Sun Printing with Transparent Fabric Paint

In late summer, I resolved to try sun printing with transparent fabric paint and compare the results to reverse-stenciling plant materials with fiber reactive dye. The latter can be frustrating if you want a lot of control over the reverse-image process. A breeze blows your plant matter aside, the dye drips and runs under the edges of leaves, flowers, etc. That lack of control doesn’t bother me – I feel like I am collaborating with an entity I barely know. I start with an idea of what image I want to make, but relinquish my expectations of the actual results. I am usually pleased with whatever result I get; it can be exhilarating if the effect is something I never imagined.

Some of my students have been hesitant to embrace a process that gives an unknown and unexpected outcome, so I wanted to try a method of reverse image-making that gives a modicum of control over the result. Transparent fabric paint can be used to create sun prints by applying the paint to fabric, then placing objects on the surface and letting sunlight “develop” the color and leave the resisted areas uncolored.

Putting to use the last sunny days of September, I gathered leaves, ferns and flowers, then painted some fabric samples. Setacolor, the fabric paint I used, is meant to be mixed with water. Two parts water to one part paint gives a pale shade, which leaves the fabric with a softer hand after sun printing and washing, but the contrast between color and reverse-image is very low. A ratio of one part water to two parts paint gives a much more intense color and higher image contrast, but the fabric feels thick and stiff in the end.

So, the upshot of the comparison between dye and paint: I encountered similar problems to the dye stenciling with the resisted images on the sunprinted fabric. You have to leave the fabric in the sun until it is dry, which can take an hour or more on a cool day. The wind blows the leaves around, they curl up and let light in underneath, creating a blurry mark, any wrinkles in the fabric create shadows in the final color, etc. And I really don’t care for the stiffness of the painted fabric. As to control over the final result, I think they are about equal. While I am glad I have tried both methods, I realize I am likely to be buying more fiber reactive dye and less fabric paint in the coming year.

Leaf of mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin) on linen painted with Setacolor light green.
Oak leaves on linen with Setacolor.
Maple and oak leaves on linen with Setacolor.
Closeup of fern on cotton with Setacolor.