3 Ways to Transform Vintage Denim With Paint

Bringing Life to Vintage Items through Painting

After years of painting on canvas, I decided to paint on hand-sewn clothing for my senior thesis in college back (oh, so far back) in 2014. Initially, I sought painting on clothing when the handmade garments I was creating seemed like they were lacking in uniqueness. It was extremely hard work, creating over 50 pieces over the span of 6 months., It was by far the most satisfying thing I’d done in my four years of art school. While a painted canvas often went into a storage room or (hopefully) sold to never see again, the painted garments would go out in the world for countless eyeballs to see.

Painting on clothing—especially vintage clothing—is a beautiful way to add new life to things that already exist. It’s a form of public art—not a painting to be hidden away. As soon as the artist sells their creation, that work is out in the world, showcased by its owner. It’s a wonderful way to purchase art—a source of pride and fascination for its buyer, and free for all its viewers.

I reached out to some of my favorite artists who paint on clothing as a way to bring a second life to old garments. Juliet Johnstone hand-paints trousers and tank tops. Mikaela Clark hand-paints denim jackets, while Emily Dawn Long hand-dyes tops, pants, hats, masks, and more in a rich, painterly way. I love these three artists because their artwork and techniques are so very different—and such a wonderful insight into who they are. Read along to see how they each get inspired, source vintage, and create their work.

Juliet Johnstone

Bringing Life to Vintage Items through Painting

I started this “brand” because I had a desire to break away from the barriers of the fine art world and make things that were more accessible to wider groups of people. It’s super exciting for me that people get to wear and share my art every day. I just like to paint things that make me happy and that are made responsibly.

I source vintage items from sellers that I have made great connections with. Working with vintage allows me to give old things new life and make things sustainably.

Bringing Life to Vintage Items through Painting

I live in L.A. and I’m lucky enough to get to hike every day, so I pull a lot of inspiration for my work from nature. I love vintage botanical books, gardening books, and concert posters from the ’60s.

I typically work on about five pairs of pants at a time, so I can cycle them and keep the process exciting for myself. It also makes the entire process more efficient because I paint an element, then let them dry while I work on another pair. I hand-dye every pair of pants myself. I probably finish around three pairs of pants a week from start to finish. The entire process has a lot of care and love put into it <3.

Hansel by Mikaela Clark

Bringing Life to Vintage Items through Painting

I created Hansel because I wanted to make unconventional clothing that captivated people. To me, there’s nothing more captivating than the human experience, so my art is definitely a response to the stimulus around me. I am anxiety-prone and often find peace in the outdoors or listening to music. I like that in both nature and music, you have all of these independent entities—elements, organisms, instruments—flowing in and out of each other to create a beautiful whole. So, in my art, I play a lot with color juxtaposition. For instance, positioning a fiery orange next to a pure, primary red; at first glance they appear to be the same color, until you look closely. All those independent colors coming together makes such a beautiful whole. Oh, and I like space. You are going to get a lot of stars from me.

Bringing Life to Vintage Items through Painting

I prefer to paint vintage denim because the material is so sturdy and beautiful, like a canvas! B.C. (before COVID), I was an avid fan of hunting them down myself. L Train Vintage always had stacks of good denim jackets—I would truly go in and buy five at a time. Now, if I’m making something for a client, I’ll have them send me a jacket. It’s oftentimes a well-loved piece they’ve had in their closet a long time.

My brushes could use an upgrade, but I tend to use the same five for every jacket. One broad brush, one angled brush, two tiny detailing brushes, and this old thing I’ve had for like eight years. I prefer acrylic paint because it’s vibrant, but I mix in a fabric medium to make the paint supple and the jackets (gently) washable.

If I’m working with a client, my first step is always to ask them a few questions about themselves —their likes, dislikes, inspirations. Then, I take a picture of the jacket and start sketching ideas based on their answers. I always sketch first. I tried to be the cool, “Let’s wing it!” artist girl and the result was, in a word, horrendous. Once I have a plan, I pencil sketch the design on the jacket, and I’ll go in with all the background colors. Mixing the paint is hands-down my favorite part of the whole process! I only buy paint in primary colors–red, yellow, blue, and then white and black–so every color on my jackets is hand-mixed to find the right hue. It is such an adventure, and it challenges me to know my color theory! The next day I’ll do the detailing and outlines. The whole process takes about two days.

Emily Dawn Long

I studied textile development in my undergrad, so I’m very drawn to prints. My second collection for this drop was all based on sketches from Jean Cocteau, which was probably my favorite from the natural dye collection. This specific collection was about sustainability. I sourced vintage Stan Ray “painter or workmen pants.” It’s important to always check the fabric content. For this product, I was working with all natural fibers and dyes, so I needed cotton, linens, etc.

Surprisingly, I think a lot of people think I paint, but I guess I made it a lot harder on myself: I used a traditional dye “squeeze” bottle. I would put my finger over the top when I needed to control the pressure of what was coming out, which forced me to draw my designs very fast, adding to the gestural quality of my work. I used natural dyes: avocado pits, wheatgrass, parsley, ash barak, red cabbage, etc.

Bringing Life to Vintage Items through Painting

Because I was using natural dyes, I made a mixture of 70% water and 30% distilled white vinegar, which allowed the dye/stain to adhere closely to the fiber. This was mixed in a spray or mist bottle that I then would mist across the fabric at about 1-3 feet distance depending on the effect I wanted in my final designs.

I discovered this very cool effect that would happen when I did this. It created vein-like lines coming out from all my designs because the dye would search for moisture from the mist and follow it.

I would let it sit for a second but not let it dry too much before I began dyeing. The more moisture and water you add, the more bleed you get. There are multiple processes but this was my favorite. The process takes anywhere from 3-20 minutes, depending on what I’m drawing—because of the materials I use, I have to work quickly.

Feature Image via Juliet Johnstone.

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