Banner Painting

by Honorable Lady Suvdchin Khan

In period, painted cloth was used for temporary displays, such as banners, city flags and decorations for processions. Painting banners is one of the quickest and easiest ways to dress up a hall or event site. The designs can be complex as in Celtic Knotwork or elegantly simply as a semy of fleur-de-lis. Here I'll give you some tips and hints that I've learned over the past few years.

Material: In period they used linen and canvas. Today the price of linen is a bit prohibitive. I like using poly-cotton blends for a couple of reasons. They are very affordable, easily available and they wash very well. Other types of materials that work well are canvas, duck, and trigger. I would avoid fabrics with a nap like velvet (unless you want to paint Elvis as Richard the LionHearted) or fabrics that are slick and shiny. These are very difficult to paint on because the paint has a tendency to flake and to peel. If you are a beginner, you may want to start with light colored fabric because it is much easier to lay out your design and the base color of your fabric is less likely to bleed through so you can use fewer coats of paint.

Once you have picked out your material, wash it before you do any painting. This way you can make sure that the fabric will not bleed and you can take care of any shrinkage before you start painting.

Paints:In period the banners would have been painted with oils. One of the disadvantages of using oils for this is the curing time. Usually, you need to paint your banners on a deadline and you don't have two or three days to wait for one layer to cure. I like using acrylic paints. They are easy to use, inexpensive, durable and come in a wide variety of colors. If your banner gets dirty you can toss it in the laundry and you don't have to worry about the paint coming off. I, personally, use a brand called Ceramcoat. This paint does not require a fabric medium to be mixed with it but it does need to be heat set. So once you finish your banner and it has dried for 24 hrs, you can either iron it or you can toss it in your dryer to set the paint.

Layout:Once you have picked out your design, you need to lay it out on your fabric. The easiest way to do this is to make a transparency of your design and then use an overhead projector to shine the design on to your fabric and trace it. I hang some painter's plastic dropcloth on my wall and then tack the fabric onto it. Some people will lay the painter's dropcloth on the floor, like in the garage and then user stencils to lay out their design. Some very talented people can free hand their design. Regardless, you need something under your fabric to keep the paint from seeping through onto the surface below. To actually put your design on the fabric, I use colored pencils. This way I can change out colors to help me differentiate the lines, which is especially useful if you are doing Celtic Knotwork. Another option is to use a charcoal pencil. If you choose a charcoal pencil, be careful because it is easy to smudge your lines.

Getting Started: The things you need to get started are:

Paints - the colors you have chosen to use, plus black and white for doing shades, shadowing, and highlighting.
Brushes - have at least 2-3 brushes, one fine point for detailing and one big brush for painting large areas easily.
Palette - Foam paper plates make nice disposable palettes
Cups - one of clean water to help keep your paints moist and one of water with a drop or two of dish wash soap to clean your brushes in.
Paper Towels - for cleaning your brushes

Painting:The main thing you need to remember is to keep your paints and brush moist. If your paints are too dry they will not spread smoothly and if they are too moist the paint will bleed into the fabric, usually into an area where you did not want it. This is something you will have to experiment with because the right amount of moisture will change depending on what type of paint and fabric you are using and even how old the paint is.

In any painting things are done in 3's. You have a background, a mid-ground and a foreground. You also have your base color, then shadow and highlights. If you keep these things in mind, you can add a great deal of depth and variety to your banners.

Put your base coat down first. This is where you want to block in your large areas of color and do whatever blending you want to do. You can either use a blending brush (which looks like a fan) or you can use your finger to blend the paints together. The next thing you want is to do your detailing, then your shadowing and highlighting if your design calls for it.

Do your highlighting last because you want to have the full picture done and use the highlights to emphasize. Also, be sure to step back from your work and look at it from different distances and angles. This is to give you a chance to see what your banner will look like as a whole and keep you from getting too focused on one area or color.

For more advice on painting, I recommend reading any of the books I've listed in the bibliography. Painting is an on going process. You learn something new with each piece you do. If you are a novice in painting, start simple and as you gain confidence, you can try new techniques and styles.

Once you are finished painting your banner, its best to leave it to dry about 24 hours. Then heat set your paint either by ironing or by tossing it in the dryer on perm press for 20 min.

Finishing Touches: I like lining my banners because I find it makes them more durable and they also hang better. You are going to want a way to hang your banner. You can either make a sleeve at the top and run a piece of dowel rod through it and some cord or you can put in grommets. Also to help your banner hang better you can either sew in curtain weights, put in another sleeve and dowel rod in at the bottom, or sew tassels to the bottom.

Also, you will find that all of these things give your banner a more finished look. All of these things add to the ambience of your site and help enhance those moments we try to create.

I hope you'll find these tips helpful and make your experiences of painting banners an enjoyable one. One word of warning, banner making can become addictive. Once you finish one or even before you finish, you can find yourself planning your next one.


Craig Harbison. The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context. Harry N. Abrams Inc. New York, New York. 1995

Hayes, Colin. The Complete Guide to Painting and Drawing Techniques and Materials. Mayflower Books, New York, New York. 1978.

Gair, Angela. Artist's Manual: A Complete Guide to Painting and Drawing Materials and Techniques. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA. 1996.