Making Prints While The Sun Shines: T-Shirts

As always, click to embiggen all photos!

Materials: White t-shirts (the kids’ shirts are white undershirts–they’re great for dyeing); liquid acrylics; sponge brushes; leaves or other objects of your choice; sunny (but not windy) day; optional but helpful: a piece of Plexiglas to place inside the shirt, unless you don’t mind the paint seeping through to the back

I read lots of art/craft blogs, because the Internet is filled with great ideas, and often I find ideas on non-kid blogs that I can use with my children. One such ideas is sun-printing on fabric, which I first saw on Mary and Patch. I was surprised to see that it didn’t require any special sun-reactive paint, so I decided we’d give it a try. We actually gave it two tries, and as I go I’ll share what we learned during our first, semi-successful attempt.

First, I wanted something firm under the shirts, so I slipped some Plexiglas into mine and my oldest son’s shirt, a piece of glass into my younger son’s, and the box part of a box frame into my toddler’s. We learned the first time that using cardboard will leave the texture of the cardboard on the shirt, so either put something smooth in there (like a file folder, if you don’t have Plexiglas) or accept that the paint will soak through–which isn’t a bad look either.

Next, spray the shirt with water to dampen it. This photo is from our first try; the second go-round we just moved the entire operation to the deck. I have one of our watercolor painting boards inside the shirt, which is another option.

I watered down our liquid acrylics, but I wasn’t exact about it. Liquid acrylics are the paints that you can find in craft stores in the little bottles, about $1 per bottle (for the big size!). They come in all sorts of colors, they don’t wash out, and we’ve used them successfully for printing and painting on shirts for years. So, squirt some paint into a jar, add some water, mix it up, and cover your shirt. We learned that if you want to mix colors, do it around the edges–if you overlap colors where you try to make the print, the print sort of gets lost.

Paint quickly! Spray some more if you have to, because you don’t want the paint to dry yet. Place your leaves and put the whole thing in the sun.

I sprayed our leaves with a bit more water to hold them in place, and then I thought later that we could have weighted them with small rocks. We learned it’s best to use full leaves. Ferns make really pretty sun paper prints, but they didn’t work so well on the shirts. Our shirts dried in an hour or less.

V’s shirt, which was mostly blue, didn’t show the prints much, so we decided to try overprinting. We could see some prints in the center, so he left those alone and added green around the edges. He followed the same procedure: he sprayed with water, painted, and then lay down the leaves.

It worked! Overprinting was successful:

Once the shirts were dry, I rinsed them out and washed and dried them like I would any laundry, in cold water. I’d do this first wash with something you don’t care about too much (like towels), but when I rinsed, the paint stayed put. From this point on I’ll wash them with the regular laundry with no worries.

N’s shirt came out really well. His was the only shirt from our first try that came out really well, too. His is on the left, and G’s is on the right. You can see her prints in person, but faintly. For some reason, blue paint didn’t make the best prints.

Although mine was blue, and it worked okay. One leaf blew over halfway through, so I’ve got a mutant leaf print on the lower left there!

For our first attempt, we used textile ink–specifically, Speedball screen printing inks, because we plan to print on t-shirts at some point too, so I bought some. It really didn’t work for this project. I’m not sure why I was seduced by the special textile paint when we’ve been using liquid acrylics for painting shirts for years and liquid acrylics don’t require me to heat set the shirt by ironing 3-5 minutes per side times four shirts–that’s a lot of ironing on a hot day!

Luckily, applying the paint with a brush created a sort of tie-dye effect, so even though the sun-printing didn’t work the first time, as V said, “It’s a nice red and blue shirt, anyway.” And N, especially, was interested in what we were figuring out as we went through the process–what colors worked best, what sort of leaves, what to try next. Because we generally approach art in a spirit of discovery, the kids weren’t terribly disappointed that it didn’t work the first time. We simply tried again, refining our process a bit until we got it right!

7 thoughts on “Making Prints While The Sun Shines: T-Shirts

  1. Jill

    But why is it lighter under the leaves? You put the paint under the leaves, yes? (I am so tired I may have missed something.) The sun doesn’t fade what it can see? What’s going on?

    1. amy

      Yes, you paint the whole area and then place the leaves (or whatever you want to use) right on the wet paint. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but the paint doesn’t set under the shaded area.

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