric outliner. But what to do when we want a contour-free design? In cases when we're using diluted fabric paint, it becomes quite challenging to create watercolor effect on textile and to keep our work neat.
Here are a few examples where I worked in wet acrylic technique (AKA watercolor on fabric) by diluting paints with water to achieve lightness, soft color transition and transparency (scroll the images).
However, when we need the best of both worlds (watercolor transparency and control over paint like with acrylics), that’s when we can turn to fabric medium.
Next illustration will compare two painting techniques we’ve discussed above.
Another important thing to mention, is that when we dilute fabric paint with water, it becomes more flowing and somewhat transparent, but its color doesn’t turn mellow (as oppose to when we mix it with fabric medium), it preserves the brightness.
Below are paint swatches of Pebeo Setacolor Light Fabrics. Right raw of swatches is diluted with water, notice how bright the pigment remains.
On the other hand, fabric paint mixed with fabric medium turns two to three tones down (and even more so after heat fixing!), but preserves its texture and doesn’t spread out on textile surface. This allows for a controlled version of watercolor technique on fabric.
Quite a world of difference, isn’t it?
In the end, I’d like to say that it’s wonderful that we have such a choice.
We all are different. Some of us prefer to loosen it up and freestyle-paint without boundaries, leaving a room for mistakes and accidental discoveries. Others - like to take their art from an idea to completion by having full control over the process, avoiding any unpleasant surprises. For both now there’s a method to achieve what their creative heart desires. Especially after we all know now what can and can’t be done with fabric medium :)