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DIY T-shirt Painting: Sun Printing on Fabric

Paint a t-shirt using heat from the sun — an awesome craft for teens & kids this summer!

You know when you find those inspirational points where two seemingly unrelated things collide?

Like frozen hot chocolate?! 

You think “Man, I’m not sure how that came together but it just works!”

That’s what we have for you with this project — Science + Craft = Awesomeness!

Today we’re combining the science of sun prints with designing your own t-shirt. 

It’s a super easy activity for kids of all ages and one that will really let their creativity shine through.

Plus it’s a great way to introduce a little science and also make a unique t-shirt for back to school (which is happening way too quickly in our neck of the woods — only 15 more days of summer here).


How to Make a Sun Print T-shirt

I love so many things about this project! 

It’s creative and colorful — the kids don’t even mind hearing about the ‘science’ behind a sun print because they’re busy painting and designing.

And it makes a one-of-a-kind item!

Not only is a wonderful kid-friendly craft but it would also be a great gift.  Find some of Dad’s most favorite things and design him a t-shirt for Christmas this year 🙂  And it’s also nice for a class to do together as a teacher gift or perfect for a camp activity.

Our inspiration for the shirt came from Craftiments where they created sun prints with nature items on a piece of fabric.


Here are a few things you should know before you get started:

1.  Don’t pick the hottest day of the year to do this like we did!

And when I say HOT, I mean 99 degrees and HUMID – bleah! 

It’s actually the humidity that was horrible as it really delayed the drying process.

But you will need a SUPER sunny day so be sure there aren’t any clouds that will be rolling in.

2.  Do choose more than one color for your shirt. 

You never know how the paint will dry and we found that prints showed up better where we used a medium color paint (not too light and not too dark). Experiment and have fun with it.

3.  Be sure to warn the kids that it will take a while

Like 4 hours in our case 🙂 

You have to let the sun do it’s work — which leads me to #4 …

4.  Lay out your project on a large sheet of cardboard or thin piece of wood

This will make it easy to move around the yard as the sun moves. 

We didn’t do this at first and had to carefully slide the board under the finished shirt without moving any of the objects.


items you'll need for a sun print shirt

Remember I mentioned how humid it was here.  This photo appears to be hazy because my camera lens kept fogging up while I was trying to get a shot of our supplies!


To make your own sun print shirt, you’ll need the following items – we’re including affiliate links to what we used for your convenience:

•  an all cotton white t-shirt – be sure to wash the shirt before the project so it’s not ‘brand new’

•  2 or more colors of acrylic paint – this will stain other clothing so cover the kids with a smock or wear old clothes.  We used — Acrylic Paint Midnight Blue — in case you aren’t familiar with the type of paint.

•  a few paint brushes at least 1 inch wide (we liked the 2 inch wide paint brush we used)

•  items from around the house or yard — you can see what we used in the tutorial below but any solid item that doesn’t allow light through it will work

WARNING:  The items you use will be touching we paint!  We had no issues with the paint sticking but I just want to point that out.  For example, don’t choose any paper item as it will dry to the shirt and get ruined.


Step 1: Prepare your tshirt & paint

The shirt: First, wash your shirt. 

This will remove the sizing on the shirt so the paint will adhere. 

You will also need to submerge your shirt in water to get it completely wet right before you begin the project.  When you take the shirt out of the water, don’t squeeze hard — just lightly twist out the excess water.


The paint: The first thing you’ll need to do is water down your paints. 

At first, we used a 1:1 ratio but due to the humidity, the paint was pretty thick so I had to wet down the shirt during the project. 

I would add a little more water than paint (like 40% paint, 60% water) but don’t water it down too much or you’ll dilute the color.


make a sun print shirt

Step 2: Prepare your work area

Lay out a work area where you can lay the shirt down flat on a large board or piece of cardboard which is covered by an old towel or plastic tarp. 

If it’s sunny outside, put the kids in a shaded location like we did and that will work great!

 how to make a sun print shirt

Step 3: Create a Tshirt Design

Choose how you will paint your shirt and which items you will use to make the prints. 

We decided to paint three bold horizontal strips across the shirt.  My daughter chose 3 shades of aqua/blue but any deep colors should work. 

Remember that the idea of a sun print is the white of the shirt will show through where you lay your items so don’t choose any light colors or you may not see a good ‘print’.


sun print t-shirt craft

Step 4: Paint and place items

Be sure to place your items next to you as you will put them on the shirt as soon as you are done painting each section.  You can place them randomly or be specific about what you’d like to see. 

For example, we put the shell necklace around the collar of the shirt with the large die at the bottom hoping it would look like a pendant when the sun print was formed.


painting project for teens

Here’s another shot of our work area.  My daughter found it was easier for her to sit and paint. 

Since the shirt will be wet, you don’t want to lean on it so finding one spot to work from will really make things easier.


sun prints on fabric

One tip while you’re painting — do you see that bristle that’s coming off? 

You want to keep an eye out for those since they will dry right to the shirt.  Just pull them off if any come loose 🙂


best crafts for tweens

Step 5:  Spray & Place in Direct Sunlight

Here’s what the shirt looked like once all the items were placed.  This will give you an idea of what created each sun print when you see the final version. 

We used some natural items (rock, seashell), a few of our favorite Safari Ltd Ocean TOOB, our favorite Narnia item (Susan’s horn) and some odd items.

When you choose items, the ones that worked the best for us had solid sides that were touching the shirt.  For example, the seashell made a sun print that looked more like a circle.

Once all the of items were on the shirt, I sprayed more water over the whole thing to help the paint thin out a little more — this is a great trick if you think you’re paint went on too thick.


We finished painting the shirt at 2 p.m.

And then we had a snack, read a book and moved the shirt to a sunnier spot.

It was still tacky when we felt it at 4:30 p.m. so we left it alone for a while longer.


tshirt craft for tweens and teens

Step 6: Dry the shirt completely

Drying is actually a 2-step process. 

At 6 p.m., we took off the items and moved the shirt into our screen house to finish drying. You can actually see the the sun prints here are quite distinct and stand out nicely.

Once  was completely dry, I put the shirt in the dryer on high heat for 1 hour to help the prints set.  Don’t skip this step! I also tossed in an old towel with the shirt.

This is what it looked like when we took it out of the dryer —


how to make a sun print on a shirt


Kind of like a vintage faded tie-dye shirt 🙂


And in case you’re curious, here’s a shot of the back of the shirt (which I love almost as much as the front!)

making a sun print

I know what you’re thinking — how do you wash it?

We’ve hand-washed ours in cold water in the sink.  There hasn’t been any paint running at all which I’m sure is due to the fact that we heat set the shirt in the dryer. 

Honestly, I’m a little scared to try the washing machine because I would have one sad painter if something happened to the shirt so I think we’ll stick to hand-washing for now.


The Science of Solar Prints:

The science with this project is found in the solar energy emitted by the sun.  As the shirt dries, the water/paint mixture evaporates from the open areas of the shirt.  The parts of the shirt under each of the various items will remain moist because they are protected from the direct rays of the sun.

Once the open areas of the shirt are dry, the heat energy will pull the paint/water mixture from under the items to the dry areas of the shirt.  When this happens, the original white of the shirt is exposed.

This is why it’s important to use solid items as they will keep the covered areas of the shirt wet while the rest of the shirt dries.


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