Industry Tips

Dry Brushing with Acrylic Paints 

By Annie Libertini 

Many (if not most) leather workers consider coloring their work to be the most nerve-racking part of the process. It makes sense: you’ve spent a large amount of time tooling and finishing a piece, and it feels like one slip of the brush or drip of dye can mess it all up. Acrylic paint in particular can be a challenge to use on leather if you are accustomed to using only dyes, since it behaves and goes on very differently. 

Before getting into leather working, I was a painter, so for me coloring is my comfort zone…while the tooling can be much more stressful! I love incorporating acrylic paint, along with water-based dyes, because the paint can give highlights and brighter colors that can’t be achieved with dye alone.  

When I use acrylics in my work, my goal is to highlight and brighten the piece without adding so much paint that it disguises the leather. It’s important to apply the paint in very thin layers, so it can adhere to the leather properly and not end up cracking, and there are two main ways to do this. The first is by diluting the acrylic paint with water and applying multiple coats, in much the same way you would a dye. This technique seems to be the most common in the leather-working world and while it does work, I would like to make a case for the alternative: dry brushing.  

Dry brushing is a technique in which you apply very thin layers of paint onto the surface without diluting it, using quick, light brushstrokes to catch any raised areas while staying out of cuts and other texture. It’s a great technique for leather because when done right it is basically reverse-antiquing, making all of the upper parts of your tooling lighter, while leaving the cuts and deeper parts dark.  

It can also be used on flat areas to create smooth, gradual shading – though this takes a bit more practice to achieve. Dry brushing works best when the color underneath (whether dye or the natural leather color) is darker than the color of the paint. Metallic colors, when applied over a darker dyed base coat, are a perfect example of this technique.  

As with any technique, dry brushing takes some practice, but once you’ve got it down it’s a controlled and surprisingly fast way to add highlights and brighter colors to your tooling. It’s particularly handy for highlighting fine detail such as feathers or fur, without having to spend hours with a tiny brush.  

There are two big reasons I find dry brushing to work better on leather than using watered-down paints. First: it doesn’t wet the leather and cause it to darken, so you have a much better view of the actual colors you’re putting down while you’re painting. Second: because there isn’t a lot of liquid in the paint that needs to soak into the leather, you can add highlights with dry brushing after a resist or even a top coat has been applied to your piece. I almost always add highlights to my pieces after resisting and antiquing since it gives me total control over how I want my finished piece to look before I add a final coat of finish.  

Of course, if you’re making something that will undergo a lot of wear (a belt, for instance) there is always a concern that acrylic paint will rub off. There is a belief that watered-down acrylic paints soak into the leather and therefore won’t rub off as easily, but the reality is that only the water soaks in leaving the thin coat of paint adhered to the surface. As long as you apply your paint in thin coats and don’t put on too much, it will stick equally well whether you dry brush or water it down.  

Dry Brushing Steps 

1) Mix your paint color, do not add any water. Pick up some of your paint with your brush (a flat brush works best), then “paint” it onto your palette to work the paint into the bristles. 

2) Wipe your brush on a paper towel to get any excess paint off – don’t be afraid to wipe a lot off to start, there’s more paint in the bristles than you think. Make sure to do steps 1 and 2 every time you grab more paint with your brush.  

3) Brush the paint onto your tooled piece with light, quick strokes, focusing on the areas you want to add highlights to. If the paint is too thick and gets into the tooling, use a scratch awl or something similar to scrape it out right away, then wipe more paint off your brush and start again.  

Add more layers as necessary. The paint is very thin and will dry quickly, but if you find that your additional layers are lifting paint up just give it more time to dry in between.