Have you ever wanted to paint on leather but didn’t know how to approach it or felt intimidated by it?

It can be tricky. You need to treat the surface appropriately to avoid paint adhesion problems like cracking and peeling later on, as you can see in Golden’s acrylic tests on raw leather.

In this post, I’ll walk you through the process of painting a pair of leather boots. I’ll wear these throughout the fall and winter months and subject them to cold, rainy and snowy conditions. And I’ll show you exactly how to do that.

Through the course of their life cycle they’ll be creased and touched up periodically. The way I do them, they won’t get scuffed much. But eventually I wear the soles out and toss them out like …

… well, like an old pair of shoes.

classic cherry red Dr. Marten boots

Preparing the leather to accept paint

Seriously, if you already know before you buy the boots that you’re going to paint them, then go easy on yourself and pick suede. Otherwise you’ll need to strip the sheen using acetone. If you don’t want to use acetone, you can sand it off, but it’s a pain in the ass. Either way, you have to remove the sheen or the paint won’t adhere properly to the surface. Especially if you’re clumsy like me and inadvertently kick things.

wire brush, scratchboard tools and emery boards to remove smooth layer of leather

It took two days to sand these bad boys down well enough. I used scratchboard tools to get between the eyelets and emery boards to sand along the stitching. The long edge of an emery board makes it easy to follow the stitch line.

After sanding the entire surface with emery boards, I swabbed it with alcohol and took the wire brush to it. The alcohol just seems to loosen everything up better for scratching.

boots after sanding through the smooth surface

You’ll need companion activities

This sanding business takes the longest and is a really boring process, so it’s good to find something good to binge-watch on Netflix. Line up some podcasts. And have a low-maintenance person or animal nearby to talk to.

Potable alcohol is also not a bad idea at this point. You’ll be sanding and scraping for hours and hours on end. Why the hell not have some whiskey on hand?

Once you have scratched and sanded the surface enough to accept a layer of paint, you need to swab it with more alcohol to remove the oils before you put any acrylic paint on it.

Now you’re good to go on to the next step of preparing the surface.

Do you have to gesso leather before you paint?

No gesso is necessary if you’re painting on suede. It has enough tooth as is.

But if you have to remove a smooth layer, you should apply a layer of clear gesso like Liquitex before you paint. It contains silica particles that will settle into the scratches made by the wire brush and provide sufficient tooth for subsequent paint layers.

Clear gesso dries matte and very gritty — perfect for using several coats of paint if you need to.

Use opaque colors for your first color coat

This will save you many coats if you choose your colors right. This is where a good working knowledge of pigments will come into play. If you use a transparent color first, you’ll end up layering it and risking visible overlap marks.

The best thing to do is use an opaque color first and then glaze it if necessary to get the color you want.

If you’re in doubt about whether the color is opaque or transparent, test it by smearing it thinly over a few India ink lines on a piece of paper.

Simple design? Mask it with tape

If you want to do an intricate design, you’re better off drawing the design on with a pencil just as you would on canvas or paper.

Stripes are simple enough. I just cut a strip of masking tape in half and applied it to the surface. The surface is textured and the tape doesn’t ensure a perfect edge, but my real purpose was just to make the stripes even enough and make sure they line up to the stripes on the other boot.

stripes on boots masked with tape
boots with masking tape peeled off

The edges I can easily correct. But if you don’t want irregular edges, brush matte medium over masked areas and let it dry. It will fill in the gaps under the edges of the tape and give you more even edge lines.

My base color for the left boot is Cadmium red medium. It’s too bright and warm for my taste, so I toned it down a bit with Naphthol crimson.

For the right boot I mixed a medium blue with Titanium white and Phthalo blue green shade — a mix which strongly resembles Cerulean blue.

finished paint job on leather boots, one red with blue stripes and one blue with red stripes

Sealing for water resistance

You want to be able to wear them in all kinds of conditions and the paint job will last a lot longer if you seal them.

Any kind of clear matte or satin outdoor spray makes an excellent top coat for these. Don’t use anything glossy — it will not provide enough tooth for subsequent layers to adhere properly. Matte medium will make them too tacky in humid conditions.

Something like this Valspar finish spray will work nicely, and Krylon makes a similar product.

If the paint cracks in the creases after you wear them a few times, you can repaint the creases and reseal them as many times as necessary.

It’s footwear and it’s not meant to last forever anyway, but with some knowledge of how to work with leather, you can make it last long enough. It’s a great way to express yourself.

Plus, it’s just cool.

Chiara Scuro

Chiara is an acrylic painter, content writer and painting consultant. She's out to chuck a Molotov cocktail at the elitist notion that it takes some innate talent to learn how to paint. Check out her blog, The Painted Pants Lady, and learn how to paint smarter.

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