DIY Upholstery Painting

You just never know… If I come across some great furniture pieces that are just ‘screaming’ for help, then I come up with a way to give them a second life. Some recent ‘new-to-me’ Louis XVI chairs gave me somewhat of a painting challenge. How do different paints and mixes work for painting fabric? Yup, I said fabric! Which should you use? I’ve done some tests before tackling,  my DIY Upholstery Painting just to be safe.

The Pieces:

Welcome new chairs, I know they look a bit sad. However, I like the simple lines of these imitation Louis XVI chairs and the fact they were quite structurally sound. I had the intention of reupholstering them but then remembered how many ‘millions’ of staples I have to pull out just to strip the ‘buggers’. ( can you tell my displeasure at staple pulling?!) So no!

I had a vision to make these into some fancy-shmancy accent chairs, not daily lounging ones. Soooo, paint just seemed to be much less painful. Oh just wait at how luxurious they will be… But first to figure out which one?

The Paint:

I admit I do possess a fair collection of paint since I am actually an illustrator. Generally speaking, artists paint is better quality than usual ‘wall paint’ It has much more pigment ( the colours) and less fillers. Even in the scope of artist’s paints there are quite the range of prices due to the quality of pigments. Art is meant to last quite long so I am fairly confident that it will stand up longer than I my love affair with them.

Since I tend to paint a lot I use a mid-grade Artist’s Loft Flow Acrylic Paint since it is a nice consistency and comes in large bottles.


To aid in the mixing and transparency of paint there are clear mediums available. They act as a way to thin pigment without losing the integrity of the paint and losing it’s permanence. Adding water will thin as well but will also weaken the acrylic binding in the paint. Too much water and it will start to lose the ability to fight water (as in washing or weather)

Mediums will come in various sheens such as Matt (no shine at all) and Gloss (plasticy shiny). Personally I LOVE my mediums since they can also be used as a top-coat, similar to what they used to call varnishes. I notice they started to add that on the bottles nowadays.

There are also specialty mediums for fabric. They profess to make any acrylic paint into a permanent fabric paint. I used the Demco brand but others are also available.

I tend to experiment rather than believe what others say. It’s good practice since it will also give you some hints on how it all works out before you make huge expensive mistakes.

The Tests:

I used some fairly heavy cotton scraps to map out 4 test areas of:

  • Matt Medium Alone
  • Only Acrylic Paint
  • Acrylic Paint & Fabric medium
  • Acrylic Paint & Matt Medium

I did not use much water at all, as trying to only use the mixes. I filled in the squares and let dry. I did this in white as well as black as I was interested to see the amount of compared opaqueness of the two.

At first glance there was not much discernible differences. I tend to suspect that the companies want us to buy more products making it sound like they are indeed different.( ‘As they used to mark medium as different than varnish)

I do notice that fabric mediums are much thinner, as to aid in the application and mixing with a paint. The Clear Mediums are a bit more dense and thick.

The matt medium does add a bit of transparency to the paint compared to pure acrylic paint.

The Blacks all had pretty solid coverage. I was fairly confident that they would work since I have many articles of clothing that end up with permanent stains of acrylic paint on them. That’s how we figure things out sometimes; by accident!

Different Factors to consider:

I have researched many upholstery painting tutorials and have noticed that the type of fabric is a big deal. Obviously! Super thick fabrics would soak up so much paint that they end up with some ‘crunchy’ & ‘crusty’ coatings.

Suggestions of watering down the paint sounds logical but the problem is that the acrylic binders can’t work properly when so diluted. It scares me to use such watered down acrylics, even in paintings. Hence I have seen some upholstery paint jobs that end up rubbing off onto the clothing when sitting on them. Yikes!

In my opinion a thinner fabric will work better, especially if it has very little texture. It will become a more smooth finish, but not hold much paint. So to test the flexibility I would bend the fabric to see if I could get it to crack. All the tests performed quite well with no breaking or cracking!

