Can You Paint Leather? What Works Best? | Detailed Guide

Five rolled-up leather belts in a row.

If you’ve ever admired colorful leather handbags with amazing patterns or leather journal covers with artwork on them, you may have wondered how they were made.

In fact, you may even have a bag, jacket, or belt that you’d love to dress up a bit with paint. 

Can you paint leather? Yes. Before painting, the surface of the leather must be correctly prepared by removing all coatings with isopropyl alcohol, sandpaper, or a deglazer. Acrylic paints or leather paints can then be applied to either cover the entire surface or to create unique designs.

If you want to take a tired-looking bag or those old leather shoes and give them an at-home makeover with a coat of paint and perhaps even some simple, colorful designs, rest assured; it can be done. 

With just a few basic supplies, you can breathe new life into items that you’ve grown bored of or that could use some embellishing to brighten them up.

Let’s see exactly how easy it is to enjoy a creation of your own with just a few simple steps.

How to Paint Leather

I should warn you. Painting leather is addictive.

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be going through your closets looking for anything made out of leather that you could potentially embellish.

All of a sudden, any plain leather journal, satchel, briefcase, vest, or boots will be viewed as a blank canvas just waiting for your creative touch.

Now that you’ve been warned, let’s learn the basics.

What Paint Is Best For Use on Leather?

Although standard acrylic paints can absolutely be used on leather, it’s even better to use leather paints because they are specifically made to adhere to the surface of leather.

If you use leather paints, your leather won’t become riddled with cracks or flaking, and you won’t have to worry about the paint peeling off or bubbling up.

If used correctly, the leather paint will become a part of the leather. An added advantage of using leather paints is that they’ll add a layer of protection from moisture. 

Leather paint is acrylic based and is formed when pigment is dissolved through a process called acrylic polymer emulsion.

Because they’re water-solvent paints, they make the leather fairly water-resistant. These paints can be used for basically any type of leather crafting. 

Acrylic leather paints are sold individually or in sets and come in a variety of colors. You can find popular leather paints at almost any craft store.

If you plan to paint several items or use a variety of different colors, purchasing a set will be much more economical.

For genuine leather paints, Angelus is the go-to company.

A great place to start would be the Angelus Leather Paint Basics Kit, which comes with 1-ounce bottles of black, white, red, blue, and yellow and includes a bonus bottle of preparer (deglazer), as well as a 5-piece Angelus brush set.

Testing your paints on small scraps of leather (the same type as that of your project) is recommended to give you the opportunity to practice and develop a feel for the paint before moving on to your actual project.

Basic Items Needed for Painting Leather

While painting leather doesn’t require a ton of supplies and fancy equipment, you will want to have the basics on hand before you get started.

  • Isopropyl alcohol and sandpaper.
  • Deglazer
  • Cotton and/or cloth.
  • Leather or acrylic paint.
  • Brushes.
  • Acetone nail polish.
  • Washi or masking tape.

You may wind up not needing every item, but it’s always best to be prepared.

For instance, on one of my earliest leather painting escapades, the only thing I had to prep the surface was isopropyl alcohol.

Well, little did I know that the leather had a silicone coating. My paint efforts resulted in an epic fail, and my project was stalled until I could get to the store for a deglazer. Lesson learned.

Be prepared.

Preparing the Leather

No matter what type of leather your project happens to be, you’ll need to prepare the surface before painting.

This involves removing the coatings, waxes, and oils so that the paint will adhere properly. This process is commonly called degreasing.

The process is quite easy. Take some isopropyl alcohol, and wipe down the piece with cotton or a cloth, depending on the size of your item.

Do not pour the alcohol directly on the leather. Pour it on the cotton or cloth first.

You’ll need to wipe it quickly but smoothly, and then let it dry completely.

Remember, the goal is to remove any coating on the leather, so if the alcohol doesn’t do the job, the next step will be to sand gently with sandpaper.

An alternative method is to use a deglazer. If you go this route, don’t use the alcohol or sandpaper. Just wipe the leather with a damp cloth and then apply the deglazer. Allow it to dry before moving on.

One instance in which a deglazer is necessary is if the leather was treated with a silicone coating. You’ll know if this is the case when your paint won’t cling to the leather at all after you’ve prepped with alcohol.

Painting

Once the leather is prepared properly, it’s finally time for the fun part – painting.

To achieve a beautiful finish, you’ll need to patiently apply thin layers of paint. Now’s not the time to rush by slathering on a thick layer.

It may seem like a tedious process, but applying thin layers gives you a chance to see how the paint adheres to the leather and to make sure the paint itself isn’t too thick in the first place.

If you feel like the paint is too thick, add a small amount of water to thin the paint. Again, experimenting on scraps of similar leather first will take care of any surprises.

You may need to apply two to three layers of paint in the end. After applying each layer, let it dry before applying another layer of paint.

