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Leatherwork Tutorial: Mastering the Art of Leather Dye

When I was in school, I always tried to study as many mediums and art forms as possible, save one: watercolors. Every time I worked with them it always ended up looking like a mess. Either the paper wasn’t the right type, or I used too much water and it ran into parts of the painting that it shouldn’t have, etc. When I finally picked up leather as my medium of choice, I was ecstatic to learn that I could paint it with acrylics. I thought I would never have to worry about runny paint ever again. Then I found out how beautiful leather could look when it was colored with dye.

In many ways, dye acts just like watercolor. It’s mostly water (or alcohol) , bleeds all over the paper (leather) and is very persnickety in how it is applied. When I started out with dye, I noticed its similarities right off the bat, and knew it would be an uphill battle to learn to use it properly. It’s my current Love/Hate relationship. When used properly, it looks amazing, and gives the leather a rich, deep color. When used improperly, it’s a streaky, spotty mess, and the colors look completely muted. In short, my own personal hell.

I’d like to share a couple tips about dye I’ve learned so far.

  1. Always test your dye on a scrap of leather from the same hide as your piece and let it dry out before you use it on your artwork. Different hides take dye differently, this will affect the color. Dye will go on darker and dry lighter almost every time. But it’s unpredictableness lies in how much pigment it leaves on the leather. I’ve got 3 blue dyes. They are only slightly different shades of each other, but one of them has a TON of pigment in it, and even a light coat leaves my piece VERY blue. Loudly Blue. A blue that could shout from a rooftop.

  2. Dilute dyes. I rarely ever use my dye straight out of the bottle. Dilute them down with water or alcohol (find out which is the base of your dye first. Don’t add water to an alcohol/spirit dye). They will last longer, and you get to determine how bright you want your color to be.

  3. Use more than one coat of dye. I’m not speaking to pieces that are only one color, but you want to use more than one coat for that application as well. I’m talking about painting a light layer of dye onto your leather, letting it dry and going back and putting another layer of the same color right on top of it. This allows you to determine how bright you want your finished piece to be. Yes, it takes much longer (dry times in between) but when you are going for a specific look, this is a safe way to get the color you want.

More tips to follow! Please feel free to ask any questions you may have. I’d be more than happy to answer as many as I can.


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