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Painting With Alcohol Based Dyes?

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I'm trying to learn how to paint with Angelus alcohol based dyes for leather. I noticed quite a few people recommended these dyes. I'm painting on veg tanned leather. I'm looking for a tutorial or video that might explain some basics. I've looked all over you tube and this site and don't seem to be able to answer any of my questions.

I tried to paint with some dyes last night and it turned out quite blotchy and just straight up YUCKY! I do have quite a bit of expedience with watercolors and acrylic painting, although not an expert AT ALL.

Some of my questions:

Should my leather be wet, damp, or bone dry?

Should I treat my leather with anything before I paint on the dye?

And most of all, do you know of any video's that might explain the process a bit?

I contacted Angelus and asked and they have no answers.

Thank you so much for any tips, I really appreciate it.

The pic below is an example of the what I'm trying to achieve, a soft subtle color. I hope its ok to post someone elses work!


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As you've used watercolours before, you'll already have a working knowledge of how spirit dyes will behave and how to use them to the best effect.

Painting with spirit dyes on leather is nearly identical to normal watercolour, with these main differences:

1. You're painting on a 3D surface (your carving). As the dyes are translucent, you want to layer your colours. The effect in the photo is obtained with a very dilute dye (dilute it with dye reducer or rubbing alcohol), and allowing the pigment to pool in the deeper parts of the tooling. You can enhance this by brushing more and more concentrated pigment in these areas, allowing them to blend "wet-in-wet" (to use watercolour speak). "Washing" the area you want to paint with dilute dye, dye reducer or rubbing alcohol will make it easier to get an even coat. Be careful with "bleeding", as the dye will want to run into the lowest parts of the carving and can sometimes follow down a bevelled line when you don't want it to. Another thing to watch out for: don't do layers and layers of alcohol-based dye on large areas. I tried to do this on a collar once to get a gradient on the whole thing. Alcohol tends to dry out the leather to the point that no amount of oiling or conditioning can bring it back.

2. Dye absorbs into the leather faster than it does on watercolour paper. Anywhere you touch with the loaded brush will be dyed, and the longer the brush touches the leather, the more dye is applied (as it soaks into the leather). Therefore, you need to plan your strokes and work quickly. If you "overwork" an area, it will end up with more pigment and appear darker, or splotchy.

3. In watercolour, the white of the paper showing through the translucent paints is the "white" of the painting. If you're painting a swan, there is no pigment on the whitest part of the feathers. In leather, the lightest you can achieve is the tan of the undyed leather. This makes some colours difficult or impossible to attain without using opaque acrylic paints, such as light blue. Also, the base tan colour of the leather will darken over time as the item is used, exposed to sunlight, and conditioned. Consider this when choosing your colours!

Hope this helps! This is a really interesting topic, and I'll plan to make a blog post with photos and maybe video at some point in the near future.

Edited by lightingale

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Peter Main has an excellent and definitive book on coloring leather using dyes. I believe you can order directly from him. If I'm wrong, he can advise you on where to buy a copy. I'd start there and use it as your main guide.

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After looking at lightingale's post, I might be somewhat late or maybe disipointing ?

Don't know if this is what you need or not ?

I took it from the picture you posted.

The Old fashioned way:

Stidham Outfitters & Custom Leather

104 N US Hwy 281

​Johnson City, TX 78636


Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-6 p.m. CST. Happy leathering/painting Wild Bill46

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Thank you all so much for the explanations and book recommendations.

Thank you Saluki Feathers for you in depth description. Do you normally paint on dry leather or does it matter? I will keep practicing. I have a feeling this technique will take quite a bit of practice to become remotely adept at. I would LOVE a blog entry or video from you explaining how you do this. I am a fan of your work and your blog has been a great help!

Thanks again,


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I've recently found a couple of things that might help.
One is a water color ground. http://www.danielsmith.com/Item--i-284-055-011

Basically this is appears to be a form of acrylic adhesive enough to stick to even plastic, metal or glass but a bit of roughing may be advisable, and give properties similar to watercolor papers.

Another thing to try is sodium alginate used to thicken fabric dye for silk and fabric painting. dharmatrading.com has a whole range of such. The 'low tech' hack for fabric paint thickening is to mix with shaving cream. Used more for marbling, stenciling, silk screen printing and won't give as fine a line for details as alginate but does work.

