Air Force Ones (AF1s) have become one of the most popular shoe styles out there. With their popularity growing, it’s no surprise people look for ways to customize their AF1s to make them more unique. Maybe you want to turn your older white pair of AF1s into a one-of-a-kind piece of wearable artwork. Or perhaps you want to do something more subtle like highlight that famous Nike swoosh. Whatever your idea, hand painting old (or new) pairs of shoes is becoming increasingly popular. Artists and shoe owners alike will hand paint Converse or paint old Adidas to make them stand out from the crowd. Of course, you could always buy a pair of custom shoes but then you miss out on the fun of creating something new.
Below we’ve provided you with everything you need to hand paint Air Force Ones and create a unique, one-of-a-kind shoe that flaunts your personality.
Gather Your Supplies
First things first, get your supplies. These are the bare minimum materials you will need on your journey:
- Brushes: Try to get brushes in a few different sizes and different designs like point-tip (for outlining), flat-tip (for broader areas). Go for brushes with natural bristles and reserve one wider brush for the matte finisher at the end.
- Tape: Buy painters or masking tape to cover the areas you don’t want any paint over.
- Prep solution: You’ll need something to effectively remove the shiny factory finish on your shoes and bring out a clean surface below which your paint can adhere to; otherwise, it’ll hardly last a day before cracking. You can use Angelus leather preparer and deglazer for this or get any 100% Acetone nail paint remover.
- Acrylic Leather Paints: You can get good quality, reasonably priced colors of your choice from Angelus. You can also order their products from Amazon and have them delivered anywhere in the world.
- Acrylic Finisher: This is to bind everything in the end and prevent chipping completely. You could get a matte or glossy finisher, whichever you like.
- Cotton Balls: To apply the finisher
- Duller (optional): This is just to give your paints a more matte look if required, but you can skip it if you want.
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.
Choose Your Method
Now that you have your shoes and your supplies, it’s time to pick a method. There are hundreds of patterns, designs, and techniques you could use during painting including:
- freestyle, hand painting
The easiest and most popular is probably hand painting your AF1s. 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!
Side note – If you’re using an old pair of shoes, they may require a deep clean before you begin. 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.
Time To Paint
After you’re done cleaning your sneakers adequately, it’s time for the fun part – painting!
- First off, remove the laces of your shoes to avoid accidentally getting any paint on them.
- Tape off the edges, the shoe tongue, and any other area you don’t want to paint.
- 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. If you’d like, sand your shoes before applying your prep solution, but that’s completely optional.
- Now 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.
- For drawing, you can use stencils (cut-outs or stencil using tape) or transfer your design (using charcoal/graphite tracing) onto your shoe.
- 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.
- If you’re going for a design whose boundaries are not that harsh or definite, go for airbrushing. It’s quite simple, useful for various things, and an airbrush is a one-time investment. After that, you can use the same paints as used for hand painting, mixed with Angelus 2-thinner in a 1:4 ratio (1 for the thinner) and just spray it on your shoes! You’ll need to use stencils for this to get the paint in the right areas.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
There are dozens of videos on YouTube that explain the process of hand painting your shoes 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Use stencils: If you’re not great at drawing, 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.
- Using tape to do stenciling: It’s easy to understand why you’d be nervous about free-hand drawing 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. He suggests using 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:
- Let painted surfaces entirely dry before you tape them.
- Ensure you seal the edges thoroughly.
- Remove the tape slowly. Don’t pull too hard or pull it off too quickly!
- 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 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.
- 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.
- Lighter colors first: Since lighter colors are easier to paint over, do your light colors first and then move to the darker ones.
- 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 go out and hand paint Air Force Ones. 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! If you want to customize your sneakers through a method other than hand painting, you can read our guide on hydro dipping your sneakers.
Don’t ruin your new work of art by throwing your shoes in the washer. Instead, read our guide on keeping your custom shoes cleaned.