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Painting With Thread: How To Make Realistic Embroidery

Needle painting, also known as “painting with thread”, is an intricate and fun way to create realistic looking embroidery art.

Years ago, I began making embroidered pet portraits. I am a completely self taught artist. My journey has been a long and sometimes frustrating process, but I continue to improve my techniques and incorporate practices into my work that best help me create realistic looking embroidery art.

The most effective ways that I have learned are through many hours of practicing, reading books, and studying other artist’s approaches to making realistic art.

The one thing that has become clear to me through my learning journey is that there are not a ton of resources that are geared towards realism in embroidery. There are plenty of painting tutorials geared towards realism, many of which I have learned a great deal from. So I decided to make a comprehensive post that includes everything I have learned up until this point to help you make your embroidery even more life like!

Before we get into it, I wanted to put a disclaimer on this:

I am sharing what I have personally learned and what has worked for me. Everyone has their own special way of doing things, so my opinion/methods may not be for you and that’s okay! I share these things so that you can take what you want from it and develop your own style and techniques as you go.

Also, if you aren’t familiar with painting with thread, check out my beginner’s tutorial first. It goes over products/tools I recommend and basic techniques.

cropped-pigeon-embroidery-pattern-1.jpg

The Importance Of A Good Reference Photo

First, I can’t stress enough how important it is that you have a good reference photo of whatever you are making. Unless you have a photographic memory, you can only stitch something as realistic as what you see!

A photo needs to be a clear and accurate representation of the subject. Reference photos should be shot at angles that depict correct proportions and display accurate colors.

Avoid photos that are:

  • Blurry
  • Taken at weird angles
  • Washed out
  • Have harsh shadows

You can definitely work off of multiple reference photos, but the easiest way to use reference images is to have one photo that is the primary reference image and one or two for smaller details. It can get confusing referencing multiple photos at a time. I like to limit my references to 1 or 2 photos per “subject” in your art composition.

For example: Say you are embroidering a dog. The best photo of the dog cuts off part of his ear. You can reference the best photo but use another photo only as a way to get better reference for his ear.

Learn To Be Observant

Drawing and making art, especially representational art, has a lot to do with getting good at making observations. Being able to pick up on and portray movement, highlights/shadows, perspective, and proportions is super helpful for making accurate and realistic looking art.

Personally, I don’t normally draw everything from scratch when I’m making the design for a realistic embroidery. I find it easiest for myself to reference an image and stencil out proportions, colors, shadows, etc.

However, I have found that learning and practicing observational art techniques has helped me better approach a thread painting project. It’s sharpened my eye to pick up on subtle details and helped me more accurately depict real life.

Blending Colors From One Area To Another (Don’t Skip Around)

Sometimes it is necessary to skip around in an embroidery. But if you are working in an area where you are trying to achieve a smooth blend of colors it is easiest to start from dark to light (or light to dark). This will ensure that the direction of your stitches stay consistent and uniform which will help to keep things looking smooth.

Selecting Color Values

Thread painting a realistic looking fox

Another important aspect of thread painting that impacts how realistic something looks is your use of color values. Value refers to how light or dark a particular color is.

If you’re wanting to blend something subtly, you’ll want to select colors with very similar values. However, embroidering with color values that are too similar to one another can make your work appear flat. This is where adding some shadows and highlights into your work is very important! If something doesn’t look quite right, try adding a darker or lighter value to see if that fixes it.

In the photo above, I had some contrasting values around the eyes of the fox and a few highlights in the fur above the eyes. It still looks pretty flat and unrealistic. The second photo was after I added even more dark and light values and blended some of the colors together more.

The last point I wanted to make regarding values was that you don’t need to choose “standard” colors to make something look realistic. That is why this section focuses on the values of colors and not the individual hues you choose to work with. A perfect example of an artist who creates beautiful realistic embroidery with unexpected and vibrant colors is Danielle Clough.

embroidered pet portraits. The top image shows a portrait using 4-6 strands of thread. The bottom portrait uses a single strand of thread at a time.

Strands Of Floss

When I first started painting with thread, I would use 4-6 strands of floss. (see top photo) While it isn’t “wrong” to thread paint this way, it makes it really hard to blend together colors in a way that is smooth. us.

I only use 1 strand of floss for thread painting now (bottom photo) which I believe has helped me to refine the details in my embroidery a bit more.

Stitch Direction

The direction of your stitches is so important. They can be stitched in a way to stand out or be subtle. There isn’t a hard and fast rule for the direction your stitches should be going in. I think this has a lot to do with the style in which you choose to make your art.

There are many ways to approach stitch direction:

  • Making stitches uniform can help blend colors together.
  • If you are portraying fur or something that is overlapping, stitch direction can further emphasize something and make it look more 3 dimensional.
  • Making scattered stitches throughout an entire embroidery can create a unique texture.

You’ll need to be deliberate and mindful in your decisions for what direction you are making your stitches. This comes with a lot of trial and error, but it also comes back around to learning to be observant and finding what works for you.

It feels easier to me to blend colors together when the stitches are uniform in the direction they are facing. However, there are artists that create phenomenal portraits (such as Cayce Zavaglia) whose stitch direction is not uniform throughout.

Study Art Concepts And Artists Outside of Embroidery

The basics and fundamentals of art apply to whatever medium you are working in, so don’t be afraid to study concepts and techniques using other art forms.

For the longest time I only sought out resources that were specific to embroidery, but I have learned that a lot of tutorials that are related to art fundamentals and painting are also super helpful.

Additional Resources

Keep learning and developing your skills with some of my favorite additional resources.

  • Take online courses
  • Watch art process videos
  • Identify weaknesses and seek out information about concepts you’d like to learn more about

Online Classes And Videos

YouTube and Skillshare are both great places to start! I teach a thread painting class and there are plenty of art classes on Skillshare as well.

Sign up for a free 1-month trial here.

Books

Trish Burr – Needle Painting Embroidery: Fresh Ideas For Beginners

Victoria Matthewson – Needlepainted Plants and Pollinators

Thread Painting Embroidery Patterns