And I'm having luck with colorhue dyes instead of leather dyes. These are a protein dye for silk, wool, linen that are 'instant set' or instant strike. As a 'true dye' ie that bonds chemically with the fiber rather than pigment molecules in between fibers, once the dye locks onto the fiber and sets, its permanent. Some washing off, washing out of any dye that didn't set before drying, once dry can't be reactivated, and there will not be any rub off or lifting. Dharma also carries these.

And they can be used with either the alginate or shaving cream. Probably also mixed with gum arabic as watercolor paints can. Alcohol dyes will make arabic clump.
And one other thing to try.
Use setacolor or setasilk, the colorless fabric medium extenders, plus a few drops of Versatex "No Heat" Fixative and your usual watercolors. This is something quilt makers are doing to fix 'fugitive mediums' such as watercolor pigments, powdered pigments, and dye pigments that they may not want to steam or chemically fix with a mordant. Again basically some very low viscosity acrylics. They do come precolored but you can add your own watercolors and even mica and other dry pigments.

Derwent inktense blocks and pencils are one last option. They are are dry ink. Can be applied like colored pencils/pastel sticks dry and then activated with water or blend of water/fabric medium or used wetted with water or blend of medium. Once wetted through and dried, they are a water proof ink and can NOT be rewetted like watercolors. Any lifting or washing out would come from a too thick application that wasn't fully wetted and activated or is so thick that it is pure mechanical flaking off. Adding the fabric medium acts like an acrylic finish to prevent rub off.

After these last 2 dry fully, a brief heat setting may be belt and suspenders insurance against any rub off, lifting if wetted during sealing or smearing.

One more way to color leather that looks promising but I've not fully tested yet are the Shiva paintstiks. An oil paint in stick form. Specially formulated to be low acid and fast drying. Used on silk as well as just about any other surface it can stick to. The low acid form means no need for a gesso or ground like oil paints. Once dry--allow at least 24 hours or up to a week to dry fully if applied thickly, and heat set, 15-30 seconds with an iron set for silk, it can be hand washed. Do not dry clean.

Alkyd paints can also be used on leather and fabric. Not as acidic as regular oil paints and they dry within a few days. I used some Pebeo vitrail on leather. It dries to a flexible finish, fairly scratch resistant and when I goofed on one project, adding chameleon color shift mica too heavily to allow the natural colors beneath it to show and tried to remove the stuff, it was dang difficult. Citrus based solvent barely made a dent, acetone didn't do much either and finally with some odorless mineral spirits and a lot of elbow grease got enough off the surface to fix it.

And this medium gives more depth and transparency than anything I've seen. It's quite thin but there is a thickener available. And the clear extender can be mixed with your own pigments, and colorants. I've used candy auto paint pigment for transparent effects, the chameleon/color shift micas and candy pearl blends from paintwithpearl.com and alkyd paints. Also oxide and lake dye pigments from tkbtrading.com meant for cosmetics, soap making, nail polish etc.

The color fastness of some of these may be better than most leather dyes. The micas appear to virtually NOT change color no matter how much UV they are exposed to. Any transparent colorant is likely to have some degree of fading, candy auto paints will fade within a few years with exposure. But may be significantly better than most leather dyes.

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Not an expert here, but I stumbled on this: A few minutes after using neatsfoot on a piece, I decided I wanted to add a little color to an area I had left natural. I found that the bleed was significantly reduced.

Prior to this, I had tried a product called "no flow", normally used for silk painting-- that did not work very well, and in addition acted more as a resist.

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the no-flow or a resist only works on silk and other fabric when it can penetrate the entire fabric deeply enough that the liquid colorant doesn't wick beneath it. And since it is designed to be washed off, it will, like the alginate or any thickener added to a colorant, will hold some of the colorant and take it with when washed out. In fabric this needs to be compensated for by adding extra dye to the mix. Similar to using an antique finish where it is applied heavily but much is removed when taken off. Using other resists, from commercial ones such as wax, solvent or water based resists for batik, and other resists such as corn or potato dextrin, the latter can give a cool crackle effect as it dries, and even washable glue or corn syrup, they all need to coat the fibers and block the dyes or paints. Even mashed potatoes and cooked oatmeal can be used as resists. Both will crackle when drying and the oats in the oatmeal can give a cool bubble or cell effect. Once dry and crackled a bit more by hand if desired, the dye must either be an instant strike and set like the colorhue or be thickened to prevent rewetting the resist and wicking under or through it. Even the colorhue is more controllable when thickened. Shaving cream makes a quick and dirty thickener for it and other dyes as well as a surface for marbling fabric or leather.

