DIY Watercolor T-Shirts

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Please welcome another excellent guest tutorial, courtesy of my BFF, Amanda Iodice Beck. She made me a really rad shirt in a very sweet care package she sent my way, and I insisted she share this idea with the craft world! Enter, the watercolor shirt process:

Fabric crafts are wonderful. If we lived in another time I would have been one of those women who loved going to the dress shop to see what new fabrics they had that I could have made into a dress with plenty of details and embellishments. My biggest gripe with modern clothing usually follows this procession: the fabric quality is crap; for the quality of the cloth the price is highway robbery; and the designs might be appealing but lack fine details. “Burnout” shirts? Uh, who wants society to see your bra color or that mole on your back? Clothing should go back to functioning as a cover for one’s nakedness.

After a craft store overstep in which I bought almost $100 dollars in beading supplies- I’ve never beaded- I hit upon a way better craft. Suffering serious buyer’s remorse, I happened to stumble upon an image of a fabric craft retreat where participants would learn a fabric watercolor technique. Google yielded nothing for a while until I found a post ingeniously using sharpies and rubbing alcohol. Here was the answer to my annoyances with most clothing. I could buy a heavier weight shirt and make a design more suited to my aesthetics. Win!

Supplies: Any kind of fabric- cotton, silk, polyester (it apparently works on many)

sharpies in various colors

rubbing alcohol

fine art brush (the plastic variety don’t hold liquid as well, avoid them), or eye dropper

clothes pins or chip clips

old piece of cardboard

a baking dish

a window and fan- ventilation people!

Place the cardboard inside your shirt and pin it with the clips, this helps the fabric from moving too much if you’re doing a delicate design. I had a smaller piece I moved about the shirt as I filled in my design. Once you’re done drawing place a baking pan inside the shirt and clip the shirt to the sides to secure it, do this in sections also. I can’t prove this, but I think clipping the tee to the sides, making it taut, helps the ink bleed. The colors will certainly spread better if there isn’t a solid surface below while getting it wet. I used a small baking pan with large sides and sometimes while “painting” those areas touching the sides the ink didn’t bleed as well. You want to really get the paint brush full of rubbing alcohol and place droplets of alcohol on the design. Once it has gotten wet you can even take the paint brush and literally rub the shirt to try and spread the ink more. But the more droplets, the more the ink spreads.

Let the finished shirt air dry and then heat set it in the dryer for at least 30 minutes, or you can heat set it by ironing. I’m not sure how much the design will fade with machine washing, so I’d treat it gently.

The biggest hurdle with this craft is picking your design. All of the ones I found online used a dot method which was then transformed with the alcohol into little circles. So, at first I felt limited to circular shapes. The first shirt was inspired by poppies, so I outlined some flowers and then did a 3-dot design behind them hoping those would blend in to create the feeling of a field. But the ink doesn’t bleed like one might think which can be used to advantage. Here’s a tip- less is more sometimes.

For the second shirt I wanted to experiment more with how the ink bled. So I used a ruler and made a cityscape inspired by Chicago. To make the shirt more than monochromatic I added colors in the form of rooftop lights. Now black is one of the strongest colors to bleed and not fade too much, so the colors I added I did so in areas where there was less black so they wouldn’t get overpowered. What I found the second time around is that if you put droplets before the ink itself the spreading effect can take the ink in a wave pattern straight from the design. Since the cityscape was a silhouette this allowed the buildings to be more than straight lines, giving some substance with how the ink marched across the shirt. For the building lights I stuck with the method I first witness where you place the alcohol droplets right on the center of the ink dot, allowing the ink to spread in a circular fashion.

Modeling my awesome cityscape watercolor shirt during our trip to Pictured Rocks National Park!

The third shirt was combining these techniques. Because I’m a lazy bum I didn’t take a photo of this one except with my phone. I drew the silhouette of two pine trees, in parts interrupted by bits of brown trunk, with scribble-inspired pine trees to fill in the background. There was also a mountain range and lake/cove in the background as well. Using the straight bleed technique some parts of the trunks filled in brown all the way while others just spread at will. For the water I took three different colors of blue and randomly swirled them around in motion-esque movements. If you want the suggestion of something draw lightly. For the water I drew wavy lines of blue with the sharpie almost flat against the shirt, but always with a light touch.

Things to know about the bleeding…

If you do one area and then move to another and they bleed into each other the newer section to get wet will sort of fade the colors of the first section- essentially it will create a light line around the area where the two meet.

Lighter colors, like yellow, need to be applied liberally since they will dilute a lot more when the alcohol is applied.

Remember color makeup when picking colors to use. I used a light green and a dark green for flower stems and the light green resembled a yellow after the alcohol. Equally, red and a darker pink look similar once the alcohol has been used.

And that’s that! I think mys sister and I might try our hand at this project soon too, it’s just so cool.

7 responses »

  1. Pingback: Water Me | Lower East Dry Goods

    • I’ve only worn and washed it a few times (since it’s white and I am bad at not spilling things on white clothes), but I’ve read that you can “set” the color by ironing or putting it in a hot dryer once it’s dried. I’ve also read that doing a soak in cold water and 1cup of vinegar can do the trick. I haven’t tried either just yet, but I would iron and then vinegar.

      • Hi Peggy, I’ve washed mine in the washing machine and it seemed fine. I would just make sure to wash it on cold and turn it inside out. If you notice it’s starting to fade, switch to hand washing. Hope that helps!

  2. Hi, I’ve Just Had AN Epiphany Lol This Is Amazing. I’ve Done Shirts, Kids Dresses AndPillow Cases About To Do A Quilt Cover. I See It’s Been A While Since You Posted This, So I Wondered How Your Things Held Up Over Time?

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