Otherwise, you’re just defeating the purpose of applying thin layers. If you touch the surface and some paint stays on your fingertip, then you need to wait before applying another layer.

After applying the first layer, the color won’t look very appealing. It will have a dull appearance in comparison to the color you see in the bottle.

The next layer should look more like the color that you’re trying to achieve. If not, then apply a third layer.

Finishing

While acrylic paints are water resistant when dry, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are totally waterproof.

Many people opt to be safe instead of sorry and will seal their project with either a leather waterproofing spray or an acrylic finisher.

I think one of the best finishers out there for acrylics is Angelus Finisher. It does a great job of protecting your work; applies easily with a sponge, rag, or brush; and comes in several varieties.

For example, if you’re going for a fresh, shiny look, choose their high gloss finisher, but if you prefer to avoid a glossy sheen on your completed project, go with the matte finisher.

Creating Designs With Paint

For beginners, being creative should be fun and easy. You don’t have to have experience with painting leather in order to add creative elements to your project.

There are plenty of simple items and techniques you can utilize to create a unique, fun piece.

Abstract patterns, geometric shapes, smiley faces, stripes, dots, rainbows, skulls, or whatever you’re in to can add an entirely new element to your project.

Really, the sky’s the limit when it comes to adding creative, unique designs to your work. 

Before you get started designing though, you’ll want to be certain that any previous painting has had the chance to dry thoroughly. This is important to prevent smearing and bleeding of colors.

Also, take a few minutes to consider which colors will work well together for your planned design. 

If your project is an article of clothing, ask yourself what you’ll be wearing with the piece and think about how the colors will coordinate.

As luck would have it, I recently devoted an entire article on how to use a standard color wheel for planning designs that you might find very helpful.

Freehand Design

For freehand work, you’ll need at least one good quality brush, though you’ll soon find that several different sizes will come in handy.

I just love the assortment of sizes, the handmade quality, and the nice, long handles of the Mont Marte Brush Set.

The smooth taklon bristles work well with acrylics, don’t splay out when painting, and reshape nicely after washing.

Here again, you’ll want to practice on leather scraps before launching into your actual design so you get a feel for how the brush moves the paint across the material.

However, standard brushes aren’t the only tools at your disposal. Sponge brushes or even rags can create stunning designs as well. Don’t limit yourself to just a brush.

Acrylic paint pens are another terrific option for freehand work and provide you with more control when designing than a brush does.

These would be especially useful if you’d like to add names, dates, small detail work, or catchy expressions to your project.

Speaking of control, the way you hold your hand when designing matters quite a bit.

Your hand will quickly grow tired while hovering in the air trying to remain steady enough to avoid mistakes.

One trick is to start in the middle of the leather item and allow the side of your hand to rest against the surface while you work your way to the outer edges.

Leather Designing With Tape

With some designs, such as dots, consistent size really isn’t that critical.

However, if stripes are included in your design plans, evenly spaced, congruent lines are important. This can be easily accomplished by using tape.

You’ll need to choose your tape according to the width of the stripes you plan on making.

After you’ve settled on the particular look you’re going for, place the tape onto the leather, making sure to line up the pieces evenly. A ruler or measuring tape can can help with preciseness.

Then, take a coin or similar object and rub it against the edges of the lines to ensure that no paint will seep into unwanted areas.

Now, paint using whatever colors you’ve decided will look best. Of course, using multiple colors will take a bit more time, but the results may be worth the extra effort.

More importantly, you’ll need to paint multiple, thin layers and take care when removing the tape. You might need to go back and touch up some areas after the tape has been removed.

Tape isn’t just used for stripes though. You can use tape to protect any area of your project that you’d like to keep paint-free.

For example, if you are painting a nautical star onto the back of a leather jacket, you could use tape to carefully outline the outer edges of the star before painting to keep the borders crisp and clear.

Tracing Designs on Leather

Another design technique involves tracing a pattern directly onto the leather and then filling in the resulting shape with the colors of your choice.

You’ll first need to choose a pattern and trace the image onto tracing paper or film. I’ve found that the Selizo Transfer Paper and Stylus Set gets the job done nicely.

Once the pattern has been traced, tape the paper to the leather and use the stylus to transfer the design.

This clip does a great job of demonstrating the process.

Be careful to not use too much pressure.

You only need to be able to see the outline on the leather. You’re goal is not to carve the pattern into the piece, though that’s usually what this method is used for.

Now all that’s left is to fill in the shape with the colors of your choice.

What If I Make a Mistake When Painting?

If you do happen to make a mistake, grab a cotton ball or pad, dab it with a bit of acetone nail polish remover, and wipe it off.

Don’t rub it too hard though, or you might take the background paint off as well, which is not fun to fix.

Your first few attempts may not look 100% perfect, but that is completely fine.

You have made a totally unique item, and a few tiny flaws here and there only add more character to your work.