Neatsfoot oil does act like a barrier to spreading or a resist if it has absorbed deeply enough to do so. Keeping that from wicking into some area you don't want which is why wax and other resists are high viscosity. Has to be fluid enough to coat the fiber but not so much that it spreads to unwanted areas.

And the antifusants that do wash out won't work if flooded with dye. Like a sponge absorbing water up to a point and then excess will drain off. Misting with a fine sprayer through a stencil or other masking method and letting the area dry before adding more color if needed. If using a dauber or sponge, being sure either is barely wet and testing on paper or scrap before touching the fabric or leather prevents the flooding. I messed around with that long enough to have some success but decided that using a thickener was more efficient for my needs. Unless I want the crackle effect. And a crackle stencil and thickened dye is still faster when I don't care if it is a unique pattern.

Aloe vera gel can also be used as a thickener. and washable school glue can also be blended with dye to thicken it. Both will hold it but with leather dyes that don't chemically set, removing them without smearing them while washing out may be a problem. Alkaline set 'fiber reactive' dyes can work on leather, need at least an hour while somewhat damp at normal room temps, longer if chilly, for the dyes to bond to the fiber. These can be used with mild acids such as vinegar or citric acid but also need heat. Acid silk and wool dyes http://www.prochemical.com/directions/MX%20PDF/Leather.pdf but what a hassle! The alkaline dyes I've experimented with so far didn't seem to be too negative on most of the leathers, no more drying or stiffness than alcohol based dyes. Once I've rinsed thoroughly to neutralize the pH, and dried, my usual oil or wax treatment brings it back about the same way as with alcohol based dyes. One very thin snakeskin I tested with a very heavy application and let sit too long in a plastic bag in direct sun for several hours shriveled to the point of no return.Might simply have gotten too hot. I should retest another scrap.
So far the Colorhue dyes are the easiest on leather. Fast, easy, permanent, not as lightfast as some other fabric dyes but perhaps more so than many leather dyes. The Inktense applied dry and can give a lot of control and don't lift off at all once I figured out how to be sure it was fully wetted through without any build up on the surface that would flake off or flooding the dry ink so much it spreads. The acrylic diluent mediums do allow a bit thicker application but need some heat setting or the fixative after drying. Possibly using an acrylic leather finish would do the same. Ink added to the sealer to paint with or applied over it carefully to activate it without spreading or smudging.
Applying the Inktense directly from the block or pencil onto damp leather or a damp brush rubbed over the block and painted on have a different effect than the dry block or pencil that is activated. Any strokes are still visible unless blended or so wet they wick and bleed.

The oil based paintstiks have been interesting. Again it's taking me a bit to learn how much pressure to use so I'm not getting too much so that when I burnish it over dry paper or cloth that I don't have to do so several times. The artist grade version is as lightfast as good quality artist pigments. Most will last longer than leather dyes.

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Thank you Tiara, wow! I so appreciate you sharing your knowledge!!! Is there a brand of color hue dye that you like?

I have a set of the Inktense pencils that I would love to experiment with. Most of the applications I do will be fairly small tight detailed areas. I'm making dog collars and need my colors to be fairly "tough". I have a few questions about application.

Would you recommend applying to damp cased leather or dry leather?

Would you treat leather with anything before dying with Inktense pencils? (Neatsfoot or anything else)

To get even coverage I was thinking it might be best just to wet a brush and pick color up from pencil and paint, any experience?

What would you recommend sealing with? Eco flow acrylic?

Thank you so much for your input! It looks as though you have done a TON of experimentation. I had to reread you post a few times as there was so much awesome info in it. I have been ordering from Dharma for quite a while and love the company!

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From digging around on the net--I'm an insatiable data junkie and always curious to find new ways to do things. I wasn't satisfied with standard leather dyes, paints, methods and finishes and started to check alternative art and crafts. I've not tried using coarse salt yet. The same effect from watercolor with salt works on silk/fabric painting as do the alcohol and scrumbled plastic, etc. Plus sun painting, marbling, and so on. Quilting sites have also had some very good info. Some of these fabric arts are meant to be wall art, dyes/paints not steam heat or chemically set and items meant to be used lightly or with more rugged wear. With quilts that have a lot of dimensional effects, the sort of hard use our animals put a quilt through jumping on and off, needing frequent washings, would of course wear both the fabric and surface paints or dyes much more than the same quilt not being treated roughly.

http://www.quiltingdaily.com this site has some free ebooks with various methods and one describes how to fix 'fugitive' mediums like watercolor, pastels, charcoal. And some info on painting with dyes or paints on fabric, using shiva paintsticks etc.

