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Paint base coat on dark fabric: to Do or Not to Do? All you need to know

Updated: Jan 18

In this article, we will look at the idea of underpainting or, in other words, a base coat.

What is base coat in fabric painting?

In fabric painting, we consider the first layer of paint - as a base coat. This first layer always gets absorbed into fabric, thus creating a basic foundation for next paint layers and securing their bond with textile.

It is important to remember, that there’s no secret ingredient to this step. We always use only fabric paint as a base coat and nothing else!

Use only fabric paint as a base coat for painting on dark fabric

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!


Why do we need a base coat in fabric painting?

Aside from the fact that base coat helps in creating a bond between fabric paint and textile itself, we also want to create a base coat of paint for our design on fabric to help the colors stand out, particularly if we paint on dark colored textiles.

Note. Even fabric paints with good opacity level will look darker on black T-shirt if they were applied without at least one layer of base coat.

Does the base coat should always be white?

Not at all. While going for a white fabric paint color as a first choice for a base coat could seem obvious, it’s not always necessary so. Instead of white, we can use a lighter shade of the main color of our design, or simply several layers of that same main color!

For example: You want to paint a balloon in “navy blue” shade on a black fabric. Instead of white base coat, you can have three options:

  1. Make a first layer with a light blue paint;

  2. Mix a lighter shade of blue out of white and navy blue by yourself, if you don’t have, let’s say, a “cerulean blue” shade;

  3. Create one or two layers of this very navy blue, one after another, once each one of them is dry.

Comparing white and colorful paint base coat on black fabric

You might wonder - what is the difference?!

Creating lighter background or a base coat, will make sure your “navy blue” paint color looks really vivid. In fact it might look even brighter than it is in the jar.

On the other hand, if your fabric paint is opaque enough and you’ll only stick to layering the paint without a light base coat, as a result you’ll get either the precise color of “navy blue” like in the jar or a somewhat darker shade of it. This depends solely on the properties of your chosen fabric paint brand.

BONUS TIP! What you’ve just read is a “door” to a unique opportunity. Knowing that the same color can perform differently depending on the shade of a base coat it’s being applied to, allows you to create depth and texture in your design, save on layers of paint, thus on your time, efforts and even money for art supplies. Neat?

Do we need to apply a base coat if we paint on light colored fabric?

No and Yes. Your choice. And it actually depends on the type of illustration as well as your personal preference. Here’s how…

Two reasons why NOT to make a WHITE base coat on white fabric:

  • An unnecessary layer of paint. If the design doesn’t require this white shade - avoid it.

  • After heat fixing white fabric paint may look not that white anymore. It might have a bit of ivory shade. Consider this.

Two reasons to MAKE a base coat (of any color) on white fabric:

  • It’s much easier to draw details over a layer of paint rather than on a plain fabric

  • My experience shows, that any first layer of paint (on dark or light) should always be considered as a base coat, hence we need two layers of color even on a light colored textile. Someone may argue, or not, but I’ve seen it, and it’s a fact – first paint coat falls into textile fibers, mostly unevenly, thus making an illustration painted only one time, looking imperfect as well. Your call

Note again, base coat doesn’t have to be made with only white paint. Pick the color depending on situation, and the level of brightness your design requires. You may even choose to make some parts of a project with base coat and some – without. This will help in creating some depths on design and avoid visual “flatness”.

Any first layer of paint (on dark or light) should always be considered as a base coat

Here I prepared for you a short video, explaining my approach in creating a base coat on black fabric. Watch, make notes and, most importantly, – practice!

KEY THINGS to remember when creating a paint base coat on fabric

  1. Make sure the paint is in good condition. If it doesn’t spread smoothly on fabric, add just a LITTLE BIT of water in it on the palette

  2. As always, create a thin layer of paint and really rub the paint into fibers of textile. Base paint layer has to make a strong bond with the garment

  3. Try not to cross the outlines of your design, when making a base coat of paint, especially if you’re working with white paint on the dark surface. Move your brush confidently, but carefully.

  4. Do not just color-block the whole thing with the base coat: leave the clues for yourself at the end of each element of a design, work in the manner as if you’re creating a black-and-white illustration, as explained in the demo video

  5. Once done, the first paint layer has to be air dried completely, on its own. Do not speed this process up with a help of hair drier, you can use it for the next paint layers.

  6. Heat fixing of the base coat is not required. You can do it, but it’s not necessary. However if you will, then do it only after 24 hours since the base coat is done.

If you've ever experienced any troubles with creating an "underpainting" on fabric - share about it in the comments. Also, let me know if you have benefitted from this article, which information was new for you or the most useful?

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