Introduction: How to Paint Leather Shoes

About: Artist in Residence at Pier 9, currently exploring a vast array of new tools with which to injure myself.

Bored of plain black, white or brown shoes? Hoping to spruce up your favorite pair of battered brogues? Interested in making a personalized gift for someone who has feet? This instructable will talk you through the process of turning a blank pair of shoes into a colorful fashion statement. Of course, what that statement says is entirely up to you.

A while ago I bought myself a snazzy pair of white leather dance shoes (for lindy hop and blues, if you must know). Clumsy dancer that I am, within a few evenings my shoes were covered in scuff marks and stains. A lesser geek might have just cleaned the shoes, or perhaps resolved to stop kicking people on the dance floor. Instead, I chose to repaint both shoes with a complex design so that any scuffing would be less immediately noticeable. (Think shoe repair is best left to seasoned professionals? What a load of old cobblers!)

The finished shoes are durable, flexible, colorful and even scuff-resistant. Read on to find out how to paint your own shoes!

Step 1: An Overview

There are four stages to repainting a leather shoe:
  1. Stripping the shoe's finish – nearly all shoes will already have a protective coat applied by the manufacturer. This needs to be removed so that you can paint directly onto the leather.
  2. Penciling in your design – this step can be skipped if you're super-confident in your own painting skills. I am definitely not.
  3. Painting – using flexible paint to create your own design on the leather.
  4. Finishing – sealing the painted shoes in a layer of acrylic to protect the beautiful new paint job.

What you'll need:
  • Solvent to remove the shoes' finish – I used Angelus Brand professional leather preparer and deglazer.
  • Flexible leather paints - I used Angelus Brand paints. I was surprised by how little of each paint I needed.
  • Acrylic finisher – That's right, I used Angelus Brand acrylic finisher. Sensing a theme?
  • Pencil and eraser.
  • Brushes Cotton buds/Q-tips.
  • Wooden skewers for fine detail.
  • Disposable sponge.
  • Shoes (or anything with a smooth leather surface).
  • I also recommend a waterproof drop-cloth or plenty of newspaper to catch all the mess you'll be making.

Warning: This is a smelly and fumy project. The leather deglazer in particular gives off some quite noxious fumes. Be sure to do this in a well ventilated area, away from any flames. Also, keep a lid on any paint/solvent containers when you're not using them. You have been warned.

Step 2: Choose Your Shoes and Make Some Sketches

I always find it helps to rough out a few ideas before I start painting/sawing/lasering a project. In this case, your shoes are going to be out of action for a few days while you paint them, so it's best to have a good plan of the whole project before you strip off their protective finish. Now can also be a good time to test out some paint colors. Mix, play and experiment on paper before you attack your shoes.

Step 3: Strip the Shoes

First, remove the laces. Apply a little deglazer to the corner of a sponge and swab away at your shoes. You should immediately notice a difference in their surface as the finish is removed. In this case, you can also see some of the original dye coming off onto the sponge. Repeat this for the entire surface of both shoes.

Err on the side of excess here. Remember: any patches of original finish will stop your paint from sticking properly

Step 4: Pencil in Your Design

This stage is great fun! Draw on your newly stripped shoes in pencil. If you make a mistake, erase it and try again. There's no pressure to get anything right first time, so you can try out as many patterns as you like. If you have trouble using your eraser on shoe leather, either find a softer eraser or use a few drops of deglazer on the end of a Q-tip to wipe away the pencil graphite.

Note: I drew on and painted my shoes one at a time because (a) I wasn't sure whether it would work and (b) I wasn't sure that I wanted both shoes to look the same. However, I strongly recommend painting both shoes at the same time. That way, the colors will all match and you'll be able to wear your shoes again much sooner.

Step 5: Paint on the Base Layer

Disclaimer: I am not a painter by habit or training, so the next few steps are not necessarily the best way to achieve the look you want. If you're aiming for a fairly cartoonish, clumsily shaded design like my own, then by all means follow my advice. However, you could imitate almost any style of painting if you have the talent and inclination.

Paint your shoes one shade at a time, using bold solid areas of color for now. Later on, you can add shading and texture to these areas. The leather paint gives very good opaque coverage, so a thin layer will usually completely cover up whatever was beneath it. However, occasionally you may need to apply multiple layers to achieve this coverage. This is almost a better choice than trying to apply one thick layer, which will smear or dry unevenly. Fortunately, the paint dries so quickly that you can apply multiple layers in a single sitting.

Yes, at the end of this stage your shoe will look much uglier than it did while you were penciling on it. Don't worry, you'll add borders to tidy it up in the next step.

Step 6: Paint on the Borders

Wherever one color meets another, draw on a black border to cover the border. Vary the thickness of the borders, depending on what areas you want to emphasize. To achieve very thin borders, use a wooden skewer dipped in black paint rather than a paintbrush.

There, isn't that much tidier? It still looks somewhat flat and cartoony, though. If that's what you like, great! Otherwise, it's time for some shading.

Step 7: Apply Shading and Highlights

Shade away! I used watered-down versions of the original colors, along with black and white to add some texture to the blocks of color. You may find that you'll want to redraw some of the borders at the end of this step.

Step 8: Seal It

When you're sure the paint is completely dry, use a large paintbrush to liberally slap on a layer of acrylic finisher. Make sure it's applied evenly, or you might get some lumps or bubbles on the shoe's surface. Also check that you haven't accidentally dripped finish down onto the soles (unless you want to glue the shoes to your workbench). Wait for the finisher to dry, then repeat. Apply at least three coats to protect your beautiful masterpieces. Paranoid chap that I am, I applied seven coats.

The finish makes an enormous difference; as well as protecting the shoe, encasing your paint job in a thin layer of acrylic adds a striking veneer of professionalism to the shoes' appearance.

Note: Even though I used a matte finish, the shoes are still rather glossy. This could be minimized by combining a dulling agent (also available from most paint suppliers) with the paints and/or sealant.

Step 9: Shoe Number Two

I used a slightly different, quicker technique for my second shoe. I wanted to give this shoe the look of the sketches that had been used to design the first shoe's internal mechanism. I started by painting a base layer of various browns and some black smudges, to create an aged paper texture. Then I used a wooden skewer to carefully draw on top of this in black, before adding bold colors and subtle highlights and shading to match the other shoe.

Step 10: The Finished Shoes

I don't know how long these will survive regular use. So far, I've worn them for three evenings of social dancing and they haven't got a scratch on them. The surface seems flexible and resilient. However, I'm sure that eventually they'll go the way of all shiny shoes and become patchy and bare. If that happen, then I'll just have an excuse to repaint them with a new design!

Let me know what you think and, as always, please share pictures of your own shoe painting projects!