How to Paint a Portrait on a Quilt

Learn how to paint a realistic face on an art quilt with inks and applicators.

If you'd like to incorporate a photo into an art quilt but want an effect that's different from a photo transfer, here are some shading exercises, followed by instructions for applying your newly sharpened skills to a quilt.



Materials and Tools:

8½-by-11-inch photocopy of photo of a face (or a computer printout of similar size if your original is smaller — the face should be at least 4 inches across)
colored pencils
acetate sheets
ultra-fine-tip permanent marker
light box
muslin: several 8½-by-11-inch sheets and extra for rub cloths and practicing
skin-tone fabric (optional)
freezer paper (optional)
all-purpose inks
ink applicators
medium-tip textile markers


1. To practice using light and shadow, use colored pencils on paper to blend tones from light to dark. Press hard to get intense darks, then more lightly to gradually shade to the white of the paper. Practice until you get an even transition without a striped effect, and areas of very smooth pastel color. Then draw a cone, a sphere and a cylinder and practice shading them. Choose a single light source that creates a highlight and a shadow on each form, a cast shadow, and reflected light, and shade these. This will help you to use light and shadow in a believable manner on the face.

2. Using the light box, trace the face onto paper with a pencil or permanent marker. You may want to leave out the line of the center of the lower eyelid and leave as the outer corners of the lower lip open when lining; these forms can be indicated by shading, but dark lines here can make the face look harsh, especially on children. Using colored pencils, shade the face, using the photo as reference. Always leave a highlight in the eyes to give them life. Leave two tiny points of light showing, and fill in the dark of the pupils around them.

3. Trace the face onto the acetate sheet with the marker. This will be traced onto the fabric.

4. Test your muslin or skin-tone fabric by holding the tip of a textile marker to a swatch for a count of 5. Some fabrics bleed far more than others¾use one that won't bleed. If desired, press your fabric to freezer paper to stabilize it. Using a textile marker and a light box, trace the acetate face onto your fabric.

5. Practice using the inks and applicators. Always use a rub cloth (a spare piece of muslin) to test the amount of ink in your applicator. The blunt tips are best for fill-in and for blending. The pointed-tip applicators are best for smaller areas and for pastel tones. Dip just the tips briefly into the inks. The inks can be blended until heat-set, so you can get rich, streak-free blending of colors when the inks are first dipped with the blunt tip. If you don't want a blended effect, press with a hot iron after each color. To get a pastel tone of any color, briefly dip a pointed tip into its ink. Tilt the applicator to one side so the angle of the whole tip touches the fabric, and practice on your rub cloth. The color will be intense at first, but you'll get a smooth gradation of dark to light as you rub the ink off. All the ink colors will be very bright when first dipped, and all of them can be brought to the palest of pastels with the rubbing method. When you can get a very smooth pastel area like you did in the colored-pencil exercises, you're ready to shade the face.

6. As you do the shading, keep your application very pastel, and build it up gradually, as the inks are permanent. If one area is darker than you planned, bring the rest of the darks up more richly.

7. Use the markers for fine detail and the applicators for fill-in work.

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