If you’re a sneakerhead you will most likely be working on leather. Upgrading to other colorways or creating your own are very quick projects that can be done by just about anyone. Leather is probably the easiest material to work on because it is smooth so paint and stencils are easy to manage. As is for all of our standards, we will first tell you what materials you need, then show just the steps as a “too long, didn’t read” (TL:DR), go over the 3P’s (preparation, painting, and preservation), list our tips, include links to useful videos, and end with links to where you can buy products (and view prices).
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- Clean shoes.
- Use a cotton ball or rag and wipe leather surfaces you are going to paint with acetone or Angelus Leather Prep and Deglazer.
- 4-6 coats of paint with Angelus, Jacquard, or DecoArt leather paint.
- Finish with Angelus Acrylic Finisher, Treehouse Matte Clear Acrylic Coating or Krylon Matte Finisher.
Watch these videos:
Before you start and project you should make sure the shoes are clean or new. Shoe cleaners we recommend are Reshovn8r, Angelus Shoe Cleaner, and Jason Markk. Before you start cleaning, remove the laces (you can clean them separately in a cup with some cleaner).
The next step is to remove the factory coating by dipping cotton balls or a rag into acetone or Angelus Leather Prep & Deglazer. Apply the acetone or deglazer until the surface is kind of sticky or tacky. Use precise cotton swaps in the cracks and crevices.
Prepping the shoes with acetone or deglazer.
After the surface is prepped, mask of any areas that you don’t want paint. Read our article on Customizing Tape (coming soon) for details on which tape to use where.
I like to prepare my paint ahead of time, but you can do it just before applying the paint as well. If I’m airbrushing with Angelus or DecoArt, I’ll mix my paint with Angelus 2-thin (4:1 ratio of paint:2-thin) and run it through a strainer into a 1oz jar (or you can strain directly into your airbrush). For leather shoes, a lot of the time you don’t want the shine of normal paint. In this case, you will want to add some Angelus Duller. Great video by Sophiesophss on using duller here. Even if you’re just mixing colors, I also like to use the 1oz jars because the walls are clear so I can see the color and I also can label it and use that color later.
If you are using Jacquard airbrush paint, you’re good to go and no prep is needed of that paint. You can pour it into a jar, palette, or dip a brush into it if you want to brush on the paint (i.e. touch up work). If you want to use a brush, Jacquard’s Neopaque and Lemiere lines will work on leather.
A budget-minded brand we tested is DecoArt. Their Stylin line works well on leather. It’s about half the price but the downside is they have limited colors to choose from, it's a bit shinier, and thicker (use a little more 2-thin if airbrushing).
For a new person painting on customs the first thing you should realize is that you will need to paint in thin layers. You can’t simply paint once and be done. We recommend you do 4-6 layers, depending on how well your paint is laying down and the colors you’re using (light colors or neons may require more layers). Using thin layers will keep your paint from clumping and cracking. Don’t be alarmed if the first layer you apply is blotchy or has tiny gaps showing. As you add more layers the colors will apply evenly and gaps will be filled. Below is an example of what it looks like as you add more layers. Notice that after the first layer the paint looks streaky and you can see the white background color. After the second layer it is still blotchy. This is fine, keep applying those thin layers! By the 3rd layer it looks pretty even. The 4th layer will look like the actual color you want and appear mostly perfect. I usually do 1-2 more layers after it looks perfect, just to be sure after drying it will stay that way.
Example of 1, 2, 3 and 5 layers of paint.
In order to use thin layers, don’t glob the paint onto your brush. Just pull up enough so you can place a bit of the paint down and spread it out thinly. Use the brush as a spreading tool with the goal of making the paint apply thinly and evenly. You can use a hair dryer or heat gun between coats to make it dry faster. Be careful not to make it too hot or the paint may burn and change color.
If you are using stencils, check out our article on how to use them.
I like to start out with big brushes to do large areas and then use smaller or angled brushes near edges. It’s a good idea to reserve 1-2 hours at the end of painting to clean up all of the detailed edges (after removing the masking tape). If you used a stencil, this step is crucial for getting those crisp lines and perfect images.
Now that you’re done painting you will need to let it dry or expedite the process with a hair dryer or heat gun. Be careful not to burn the paint with the heat gun.
