Frugal Artist Tips: 6 Ways to Turn Old Clothes into Art Tools

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

It’s a rare artist who hasn’t used castoff and worn-out clothing as rags to clean paintbrushes or hands. But what about using them as painting tools?


Here’s a short list of clothing items that I’ve found have a second life as useful studio tools. For good measure, I’ve also included a few bonus uses—some of which I’ve not experimented with yet, but I’m definitely considering!

1. Acrylic socks for brushes

Socks of any kind can make great paint rags for cleaning your paintbrushes and hands. They also have enough bulk to be useful in completely or partially wiping down a canvas if that becomes necessary.

But what about putting paint on a canvas? Depending on the texture of the fabric, old socks can be the perfect painting tool for a number of uses.

The outside of the sock is usually worn quite smooth—especially the bottom—so it’s an excellent way to rub thin layers of color into large areas. I use them regularly at the imprimatura and umber layer phases of painting and sometimes for applying glazes.

The top or inside is also useful for applying paint more heavily or for glazing with texture. Depending the texture, they can be ideal for painting trees, coarse dirt, and other rough textures with a minimum of time and effort.

I often block in the basic shapes of trees by folding a sock as small as possible, touching it to the greens I want to use, then using a stippling sort of stroke to put the color on the canvas.

BONUS USE: Lightly touch the sock to your palette, then lightly touch it to the surface of your painting to add a broken pattern. To create elongated patterns, use a tap-and-stroke method, in which you touch the paint to the surface, then pull it a short distance across the surface.

2. Shirts and dress pants for rags

Shirts or pants into small sections or hang them whole from the easel for great painting rags. Shirts also make great painting smocks.

I also cut shirts or pants into larger sections, then fold them and use the sides or edges to apply paint and/or to move it around. This rubbing method produces wonderfully thin layers of transparent color with even the most opaque colors.

BONUS USE: When paint ends up in places on your painting where you don’t want it, moisten a section of old shirt with linseed oil (or similar) and wipe the surface of the painting until the unwanted paint is gone. A softer fabric is best for this, but most types of fabric will work. I’ve been able to clean up migrating paint completely using this method with walnut oil, even if the paint is partially dry.

CAUTION: Use this technique only if the underlying paint is completely dry.

3. Jeans for brush cleanup (or brush storage!)

Denim is best used as a clean up rag for larger brushes, but it is also an interesting alternative to the lighter, more finely textured fabrics for putting paint onto a canvas.

BONUS TIP: Cut out a section that includes a pocket and mount it to a wall or to your easel. The pocket becomes a handy place to keep the brushes you’re currently using but can’t hold. You can also store brushes in the pocket between painting sessions. Handles down, of course.

4. Dish towels for wiping off mistakes

If dish towels are worn enough to have lost all potential for lint, they can be used for paint application. They are not as good as linen (which I’ve used and love for paint application), but they do have a texture all their own.

They can also be put to good use wiping excess paint off a canvas.

BONUS USE: Keep a couple of laundered towels folded on one corner of the work table for the studio cat to curl up on (if you have one).

5. Linen for texture

Linen is a great way to apply paint, but that’s not my favorite use for it. What makes linen a valuable addition to the studio is its texture!

If pressed lightly into wet gesso on a panel surface, then carefully removed, linen reproduces its texture in the wet surface. The more pronounced the weave in the linen, the more pronounced the texture it leaves in wet gesso.

You can do the same thing with any fabric, but the more texture the better. I’ve always wanted to see what burlap would do, for example, but that toothy a surface wouldn’t work at all with the type of painting I do, so I have yet to try it.

BONUS TIP: Larger pieces of used, but clean linen can be wrapped around frames to keep the frames free of dust and protect them from nicks and scratches while in storage.

6. Sheets and blankets for protecting your stuff

While not technically clothing, I’m including sheets and blankets because they are made of fabric and they are useful in a variety of ways.

If used whole, they are great for wrapping finished artwork for travel to and from shows. Light weight, inexpensive, and washable, they can be used over and over. Used blankets also make great washable drop cloths for around your easel.

If you happen to work small, pillow cases make great, ready-made containers for wrapping paintings and other small works for short-term transit or storage.

BONUS USE: If you happen to really spatter paint when you work, save those drop cloths. When they’ve outlived their usefulness as drop cloths, consider framing them in part or as a whole. Or turn them into wall hangings, quilting material, or a variety of other art pieces. Just make sure the pigments on the cloth are non-toxic and washable!

Ready for a challenge? Clean out your closet this week and re-purpose three or more clothing items for your studio. Your closet (and your pocketbook) will thank you!


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