Painting Your Journal’s Covers and Other Types of Cover Decoration

August 8, 2011

See the full post for complete details and suggestions.

110709PaintonBKCloth Left: Acrylic paint tests on stiff "impregnated bookcloth."

When several people ask me the same thing in a short space of time I think it's time to write something about it. That happened last month on the topic of "painting journal covers." I had several queries from my students about how they might best paint their cloth covered books. Then, on July 10, I went into MCBA to set up for my day-long workshop (Soft-Covered Journals) and some instructors were busy with their projects and someone wondered aloud if you could paint on the old-style impregnated bookcloth one of them was cutting up.

I was using acrylic paints in class that day so I said, "If you leave me some scraps I'll test it."

I knew it was going to work, because I paint my journals all the time and I use Japanese bookcloth which feels like fabric and is more absorbent than this bookcloth, more likely to be damaged.

I don't know how to describe the test bookcloth except to say it's not as "slick" as library buckram, but it is very sturdy, and while you can see the fabric weave in it something has been used to make it stronger (i.e., it's been impregnated with something). I don't even know how readily available this type of cloth is, because it was bought as a roll at MCBA's last "garage sale."

The owner now, can knock himself out painting on the fabric, because it works on either side! It also doesn't show a propensity to peel off.

But let's say you have Japanese bookcloth that still has that fabric feel? Can you paint it? Yep.

If you look at "Natural Law" an altered book on (it's at the back of the photo) you can see one way to do this is to simply use an acrylic ground on your covered book. Here I used Art Spectrum Pastel Primer and then sketched the bear in colored pencil on the toothy surface of the pastel primer.

In this collection of sewn-on-the-spine books (all cloth-covered boards), I used a variety of acrylic media and acrylic paints to create the effects I wanted. And the drab brown bookcloth of this caterpillar stitch book benefitted from the use of some metalic acrylic paint.

If you want to try this I recommend that you paint your cloth after you have made your case, but before you have cased in your textblock or sewn in your signatures. If you're using a textblock you'll risk getting paint on the textblock. If you are sewing signatures to the spine you'll not only put your pages at risk you'll have to paint around your stitching—it's just simpler to stitch after you paint.

I have the following tips, as well as some suggestions for other types of cover decoration (because a student also asked about that at the same time).

1. Paint with acrylic paints directly onto the fabric. I recommend TUBE acrylics for this or Lumiere fabric acrylics which come in lovely metallics. Use a dry brush that is dipped in water, totally squeezed out and then dipped in undiluted paint. You want to keep excess moisture from your cover boards. I also recommend stiff brushes or foam brushes. You can also sponge on the color with a pouncing motion. Use masking tape, stencils, etc. for other effects.

1. a. You can use fluid acrylics, I used Golden Fluid Acrylics in the test which opens this post, but you need to be vigilant about not using extra moisture! If you are going to use fluid acrylics I would only use art-quality paints, not craft paints. The latter will have less pigment, poorer quality pigments, and possibly some adhesion issues.

1. b. If you have already glued your fabric to your boards as I suggest, I wouldn't bother with the "heat setting" step that some fabric acrylics (like Lumiere) suggest for when they are used on fabrics. You aren't going to be putting your book into the washing machine and heating can damage the glue's adhesion. You might even scorch your bookcloth.

2. Mask off (with masking tape) and paint an area with heavy body acrylics on the cover. (You don't need to mask an area if you prefer to paint an organic background shaped area for your painting.)

3. If you prefer to work on a "prepared" surface, rather than a layer of paint, mask of an area and  pre-treat it with gesso or watercolor ground. Paint with acrylics on the gesso or watercolor on the watercolor ground. (You don't need to mask an area if you prefer to paint an organic background shaped area for your painting.)

4. Cut a depression into your board through the fabric, to make a place for a label. You want to be very careful not to go all the way through. The bookboard will peel back in layers.

5. A better way, than 4, to do a label is to cut the bookboard BEFORE you cover it with fabric. Just mark your board with pencil lines deliniating the shape you want to cut and then do so. Take care you don't cut more than 1/2 way through the board. Peal the layers of bookboard off to the depth you want. Attach the bookcloth normally, taking care to work it down into the depression (with a protection sheet over it so you don't mar the fabric). I did this when making my 2011 Minnesota State Fair book, which you can see in the post at this link. You can see how I finished the label area in my 2010 Minnesota State Fair Journal, if you click on the video in that post.

6. Sew or attach buttons, brads, eyelets, etc. to your fabric before you glue it to the boards. Be careful to remember that thread will show when cloth is pushed down into place between sewn items that are joined by thread on the wrong side of your bookcloth. To avoid this knot off frequently, right under the item, which will hide the extra bulk. Be careful of placement—avoid the hinges of your book's case and be careful on the spine area where decorative items will interrupt your sewing.

7. Use masking tape to paint a frame and add other things inside the frame.

8. Glue things on to the cover, such as an actual frame.

9. Basically any of your altered book techniques can come into play. Here I've decorated bare boards in a variety of ways, but you can do these things on cloth-covered boards as well. Work well in advance of any deadlines because heavily applied acrylic media can take a long time to set up, and glues need curing time before a book is handled.

10. You can also cut a window in the cover board (of lighter weight) and sandwich your image/art between the window board and another thin backing board. You have to glue the fabric onto the window board first and cut and finish the window (i.e., turn-in the fabric at the window). And you have to add the backing board before you turn over the edges of the fabric at the head, tail, and fore edge to finish the wrapping. The two boards making the sandwich and your art should be the same thickness as the back single piece of book board you use for your cover. You can see a window example with a carving of Dottie in the window here. (I created this book and a "sibling" as a project for Ricë Freeman-Zachery's  "StampArtistry." For photography purposes for the book I left the print exposed, but I would recommend that you use some sort of plexi or acetate if the book is going to get any wear or handling.)

11.You can bead on the spine, like I've done on the spines of the two books in the "window" link above in item 10. Additional beaded spine examples can be seen here. (I recommend that you not bead a spine until the journal is filled, to limit wear on the beadwork.)

Those are just a few ways, off the top of my head, that you can paint or decorate your journal. Have fun exploring it all.

  1. Reply

    That is one heck of a post. I am so new to book making that I had to re-read some stuff too!

    • Katie
    • August 10, 2011

    Roz- I have to tell you, I have never commented on your blog before this, but have read (via reading allllll your posts until the beginning of time) every word! You are truly inspiring, and I just completed my FIRST visual journal. I have no “formal” artistic training and have just picked up a pen/brush for the first time in the past few months to blow of some steam and get away from the stress of my every day job (I’m a pediatric nurse–which I love, but stressful nonetheless). What a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment to fill an entire book! I’ve jumped right in the the next one and am loving every second. Thanks for the inspiration, and daily (almost) motivation to keep going! P.S. I love all your sketches/painting of chihuahuas… I have one and she’s about the cutest thing in the world… but she always ends up looking more like a deer than a dog… will keep trying!

  2. Reply

    Katie, first, congratulations on finishing your first journal and diving right into to your second! I hope they are they beginning of a great lifelong friendship!

    Second, thank you for your kind words about my blog. I’m glad that you find it enjoyable and helpful and that it has helped you take the journaling plunge. It’s what I hope for, so it’s great to know it had that effect for you.

    And keep sketching your Chihuahua! Everyday. You will develop a facility with the lines of her head and eyes and body, and you will look back and see the progression and it will be as wonderful as the resultant improvement and skill.

    Just turn the page and sketch some more. The great thing is that it’s hard to resist sketching something that adorable, and that which we love.

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