Applying 1-2 thin layers of finisher will protect your artwork and make them scuff resistant. We recommend you use brush-on finisher over a spray because you have more control and guaranteed coverage of every area. We suggest Angelus Acrylic Finisher. If you want to use a spray finisher, brands we trust are Treehouse Matte Clear Acrylic Coating and Krylon Matte Finisher. Tip: before spraying, always shake the canister and do a few sprays away from the shoe because it sometimes the liquid settles and gives a foggy effect for the first few sprays, which will ruin your shoes.
The most popular finisher type is matte finish, but you can also use gloss or satin finishes. For gloss we recommend Sargent Art Gloss Finisher brush on or Krylon Crystal Clear spray on. For a satin look we recommend Angelus Satin Acrylic Finisher.
Difference in finishes. Taken from www.Angelusdirect.com.
Allow your finisher to dry at least 2 hours but preferably 24 hours.
If you want a fresh layer of protection, use Crep Protect once every few wears or if they’ve been on the shelf for longer than 2 months.
- Start with lighter colors because darker colors are better to use for touch-up. If you are airbrushing a fade, you should use dark colors first because overspray from dark colors will ruin your light colors if laid down afterwards.
- Thin layers are better. Thick layers can lead to the paint cracking, so put just enough paint on your brush to spread thin onto the leather. If it dries with tiny gaps or faded looking colors it’s ok, you can put on more thin layers until it looks uniform.
- Now is a good opportunity to get used to different brushes, angles, and brush strokes. For large areas, use the biggest brush you have, but make sure you are spreading it evenly and not too thick. Angle brushes are perfect for doing fades. Fades can be achieved by using two brushes with the paints you want to fade and blending them into each other. Make sure the paint you are trying to blend is still wet. Flat brushes are great for edges and everything else.
- It’s a good idea to paint across the toe box (in the across-the-toes direction) because that area flexes more than anywhere else on the shoe. Having the paint flex in the same direction as the shoe will reduce chances of cracking. If your pattern doesn’t lend itself to painting across-the-toes don’t worry about it, it’s a minimal effect.
- Use those detail brushes at the end. The key to a professional looking shoe is having clean edges, artwork, and images.
- Excess paint on the soles can be cleaned up with acetone (nail polish remover) or isopropyl alcohol and a cotton swab or q-tip.
- Denatured alcohol can be used to “erase” a layer or two of paint at a time. This is useful if you have accidental paint on your shoe, but don’t want to remove a base layer you painted on behind it.
- Proper brush care will extend the life of your brushes. Don’t allow the paint to dry on the brush. Always put it in some water and rinse it around. If you are switching colors, repeatedly rinse until nothing comes off while drying your brush on a paper towel. After you are done working, brushes can be washed using a brush cleaner (we recommend Masterbrush Cleaner), soapy water, or shampoo. Do not store your brushes head-down or in water or solvent.
Articles and Video Links
- If you want to use stencils read our other article here.
- Article on using an airbrush here (coming soon).
- For some great project ideas, visit our How-To-Projects
- Angelus How to Paint on Leather
- Sophisophss How to Paint Your Shoes Tutorial
- Shoe Cleaners
- Jacquard Paint
- Angelus Paint ($2.95, 1oz)
- DecoArt Stylin ($2.98, 2oz)
- 1oz jars 16 pack ($12.99)
- Heat Gun, Furno 300 ($19.98)
- Stencil purchase sites
- Silhouette Cameo for making stencils ($203.99)
- Vinyl sheets for stencils (Oracal 651) ($7.95 for 12”x10’)
- Heat transfer vinyl sheets (Thermoflex) ($14.50 for 15”x3’)
- Transfer Paper ($15.99 for 12”x50’)
- Matte brush-on
- Matte spray can
- Gloss brush on
- Sargent Art Gloss Finisher ($5.00, 2oz)
- Gloss spray can
- Krylon Crystal Clear (9.04, 6oz)
- Satin brush-on
- Angelus Satin Acrylic Finisher ($4.07, 4oz)
- Continuous protection
- Crep Protect ($14.99, 11oz)
- Masterbrush Cleaner ($8.71, 2.5oz)