I sent the pieces through a couple loads of laundry and they all held up. The only concern was of some abrasion through the wash and some wear from that. Upholstery will not have that same endurance test.

Chalk Paint?

Many have also suggested using a chalk paint. I do love chalk paint for certain uses and I even make my own (as I did to paint everything white) But the additive in chalk paint is calcium carbonate (same as ground egg shells/see shells) so its a pretty hard material. It does harden paint quite nicely and makes it cover quite quickly too, but I don’t think I want it on my fabric. I would rather have some flexibility which would come from the presence of a lot of acrylic binders.

So there you have my rationale; I’m going to use a mix of matt medium and paint. I was pretty happy to dive in with some sense of confidence since the pieces I had gotten (for a song) were a very sleek, tight weave fabric. And if it doesn’t work out, I’m sure there could be a backup plan…

Well, here’s a sneak peak! Soon to be posted, as it’s a design that you have never seen before. If you have any upholstery-painting experiences to add please comment below.


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  1. Hi Barb
    Great post! I did paint fabric before but I used paint from a spray can. I think I would not do it again because one has to tape all the wooden parts which are exposed.
    I am so curious to see the final piece or pieces.
    I am a painter and of course paint of canvas all the time, so I think it is somehow a natural thing to paint fabric but …. yes people do not necessarily correlate painting to furniture fabrics.
    I think this will be for sure one of my next projects.
    Looking forward to your next post 😉
    Abadin B&B

  2. Our local middle school library has an artistically painted sofa and side chair. They look amazing, but are hideous to the touch. Rough and hard. I would never snuggle up on that sofa to read a book! I hope your chairs do not turn out like that.

    1. Since they are ‘accent chairs’ they would rarely get sat on anyways. They are quite soft, somewhat like a vinyl would be. Reval will be up soon!

      Art – it’s all a process!

  3. Hi Barb,
    Thank you for your tutorial I appreciate the depth and breadth you go into to help me make informed choices. I did paint a recliner chair that was made with a heavy material and it did turn out crusty and crunchy as you described, despite the amount of water I used. I have two heirloom faux leather sofas that I want to paint a lighter colour so I am reserrching that avenue at the moment. I do hope you continue to help us realise our artistic dreams. I love the painting of the snowy forest and your concrete articles, which I am going to try for my garden. I also love the coverlet you made of materials that made it look like a forest of browns, blacks, grey, and blacks.

  4. Thanks for sharing instructions on all the beautiful projects in your blog. My first love is art quilts, with an emphasis on surface design, so I ‘d like to share my experience on fabric painting. There are paints especially made for use on fabrics, but a less expensive approach is to mix a fabric or textile medium with acrylic paints. The primary benefit here is that the addition of this medium results in a softer “hand” — meaning it leaves the fabric soft, rather than stiff as it would be with acrylic paint alone. I usually mix 1 part medium to 2 parts paint and it doesn’t dilute the paint color. My go-to medium is GAC 900 by Golden.

    1. Thanks for your additional comment! I’m not sure if you read the post, as I did experiment with the textile medium as well. I found no difference in adding my fabric medium to the acrylic paint than the usual matt or gloss medium. It was however much thinner. The ‘bend test’ showed that all did not become stiff. The final reveal will be posted very soon…

    2. Great read. I painted my dinning room chairs and they look beautiful and I love them. They were hard and crunchy but I ironed them (with a piece of cloth over it) and it turned the fabric into a smooth surface. It’s been 6 months and I can see where some place are starting to rub off. I did not use a medium, I will repaint and using a medium, hoping that it will seal a bit better. Thank you again!

  5. Barb, you are a master craftsperson! I come to your website to get the real deal high class craft invention instructions that you create!! I’m really picky about crafts and yours are the ONLY ones I have found on Pinterest to be actually high class and unique – and ingenius! Thank you for sharing your ideas, talent and work!