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The Essential Guide To Thread Painting For Beginners

I made this essential guide to thread painting for beginners to help you learn the basics and avoid some of the mistakes I made when I was first teaching myself to thread paint.

Whether you’ve never embroidered before or you’re looking to learn a new embroidery technique, this post will introduce you to a really fun way to create realistic and highly detailed embroidery art.

What is Thread Painting?

thread painting

Thread painting is a hand embroidery technique that uses stranded embroidery floss (traditionally cotton or silk thread) to blend together colors similar to painting. This technique can make embroidery appear realistic and 3-dimensional.

Disclaimer: This post has some affiliate links in it. I receive a small commission from purchases at no additional cost to the buyer. I only recommend products I would use and love and that are of good quality. All opinions are my own!

How To Thread Paint By Hand

Recommended Supplies

Most of the supplies I recommend are general embroidery supplies. However, there are a few additional products I recommend that will help you.

  • Embroidery Hoop
    • Choose whatever size your design fits in
  • Size 9 or 10 Embroidery Needles
  • Linen or Cotton Embroidery Fabric
    • These fabrics are what I recommend for any kind of surface embroidery, however I think it’s important to note that you should choose fabric that has a tight weave to it.
  • Sulky Water Soluble Stabilizer
    • This stabilizer is clear so it makes it easy to transfer more detailed designs.
  • DMC 6 strand cotton embroidery floss
    • If you’re serious about thread painting, I’d recommend eventually getting a large amount of the colors in your collection to choose from. I don’t personally use every single color of DMC floss, but I use a large amount of the different colors, and it’s nice to have the options. You can also collect different colors over time and buy individual skeins at DMC or in most craft stores
  • DMC color card
    • this will help you choose and organize colors so much easier

Embroidery Stitches

The long and short stitch is the backbone of thread painting, and the stitch that is most commonly used to blend colors together.

There are, however, other embroidery stitches that are used in thread painting including:

Long and Short Stitch

how to do the long and short stitch
  1. Make a series of straight stitches side by side with one another that vary in length. Make sure the stitches lay neatly beside one another.
  2. Make a row of long and short stitches with one color.
  3. With the second color, make long and short stitches, making sure to vary the stitches in length. The second color’s stitches should overlap into the first color.

Vary your stitches – the long and short stitch doesn’t have to be “long, short, long, short”. You can mix up the lengths and the patterns in which you do the stitches which will make your embroidery appear to blend together better. Your eye will naturally pick up on patterns, so definitely avoid following a strict pattern of long and short stitches.

Helpful Tips

  • Pay close attention to the direction you are making your stitches. Stitching in a neat / uniform way will blend colors together more subtly and it will also appear more smooth than if your stitches are sporadic and going every which way.
  • Use one strand of thread at a time. This is another way to easily add intricate details and blend colors together better. You can use more than one, but the end result may not look as polished!

Thread Painting Steps

This photo would be ideal for reference because the shadows and highlights are easy to see and the colors are accurate.

Selecting a Reference Photo

Once you’ve decided what you’d like to thread paint, I suggest choosing a good reference photo. You can take your own photo or find images that are copyright-free / royalty-free from places like Unsplash.

You’ll want to choose a photo that is clear, highly detailed, and has lighting that accurately depicts the colors of whatever subject you are going to thread paint.

Creating a Design

Next, you’ll want to reference or trace the elements of the reference image you want to stitch, noting any significant color changes in the photo. I like to start simple, and then take a look at the stencil I’ve designed when I’m done. If I feel like I need to add more, I’ll go back over it and add what is necessary.

By keeping your design simple, you’ll be able to use the marks you made as landmarks for other areas that may require a different color. This way you can avoid marking every little detail and getting lost and confused by your design.

transferring a design

Transferring The Design

Once you’re happy with the design you made, you’ll want to transfer the design over to your water-soluble stabilizer. I like to use a micron for this.

**Make sure to test out the stabilizer and marker you are using on whatever fabric you choose. You’ll want to do this to make sure that nothing stains or bleeds onto the fabric when you wash it off!

Instant Access To Exclusive Tutorials

If you’re interested in step by step tutorials to help you learn the art of thread painting, which includes many tutorials about animals and pet portraiture, please consider joining my Patreon community!

When you join the Serious Stitcher tier, you’ll get instant access to:

  • a monthly thread painting pattern
  • behind the scenes content and progress photos
  • ability to vote on future embroidery patterns
  • instant access to video tutorials, PDFs, and helpful resources

Choosing Colors

You’ll want to take a look at your reference photo and choose the colors that best match the photo. Again, I like to start simple, choosing a handful of colors and adding to them as I need them.

The DMC color card listed in the supplies section is helpful for this part. It makes it easier to find similar shades and tones of the color you are using!

Getting Started

thread painting a moon

Now, it’s time to get started! I like to pick an area that looks relatively easy to get started.

I recommend starting in an area that uses a dark color and work from dark to light colors.

Take your time! If you feel like a color isn’t quite right or that you need to add even more color to a certain area, you can always go back over it.

Pay close attention to your stitches and the directions you are making them. Try to keep them as uniform as possible.

Adding Details

thread painting of an eye

Once you’re pretty much finished filling in the design, you’ll want to take a look at it to see what else you can add to make your thread painting even more realistic. Adding details to your embroidery is what will really make it pop. You can add light or white highlights to certain areas for extra contrast or french knots to add more texture.

The eye pictured above would not look nearly as realistic if there weren’t white highlights added! (Check out this tutorial if you want to learn how to embroider realistic eyes)

Thread Painting Patterns

Thread painting takes quite a bit of time and practice, so don’t get discouraged if it seems difficult at first!

If you’re brand new to thread painting, I recommend trying a class or a pattern first so that you can see and stitch the entire process from start to finish.

I have several pdf patterns available that walk you through each step in the process. Check out all of them in the shop.

Online Thread Painting Class

butterfly thread painting for beginners class

If all of this is a bit overwhelming, I have an online class that will teach you how to thread paint by hand. You’ll get to create a realistic-looking butterfly embroidery. (pictured above) If you’d like to take it, it’s available on Skillshare.

There are also several good classes you can take online to learn the basics.

More Thread Painting Tutorials

If you enjoyed this post, check out some of these other posts about thread painting:


How do you embroider like a painting?

The thread painting embroidery technique somewhat resembles the way paint is blended together, but instead of mixing your own colors and blending them into one another, different shades and gradients of thread colors are used to blend colors together smoothly.

Needle painting is best done with one strand of thread in order for the colors to appear to blend together more subtly and also to allow for small details to be stitched.

In order to embroider like a painting, you’ll need to plan out and Ipick the colors you want to use. This will most likely be a significant amount of shades and colors depending on what you want to create. DMC embroidery floss is one of the best kinds of thread to use for this because the thread is high quality, color fast, and comes in hundreds of different colors and shades.

Is thread painting hard?

This style of embroidery allows one to embroider super intricate details and hyper-realistic artwork. It may look super complicated, and it can be depending on the design and amount of detail that is added. However, the basic stitches used are not anymore difficult than what a lot of modern surface embroidery. In fact, thread painting can use common embroidery stitches in it like French knots, satin stitch, and stem stitch.

Just like other forms of embroidery, with practice, it is a technique that is most definitely learnable!

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