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How to Paint a Leather Jacket

Back when I was getting married in 2016, it seemed like the only ones wearing leather jackets for their wedding day were KimYe. I had a hard time finding an artist to do one for me, so I sought to learn calligraphy myself (in under a month I wanted to develop my own style of handlettering, haha) and ended up painting my first leather jacket for my wedding, and the rest as they say is history. Check out this page to learn the story of #TheJustMarriedJacket and how it's a worldwide project now :)

Fast forward to today, every novice calligrapher seems to be offering hand lettering services on leather. It's become a bit of a trend (maybe my own viral project is a bit to blame for that) and custom jackets are in extremely high demand. But how can you avoid a horribly crooked, badly lettered Pinterest fail? Either hire a professional (a directory of calligraphers who specialize in leather is at the end of this page) or read on for my full process and some answers to some FAQs... 

Not looking to DIY? I'll do it for you!

Disclaimer: It's not easy to do calligraphy on leather and does require a high level of confidence on your artistic skills to get a balanced and beautiful design. And yes, it's nerve wracking painting on very very expensive jackets!

Tools for Painting a Leather Jacket

One question I'm very frequently asked is "what kind of paint do you use on leather?" and I, ridiculously, am forced to answer with "leather paint". It's really that simple! There's no need to figure out hacks, there's a paint made especially for that :)

Tools you may need to paint on leather are:

  • Leather Paint - I use Angelus Flat White or Flat Black
  • Round Paint Brush - I use whatever I have laying around, usually a Winsor and Newton 00 round
  • Ruler - you'll need to measure and centre your design.
  • Stabilo Aquarellable and Sharpener - a water soluble pencil. This magic tool can create all your guidelines; but be cautious on leather or pleather because sometimes it can leave ghosted lines on the porous surface. Always test an inconspicuous part of the fabric inside the jacket. Have a sharpener handy to keep the pencil sharp! Sometimes a chalk pencil actually works best (it's def the best on fabric like denim).
  • Damp Paper Towels - damp paper towels can clean off the Stabilo Aquarellable, but again, test the pencil and removable of it on an inconspicuous spot inside the jacket.
  • Throw Pillow - Laying a jacket flat is hard. It's made to fit on a 3D body so it has darts that curve around and there's sleeves and zippers that are challenging to work around. My solution is to stuff a throw pillow from my sofa into the zipped jacket and paint with it inside.

Leather Jacket Painting Process

  • Copy and Concept - solidify what your copy is and figure out what kind of design details or motifs you'll be including. Do NOT copy someone else's design. If you have a client asking you to copy something, figure out how you can make a design your own because plagiarism is not cute.
  • Draft - I always create a digital draft for clients so I can figure out scale and placement and make sure that they're happy with the design before permanently damaging an expensive leather jacket! A pencil draft on some scrap paper will do, but I like to try and find a jacket on-model and create the draft on the Procreate App for iPad.
  • how to paint a leather jacket - draft digital
  • Approval/changes - (for client based work only) If you're working with a client, allow time for approval/changes. My pricing includes one round of revisions and I charge hourly for additional design time. Disclaimer to clients: the design draft is solely for the purposes of approvals and will not be identical when applied to the jacket.
  • Guidelines - Once you have an approved design, the placement and scale is all decided, so it's just a matter of replicating it! If you've found that the Aquarellable does not leave noticeable marks on the leather, proceed with using it; or try chalk or a pencil. Using paper towels, I dampen the surface of the leather and the tip of the Aquarellable pencil and apply to the jacket lightly. I'll use a ruler or measuring tape to mark the area of the design off.
  • Paint - Like I mentioned above, I like to zip up the jacket and put a throw pillow inside so i have a smooth surface to paint on. With the guidelines on the jacket, I simply paint the design on without diluting the paint. When the paint starts to build up on the bristles, I just wipe them off on the damp paper towels. Try to do a single thin coat and do not go over it until it's dry. Follow with a minimum of two more coats to get a fully opaque look. Yes, it takes three coats.
  • Photograph - I don't wear any of my clients jackets for photos or otherwise. I see them as being really sentimental objects and I want them to be the first ones rocking them on their wedding day, engagement shoot, birthday or otherwise. I do take photos of every jacket on a hanger or laying flat 

Leather Jacket Painting FAQ

What pen do you use?

