Eye-popping Portraits using Fabric Painting Techniques

Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but they can also be the devil to capture accurately in a fabric portrait. Fiber artists use all kinds of tricks to make eyes look natural and alive. Some do it with thread, others with fabric choice and placement.

painting on fabric esterita austin
Esterita Austin brings the eyes of her fabric portrait
to life with paint and markers.

In addition, many fiber portrait artists apply “make-up” using colored pencils, fabric paint, permanent or water-soluble markers, or a combination.

Esterita Austin uses this mixed-media method to help infuse her fabric portraits with life.

In her Quilting Arts Workshop video, Dynamic Fabric Art Portraits, Esterita borrows her technique from the Renaissance painters, creating her portraits using a single, directional light source  to give the illusion of depth and mystery in the imagery. She “paints” most of the portrait using fused fabrics. Then, by painting on fabric, she is able to add light and depth to the eyes and other features.

Here are some of Esterita’s tips for enhancing the eyes:

Any kind of permanent paint is fine, but textile paints are easier to sew through.

Use an ultra-fine permanent marker (such as a Sharpie®) to outline the eye. Note: Don’t linger as you apply the “eyeliner” as the marker ink can bleed into the fabric.


fabric painting portraits esterita austin
Esterita demonstrates her fabric painting techniques next to
a completed fabric portrait and the inspiration photo.

Create highlights in the eyes

with white paint. Using a small angled paintbrush, apply white paint just to the side of the “eyeliner” around the iris, keeping in mind the source of the light (if the light is coming in from the left, apply the white paint to the left of the iris). “A very dark color next to a very light color makes them pop,” says Esterita.

Starting from the line of white paint you just laid down, brush the white paint away from the iris, toward the corner of the eye, providing more contrast and “pop.”

That little bit of “make-up” makes a big difference!

Esterita demonstrates her complete fabric portrait process in Dynamic Fabric Art Portraits, from choosing the fabrics to fusing to adding the painted highlights. Her method is easy to follow and creates unusual and beautiful results. Anyone who has considered making a fabric portrait could learn a lot from Esterita and Dynamic Fabric Art Portraits.

P.S. Have you tried making fabric art portraits? What techniques did you use and how did it go? Leave a comment below.

Other topics you may enjoy:


Fabric Painting & Dyeing, Quilting Daily Blog, Quilting Techniques

2 thoughts on “Eye-popping Portraits using Fabric Painting Techniques

  1. Perfectly timed post for me, thank you! I have just for the first time had a go at painting one of my whimsy girl faces onto white duckcloth. I am reasonably happy with the result. I had planned to sew this face into a doll, rather than a quilt, however it could look quite nice as a patch (perhaps one of many) to be made into a a little girls lap quilt. Anyway, I will purchase a copy of Esterita’s book as I would love to experiment more with this. Mixed media is definitely my thing! http://instagram.com/p/ftjmAWGny3/

  2. What a coincidence but I just took a fabric portrait class from Lola Jenkins thru my quilt guild here in Fort Worth. I am tickled with the results, using a line-drawing the instructor provided. We also used the black extra-fine Sharpie and colored pencils and crayons, even eye shadow! Now I am anxious to get started on a portrait of our 2 1/2-yr old granddaughter. This may lead to some Christmas gifts this year!