Tips & hints for painting tote bags with acrylic

Updated July 20, 2017

In the United States, 100 billion plastic bags are thrown away annually, and fewer than 1 per cent are recycled, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Fabric tote bags save resources by limiting consumption of single-use plastic and paper bags. Paint your own tote bag to create a functional, individual work of art you can be proud of.

Tote Bag

Medium-weight cotton, linen or polyester-cotton blends are ideal fabrics for tote bags because they are washable and durable. Avoid plastic or wood handles as they may not be machine-washable. Acrylic paint won't adhere to fabric if there is dirt, hair, or sticky residue, so make sure the bag has been washed.


Paint that is specifically formulated for fabric is quick and ready-to-use. Alternately, fabric painting media are available to mix with standard acrylic. This method provides more colour options. If using a medium, mix two parts paint and one part medium. Both acrylic paint types are flexible and machine-washable. When selecting acrylic colours, use a contrasting paint colour for a bold look, but use a similar colour for a subtle, textured appearance.

Stencils and Stamps

Large, simple stencils and stamps provide an even pattern. Apply stencils with a cosmetic sponge, as they are disposable and don't soak up too much paint. Avoid using stamps with complex details, as they tend to bleed into the fabric. For larger, grocery-size tote bags, home decor patterns used in wall painting work well. For smaller bags, free templates with bird, horse and other shapes are available for download online. (See resources.)


Brush painting gives a more free-form and personal look to your tote bag. Select brushes with an appropriate scale, such as size 10 and 12 rounds and 5/8-inch and 3/-inch flats. For close details, use a size 4 round, but anything smaller will be difficult to lay across the fabric. While painting a large portion of the bag such as a background, use a 4-inch flat brush in long, smooth strokes.


Layering colours and using a variety of techniques is the best way to add depth and dimension without compromising detail. Use a combination of stencils and brushes, or paint a series of layers while allowing each one to dry. For example, use a stencil to paint a tree, and use a small, round brush to paint leaves.

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About the Author

Emily Ediger began writing professionally in 2007. Her work includes documenting technical procedures and editing event programs. Her expertise lies in technology, interactive learning and information retrieval. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Portland State University.