MRW I get this question 10 times on every post:

"THAT was an over reaction." - Andy Bernard

I'm so frequently asked this question, even when I post photos of myself holding a paint brush. It's not that it's not possible, but using a sharpie paint pen on leather just isn't the right medium for a professional application. If you're really committed to using some form of a pen instead of a brush and paint, Angelus makes refillable pens. I use them sometimes for event calligraphy, but the paint needs to be diluted and takes multiple coats for coverage.

What kind of paint do you use on leather?

Angelus Leather Paint is my current preferred brand. I've tried others but over time, they've eventually begun peeling. This is something that you don't really know until you test brands over regular wear and tear.

What tools do you need to paint a leather jacket?

All you need is leather paint and a fine paint brush. See the other tools in this post for details on designing and guidelines.

Where is the best place to get a leather jacket?

I recommend Zara because they carry genuine leather jackets in a variety of great classic and trendy styles at the most affordable price. They carry a mix of real and faux, so check that materials composition tag to make sure what you're getting. If you can afford it, All Saints, Mackage, Aritzia, Nordstrom carry beautiful jackets as well. If your budget doesn't allow it, pleather/polyurethane jackets work as well. The quality varies and some photograph better than others, but you can check out H&M or Forever21.

Do you treat the leather or coat with a sealant after painting?

I do not currently use any sealants, sprays, coatings or treatments on my work. Because my clients provide their own jackets, it's impossible to have a product that consistently works for all those varying surfaces. Having taken some leather workshops before, it's a material that can be easily stained with oils and sprays (especially lighter leather colours) and it's been too risky for me to play around with. I suggest going to your local leather shop for preservative treatments or cleanings.

How do you transfer your design onto the jacket?

I usually use an aquarellable pencil and freehand my design onto the jacket before applying any paint.

How long does it take to paint a leather jacket?

Depending on the complexity of a design, just the painting part takes about 2-4 hours. With white paint, I'm usually doing 3 coats.

Will the paint crack?

I've made an effort to use an industry standard leather paint that says it is flexible and durable. All of my jackets have been painted in the past two years, so I don't have any data yet on how long they'll hold up over time.

What should I do if the paint starts cracking?

If this does happen, (and it totally has for #thejustmarriedjacket since it's been worn to over 80 weddings) using the same paint to touch it up has been a pretty flawless fix.

How do you care for a painted leather jacket?

Just like with any leather jacket, take it to a professional leather cleaner to clean it. Try to store in a breathable space and not pressed  against anything plastic (which can dry the leather or stick to the paint and cause it to peel).

Is painting a leather jacket permanent? Is there a way to do a temporary design?

Leather is porous and any paint or pen applied to it will stick or stain. If you try to use water-based/washable paints, they will run and bleed if it gets wet (like, what if it rains?!) If you're looking to use your jacket as a prop, your best option for getting the look would probably be finding a designer who can create a vinyl appliqué. You could stick it on and peel it off after? Not an expert in that realm but I can definitively say that any paint process is too risky if you plan on removing it.

How do you price leather painting services?

As with any projects I consider, I try to estimate the time it will take (including drafts and revisions) and use my hourly rate. With any projects, there's always a learning curve for the first few and you're bound to undercharge and go over hours but you can't charge a client for learning on the job. The more times you do the same process, it becomes more scalable. Having painted over 50 jackets, I've got a flow going and offer a certain level of confidence in my work so you get what you pay for :)

 

Not looking to DIY? I'll do it for you!

 

Looking for a local Calligrapher?

Here are my leather lovin' babes around the world:

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