How to Paint on a Tie-dye Shirt – With Homemade Dye Paint

Collection of paint brushes

There are multiple ways to paint with dyes, the most common ones are using a paintbrush with liquid dyes and another is to make a thick mixture of dye that can be spread like paint.

We tested a number of different techniques and we have found the best ways to paint with dyes.

Simply put, painting with dyes can be can done by either using painting instruments like paintbrushes to spread the dye or by making a mixture of dye that has the consistency of paint.

How to Make Paint With Tie-dye

You can certainly soak a paintbrush in a regular mix of dye water and apply the liquid dye that way onto the shirt, but you will find that this method has limitations and that there are other options to consider that take a little preparation but are way more consistent and useful.

The way you would go about making your own tie-dye paint is to adjust the quantity of water in your mix, add bulk to it, and add viscosity. We will be discussing all of these points and more.

How to make thickened dye paint

This recipe starts with chemical water. You then add in multiple ingredients and a large quantity of dye. This makes a thick concentrated dye solution that can be used like paint.

  1. Measure 1 cup of warm water
  2. Add in 1.5 tsp of sodium alginate powder to the water
  3. Using a handheld blender, mix for one to two minutes
  4. Let the solution rest for one hour so it thickens up
  5. Transfer the solution to a squeeze bottle
  6. Add in 1/4 cup of urea to the bottle
  7. Add in 1/8 cup of salt to the bottle
  8. Add in 3 tsp of dye powder to the bottle
  9. Add in 1 tsp of dye activator to the bottle
  10. Screw the lid on and shake the bottle for thirty seconds
  11. Wait five minutes then shake the bottle again
  12. Apply the dye paint on a damp, folded shirt

The result is a very thick solution that pours slowly. This thick and viscous liquid/paste can be used for making precise outlines. You can also use it to paint directly on the shirt.

We make it by mixing powder dye in a small quantity of water and adding additives depending on the need. The goal here is to make a mixture that gives you better control and that spreads less on the fabric. We will show you exactly how to mix a dye paint mixture and then we’ll see how we can use it effectively.

Use sodium alginate, soda ash, and salt to make tie-dye paint.

The first thing you want to do is to use a smaller quantity of water. Better to start with a small amount of dye powder and add drops of water until all the dye is dissolved. A standard recipe for a good quality dye paint mix also contains multiple additives.

You can control the spread of the dye with a variety of different products and methods. What you want to do to create the ultimate dye paint mix is to have a  high concentration of dye in a small amount of water, and then add your additives.

We need bulk and viscosity to keep the water from spreading and we want our paint to stay in place. The less it spreads, the more details we can paint.

The way we recommend is to start with sodium alginate, which is algae powder and has interesting characteristics. When mixed in water it will dramatically increase the viscosity and the stickiness of the water solution.

Sodium alginate is the absolute best way to see concrete changes in the spread of the dye. Using this thickener is so useful that we also commonly use it in our regular liquid dye mixes.

How to Paint with Dyes

We have explore some ways to make paint for tie-dye, but how exactly do we use them in a real situation?

Using liquid dyes, you will want to use either a paintbrush or a sponge. You can simply prepare a container of dye water and dip your painting instrument to absorb a bit of dye to spread on the shirt.

The trick is to practice with your ingredients to find what works best for you. For the dye paint, do not get confused by the name, it is still dye and will still color in the same way that dye does in liquid form.

It still has the same properties and will still mix with other dye colors.

A nice way to better control the dye is to increase the bulk of the dye water. This can be easily accomplished by using soda ash and salt. You need soda ash anyway to activate the dye, use is in equal proportion to the dye powder. Use regular table salt if you want to add even more mass to you dye mixture.

Try different combinations in varying amounts of water to determine what you need for your project. You can make a paste with the ingredients that let’s you place you dye exactly where you need it and will prevent it from spreading.

Everything depends on what you want to accomplish. What we find works the best is to simply use a small paintbrush to spread your paint mixture on the shirt.

Alternatively, depending on the specific type of paint you have made, you can use a small bottle to squirt precise lines. The trick here is to take your time and really get into the details.

How to Achieve Finer Details

If you want to paint better details and make something that is very precise, you can use a very special trick to isolate exactly what you want to color. 

What we found is that you can combine the painting technique with the traditional batik technique which consists in using molten wax to isolate fibers under a waterproof layer. Simply melt and spread the wax according to your needs.

You can make forms, images, and letters. This technique allows you to liberate yourself and create exactly what you want at the cost of tacking more time to execute. You can use a combination of batik and painting to create a real piece of art that you’ll want to hang in a frame.

Can You Use Any Type of Paint?

You can use other paints, but be aware that they might not be a suitable option for everyone. If you want to go with paints we recommend that you get paints that are made specifically for fabric and that have advantages over less specialized paints.

We absolutely recommend that you use regular tie-dye fiber-reactive dyes instead of paints. Dyes are cheaper and more efficient, they will leave no texture or stiffness on the fabric.

They are better in almost every way and you can even customize them to your need by modifying its viscosity.

Once you let the dye set and you rinse it, you have the excess dye that is washed of and nothing is left behind, the color is bonded chemically with the fibers and there is no residue, nothing you can feel on the shirt.

With paints, on the other hand, you will be left with a raised edge where there is paint. Paints can also cause stiffness in the fabric and can also crack over time. Making a paint with dyes will give you the benefits of both world and will open up the world tie-dye for you.