Transparent Watercolor on Fabric - Peggy Brown

SAQA Seminar (Article)

After working for almost 40 years as a watercolor artist, I began experimenting with fiber art in 2002.  It was not only natural but easy for me to turn to my favorite medium to create the surface design on my art quilts.  Today I divide my time between my longtime passion, watercolor/collage on paper, with my newer obsession, watercolor/collage on fabric.  

It was “easy” because I already had all the tools and equipment I needed. It was “natural” because I was experienced and felt quite comfortable with the medium and its distinctive ways.  I only had to add white fabric to my supplies and end the process with quilting instead of graphite drawing.

Whether painting on paper or fabric, my equipment and basic methods are pretty much alike.


Professional grade transparent watercolor in tube form, water-soluble pencils and crayons

White fabric: silk, cotton, interfacing and organza to name a few

White paper: watercolor, drawing, parchment, archival tissue, silk paper

Board: varnished plywood, or plastic coated builders foam

Brushes: Watercolor sables, imitation sable or foam brushes

Sponges, spray bottle, palate, other usual watercolor painting supplies

Acrylic matte medium for coating paper if used




1. Lay the fabric or paper on the painting support and wet it thoroughly by spraying or flooding it with water from a sponge.

2. Mix paint and water on the palate (experience will dictate the ratio of water to paint) and begin painting, splashing, or dripping the pigment onto the fabric or paper. The idea is to get the paint to the surface then let it remain flat on the board to dry.

3. When totally dry, iron the fabric. I feel this step helps set the color.

4. The painted piece can be used as it is, or re-wet and re-painted to add deeper color and texture. It is difficult to know when to say enough! This is a step also learned through experience. Even though less is best in the beginning, most beginners usually stop too early. Remember that watercolor always dries lighter. Paint with passion but work with patience.

5. When happy with the results, iron again.  Use your painted creation immediately in a planned design or save it until the marks on the fabric or paper inspire you.  At times I like the back of a painted piece more than the front and use it as my substrate or as collage.



A Few More Techniques to Try

Form wet fabric into shibori or tie-dye folds, paint and dry, open and iron.

Add texture by drawing over a painted quilt before quilting using graphite pencils, charcoal, watercolor pencils and crayons.

Try mono-printing. Paint on a non-porous surface such as glass or plastic and place it face down on either damp or dry fabric or paper.

Crush a piece of freshly painted fabric in your hand. Dry, open, and iron. In reverse, crush wet fabric first, and then paint.

Both methods produce beautiful dark mountains and light valleys on the cloth.

Place found objects such as leaves, string, feathers on a painted wash while still wet.  When dry remove the objects.


Creative Process

My collection (stash) consists of large pieces of painted whole cloth fabric waiting to become the substrate – the beginning of an art quilt.  I also paint many smaller pieces of archival papers and fabrics which I store in labeled plastic boxes waiting to find their way into an art quilt design.

At times I develop my surface design using digital imagery printed with my computer. I crop sections from digital photos I take of my original paintings and drawings, plus use my original photos of nature. These are transferred onto fabrics or paper. Paper pieces (both painted and printed) receive a coating of acrylic matte medium to strengthen them for quilting.   

Many quilters prefer using fabric paints or acrylic paint instead of watercolor.  They will also work with my method. Results will be a little different. Fabric paint is more intense than watercolor and acrylic leaves a stiffer feel to the fabric.  I tried them all but keep going back to transparent watercolor because it works with me as I work with it.  

I have been questioned about the permanency of transparent watercolor on fabric.  So I wrote to Windsor-Newton, one of the world’s finest manufacturers of watercolor paint.  They verified that the medium is as permanent on fabric as other paint media and more permanent than some as long as the artist uses “professional grade” paint in either tubes or pan form on the substrate.

Fabrics painted with watercolor are meant to be used in wall hangings not in clothing and should not be washed in a machine. However after ironing I often gently re-wet a painted fabric preparing to add more paint, an action that does not seem to disturb the previously painted color. At times I repaint sections or the entire quilt after it has been layered with bat and back and quilted. 

Like all art, painted art quilts should not be subjected to direct sunlight for long periods of time.



A SAQA Juried Artist Member, Peggy Brown has been elected to professional membership in American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society and others. She has been featured in 7 books and many magazines and webzine articles.  Her work has been accepted in 7 SAQA Exhibits, Form Not Function*, Art Quilt National, Quilt Art Visions*, Elements, IQA World of Beauty* and AQS Paducah*.

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