How to hand paint your Air Force 1 Shoes (AF1s)

How do you hand paint your Air Force 1’s? Maybe you want to turn your older white pair of AF1s into a one-of-a-kind piece of wearable artwork. Or perhaps something more subtle, like a highlight of the Nike swoosh. Whatever your idea, most people agree that Nike AF1s are one of the best and most popular shoes to customize. If only there were a way to easily create a unique Nike sneaker for yourself without paying top dollar…

We have good news for you: there is, and it’s not as hard as you might think.

Gather your supplies

First things first, get your supplies. What are the bare minimum things you’ll need to help you along your journey? Check out the list below as your Starter Pack:

If you’re looking for a place where you get all these items instead of buying them at separate places, head on to Angelus Direct, where different assortments of these items are available.  

On to painting!

Now that you have your shoes and your supplies, it’s on to the fun part, the part that you’ve all been waiting for… painting! There are hundreds of patterns, designs as well as methods you could use during painting. There are a few different ways you can paint your kicks:

The easiest and most popular is probably hand painting your new kicks. It’s versatile, easy to learn, apply, and in a way, forms the basis for other techniques like airbrushing, so that’s the method we’ll be focusing on!

But what if your Air Force 1’s are used, they’ve been around the block a time or two? You may be thinking it’s hopeless, especially if they’re all scuffed up and caked with dirt. You know that kind of dirt that gets on your shoes and then refuses to come off, even if you power washed them. If that’s how your shoes currently look, what are you to do? This is where the acetone and cotton balls come in. Check out the video from DeJesus Custom Footwear and see how he uses them to clean away any old dirt and make the shoes ready for painting. It’s easy, no need for nerves.

After you’re done cleaning your sneakers adequately, the rest of the method is the same for both old and new shoes. Here’s how you do it!

  1. First off, remove the laces of your shoes to avoid accidentally getting any paint on them.
  2. Tape off the edges, the shoe tongue, and any other area you don’t want to paint.
  3. Use your prep solution to remove the old paint (factory finish) and any dirt on your shoes. You can use cotton balls, scotch bright pads, or a brush for this purpose. You can sand your shoes before applying your prep solution, but that’s completely optional.
  4. You can move directly to painting if you’re going for a general style like two color painted shoes, but if your design has something complex, draw your design first.
  5. For drawing, you can use stencils (cut-outs or stencil using tape) or transfer your design (using charcoal/graphite tracing) onto your shoe.
  6. Once you have your design, start painting the outlines using a brush with a fine tip and then paint the inner areas with a broader brush.
  1. Do multiple thin coats, not one or two thick coats, for more even and fine results. Dry each layer using a heat gun or blow dryer before applying the next layer.
  2. After you’re done painting, and the paint has dried, apply 1-2 thin coats of any acrylic finisher on top. You can use matte, glossy, or satin finisher, whatever makes your colors pop!
  3. Remove the tape, paint over any tiny missed spots, and use a toothpick to remove small unwanted paint from areas that shouldn’t have it. You can also use a toothpick over missed parts or to paint over text!
  4. Add the laces back to your shoes and enjoy your new, one of a kind kicks!

For a complete, precise, and point video tutorial, check out Angelus Shoe Polish’s YoutTube video that explains the entire process for absolute beginners. And if you’re looking for ideas to paint on your shoes, head on to Pinterest or Instagram for some cool and stunning painting ideas.  

Useful tidbits for those that are still nervous

There are dozens of videos on YouTube that explain the process in detail. For example, Xavier Crews explains the process from beginning to end in his video. Besides the basic technique, it’s also essential to know these useful and handy tips that will boost your painting and make the process easier.

  1. Use the right paint: You’ll want to use paint made especially for leather and use it sparingly. It’s better to apply several very thin coats of paint (with plenty of drying time in-between) than to glob the color on all at once. 
  2. Choose a smaller brush: Many people make the mistake of choosing a paintbrush that’s too big. As a result, they end up with paint all over the place, and they can’t do the detailed work they wanted to do. It’s far better to choose a smaller brush than your actual needs than one too big.
  3. Use stencils: If you’re not great at drawing, yet you want to incorporate some design work, use stencils to get the designs you want. If the design is very detailed, use the smallest brush you can find and work slowly and deliberately. 
  4. Using tape to do stenciling: It’s easy to understand why you’d be nervous about doing free-hand drawing or if you’re scared of smudging while painting, and it’s okay. You’re probably worried that you’re about to ruin your favorite pair of shoes. If that’s the case, try the tip from Nick Iby and use painter’s tape to mask off all the areas you don’t want to paint at any particular moment. The tape is easy to use, it won’t hurt the shoes, and it can keep everything safely masked off until you’re ready to add some color to that spot. You can even put the tape over areas you’ve already painted to keep them safe, as long as you follow a few simple guidelines:
  1. Sanding your shoes: While you’re prepping your kicks, before applying the preparer and deglazer, take some time to file your shoes using sandpaper of different grits. This isn’t a necessary step, and often artists skip it, but we’d definitely recommend it, and it’s totally worth it in the long run because the paint lasts longer. While sanding, go in smooth circular motions and spend about 10 minutes sanding your shoes with sandpaper of each grit. Use 2 or 3 different grits. DeJesus Custom Footwear’s YouTube video shows the entire process of filing as well as painting.
  2. Build up layers for lighter colors: If you’re using colors of light shade, instead of diving straight into the color you want to show, start the base coats by mixing that color with white (1:4 or 1:3 ratio, with the larger proportion for white), and using this mix for the first 3-4 layers. Then paint 2-3 layers of the original color on top. 
  3. Lighter colors first: Since lighter colors are easier to paint over, do your light colors first and then move to the darker ones.
  4. Duller: If you want to give your paint and your shoe an overall more flat or matte look, you should invest in some good quality duller. Only a few drops are required and it lasts a good while.


There you have it. Now, you’re ready to start cleaning and painting. Remember, this is a project you can do at your own pace. You don’t have to set any speed records here; you only have to be pleased with the result. Grab your shoes (and your supplies) and have some fun! Who knows what you’ll be able to create. You might even enjoy it so much you start doing it as a hobby!

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