For the Inktense pencils and blocks, using setacolor or setasilk extender plus a few drops of versatex no heat binder appears to get the best ratings. Other fabric mediums can be used, without the versatex, do need some brief heat setting, sometimes as simple as 30 minutes tumbled in a hot clothes dryer. or 5 minutes in a 350 oven. I've not tried those with leather, used only an iron, both a standard size and small craft iron. And the round transfer tip of a pyrography tool works also, mine has a variable heat control. A heat gun can also work but not sure how people estimate how hot for how long.
The setasilk is the thinnest of these acrylic fabric mediums. And can be diluted with water even further but may reach a point of dilution that the acrylic molecules are not able to bond very well just as over diluting artist or leather acrylic sealer or paints will fail if overly diluted with water. The setacolor is thicker and meant to be diluted at least 50/50 with water. Several reports of people using the versatex no heat added to any of the fabric mediums and allowed to dry thoroughly for several days, even up to 2 weeks before washing works effectively and leaves a softer feel on the fabric. Less important on leather.

The Colorhue dyes are a specific brand. The only one I've read of that is an instant set for protein fibers but there may be other brands or commercial forms. I got mine through Dharmatrading.com http://www.dharmatrading.com/dyes/colorhue-instant-set-silk-dyes.html Appear to have the best price on the Colorhue, good prices on other dyes, chemicals and clothing blanks including dog T shirts and bandannas. But not the best prices for the Shiva or Inktense. I found both the iridescent shiva mini 15 color set and the inktense 72 color block set on Amazon at the lowest prices.

For prep on these, no oils, even with the oil sticks as there is a specific fast oxidation reaction that polymerizes the oils to bind them to the fibers. I've used acetone on leather. I've done it with and without using the watercolor ground--thin very fluid acrylic with something added to give a bit of 'tooth' for paint, pastels, finishes to grab onto. This keeps liquids from wicking into porous or absorbent surfaces and on slick surfaces like glass or metal, the tooth allows them to stick. Possibly priming with the fabric medium might work.

For even coverage, you could scrape off some of the inktense into water and apply with spray mister, foam roller, foam brush or any method that works for you. Some online videos showing how it is used on fabric might help. Effects on damp and dry fabric and leather do vary.

One thing I like both with the blocks and oil sticks, is using them for rubbings with fabric and on the exotic leathers I love with textured patterns, over the surface to enhance the grain. The inktense works well both on dry or damp fabric/leather, the shiva must be used on dry ones.

Dharma trading has a lot of info on how to use these.
You might want to check out the Pebeo alkyd paints. Supposedly designed as glass paint and multimedia on canvas other art board surfaces, I tried them on fabric and leather and was impressed with the flexibility and durability. Can be scratched with enough effort but pretty tough when fully cured, a week at most for a very thick layer. There is a thickener available for use on non-horizontal surfaces. The Pebeo Vitrail has both gorgeous transparent deeply colored version and an opaque version plus a pearlizer. And clear extender to dilute the colors. Can be blended. The same extender appears to be the base for the really cool Pebeo Prisme and Fantasy moon paints. Must be used on horizontal surfaces. These have the base mixed with transparent pigment and mica flakes from medium micron size to very fine. As the solvent evaporates, this creates currents to lift and then drop the micas to create some really cool crater or cell effects. And I found that getting the clear extender and using automotive candy pigments and micas, paintwithpearl.com has the best prices and some really cool chameleon and color shift stuff, I can get the same effects. Not much cheaper but far broader range as I have a lot of colorants and micas. Here's a few pix https://www.paintwithpearl.com/project/effects-leather-and-reptile-skin-effects/
My preference for a final sealer on leather has been something like krylon crystal clear aerosol as I get a smoother thin coverage. The fabric medium might be enough but I like having an extra layer to protect against abrasion.

Have fun and do a lot of stress testing first on the collars. I didn't test one sealer I was using on belt buckles several years ago and found I goofed somehow. I was playing music on a hot humid day and bent over my buckle just enough that my sweaty shirt dampened the buckle and lifted dye onto my shirt. better me than someone else!

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ALOT of great info in this thread! Thank you everyone. I have a related question. I contacted Peter Main and he sells his books directly. They are $27 shipped. Reasonable but I have a wholesale account with tandy so the Stohlman coloring leather book is $12 plus tax for me. I want to buy once and buy the best. Does anyone have both and have a very strong feeling about one over the other?

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