Hand-painting Fabric for KCAC Gown Gala, 2020

I often am asked how I start my projects and what is my process. I’m going to explain how I developed my latest project with KCAC so I can expand upon my artistic process a little. The Kansas City Artists Coalition and fashion consultant Wlaa Style have teamed up with the KC Streetcar to bring eight local artists in Kansas City to transform gowns (donated by the Gown Gallery in Kansas City) into fine art pieces through painting. The idea behind the Coalesce is to bring the fashion and fine art industry close together. I as one of the eight participating artists, I was provided with a white low cut mermaid style formal gown and I was asked to cover the dress in any shape or form I desired.


Any hand-painted fabric project consists of three important steps: Designing the surface patterns, choosing the right medium that can translate the patterns well, and painting and executing the patterns.

1. Design

I started my process by making a loose sketch of the dress on my iPad Pro. As a surface pattern designer you should always study the form and outline of the object you are designing first.The dress I was provided with had a beautiful organic outline.The fabric drapes into an elegant mermaid shape and it consists of many defined geometrical sections, so it provided a good outline for me to start my design and combine various kinds of patterns together. My inspiration was an ancient Armenian pottery piece that had a good mixture of geometrical and organic patterns.

2. Medium

For painting on fabric the most important factor that dictates medium and technique is the material or fabric content. There are so many different medium and techniques available for painting a fabric.The ideal material for hand-painting fabric will be an absorbent fabric with a smooth surface. Too textured and you can not paint and draw patterns on the surface easily and if the fabric is too silky and slippery it most probably consists of synthetic material that does not absorb water and pigment, and whatever dye and paint you use will sit on the surface without bonding with the material so it can be washed off easily.

When it comes to paint or dye, you need to know that not all paints are suitable for all fabrics. Regular acrylics are safer options when it comes to painting fabric because they can sit on the surface of the fabric without needing to bond with the fiber and they sit on almost any surface. The downside of using acrylic is, because it doesn’t make a bond with fibers it leaves a harder surface to the fabric, which is noticeable to the touch. Therefore, If you want to hand-paint a piece of clothing that you want to wear often it is wiser to choose a fabric-specific paint so it doesn’t leave a hard texture on your clothing.

Another factor that is important in choosing the right medium to paint fabric is your design and effects you want to render. If you have geometrical patterns that need precision in execution you want to choose a medium that does not bleed on the fabric and is easier to control. Fabric markers, fabric paint, and acrylic paint are good options for painting precise geometrical patterns. If you are painting organic patterns and you are after washed- watercolor textures that have romantic looks you have more freedom in what you choose for painting.

The gown I was working with for the KCAC 2020 Gown Gala had a very beautiful shimmery fabric which was very heavily textured which limited my paint options but also inspired me to use a medium with a lower opacity, so that once painted over the unique, shimmery fabric is enhanced and not covered up. On the other hand, my mostly geometrical patterns called for using fabric markers or paint so I could make crisp and precise lines. Therefore, I combined using DyneDye flow paints and Copic markers.

Dye Na flow is a high chroma, highly transparent liquid fabric paint which is permanent on any porous or semi-porous surface, including natural and synthetic fabrics, leather and wood.The only problem with this type of paint is the lack of control in rendering the defined patterns. This type of paint is mostly used for batik painting, tie dies or simulating water color effects. I diluted the paint and applied some of if on parts of my fabric which bled as I predicted but resulted in beautiful vibrant shades which gave me a good background to lay down my defined patterns later on with Copic markers.

3. Painting

The key for successfully painting a fabric is the consistency of the paint. You want the paint to be thick enough to cover and also flow well and not too watery or thin to not bleed. In a good case scenario you have a fabric sample to be able to examine different paint consistencies and different applicators. For applying paint you can use paint brushes or foam brushes. I realized paint brushes give me good control and power in rendering geometrical patterns.

For painting, you want to start painting from right to left if you’re right handed to avoid smudging the paint as you go. Also, it’s very important to keep checking and re-checking the wet spots to avoid putting your elbows on them. I also keep a piece of clothing handy to cover the parts I just painted. If I want to apply a few layers and I’m in a rush I keep a blow dryer on the side to dry paint before adding a new layer on top. If you add paint on freshly applied wet paint you will turn it into mud.

Tips for setting the paint

This dress is meant for display mostly and even if it is worn and purchased it’s not owning to be for everyday use so setting the paints was not as important, but if you have some piece of clothing that you painted you want to make sure you set the paints very well. Dye Na flow are set with heat.You have to make sure all the paint is dried first, add a muslin layer on top of your paint, set the iron heat based on your fabric content and press it a few times to set the paint and avoid the wash and light fastness.


The dress was eventually modeled on November 7, 2020 by a professional model in a parked street car that turned into a runway and the video was played online.