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Easy Ways to Customize Canvas Tote Bags Yourself

Easy Ways to Customize Canvas Tote Bags Yourself - Threadsy

Nicole Rollender |

Canvas tote bags are functional and fashionable, especially since you can easily customize them to fit your personality, mood or use. Totes are great gifts and giveaways at events, and people use them over and over again.

Tote bags became popular in the 1980s, and they’re still going strong and stronger, as people use them for work, shopping, hitting the gym, travel, beach days, and beyond. With many states leaning toward plastic bag bans in stores to reduce what goes into landfills, having a selection of canvas totes on hand just makes sense. When you decorate your customized tote right at home, you’re creating a one-of-a-kind accessory and helping to safeguard the environment.

In a nutshell, tote bags are a staple of our everyday lives. We’ve put together a primer on how to personalize your tote with your name, message or favorite beach scene, with a focus on painting, since it’s by far the most popular way people add their names, messages and artwork to one or both sides of their canvas tote.

If you’ve been mulling over some tote bag painting and design ideas, we’ve rounded up some easy ways to customize your bag. This blog will walk you through how to choose a bag, paint and create cute designs for your canvas bags.

The Best Plain Tote Bags to Decorate Yourself

Choosing the right canvas tote bag might just be the most important part of gathering your supplies. After all, your tote bag is your blank canvas for your creativity and self-expression! There are hundreds of affordable, high-quality bags to choose from here at Threadsy. We recommend choosing a 100% cotton canvas tote or a cotton blend, depending on the customizing technique you choose.

The Supplies You Need to Decorate Your Tote

It’s important to plan ahead for your tote bag decoration project, since you may need to gather, order or buy supplies. Depending on your tote bag decoration idea, you’ll need different materials. Since the most popular canvas tote decorating methods include painting, we’ll focus our supply list on projects that incorporate paints.

Gather Your Painted Tote Bag Project Materials

You’ll need:

  • Your plain cotton canvas tote bag
  • A hard sheet of plastic, wood or cardboard
  • Pencils with new erasers
  • Paintbrushes with firmer bristles
  • Stencils
  • Paint in your desired colors
  • Paint palette
  • Damp paper towels
  • Painter’s tape or masking tape
  • Repositionable adhesive spray
  • Fabric primer or gesso
  • Parchment paper
  • Iron 
  • Ironing board
  • Plastic protective sheet
  • Apron or painting clothes.

What Types of Paint to Use

You’ve got several types of paint at your disposal, depending on your preference and ultimate design intent:


Acrylic-based fabric paints: Many people who paint on canvas bags prefer permanent acrylic-based fabric paints, since they stay put and they’re washable. Be sure that you choose a fabric paint vs. a plain acrylic paint. That’s because acrylic-based fabric paint includes a medium to suspend the acrylic so it dries smoothly, and results in a soft, flexible design that moves with the tote bag fabric. If you choose regular acrylic paints, you’ll probably need to add a fabric medium to it. Finally, depending on the type you use, you may not need to seal your painted design when it dries.

Acrylics dry faster, so you can add many layers or produce crisp lines. Since acrylics have a thicker viscosity, you can create chunkier Van Gogh-style paintings, or lighter, whimsical Renoir scapes. The downsides are that it can be harder to blend acrylics, and they dry darker on a canvas tote, so you may want to do color tests before you dive in.


Oil paints: Oils are good for superior blending. However, you need extra prep time and materials like gesso to get ready to paint. Oils also take longer to dry.

Watercolor paints: While these water-based paints are great for unleashing your inner Monet, they fade quickly and are the least long-lasting out of all your options.

How to Prep Your Tote Bag

Now that you’re ready to decorate your own canvas bag, let’s cover a few important steps to prep your bag. Then, you can unleash your canvas tote decorating ideas!

Step 1: Decide if You’d Like to Pre-wash Your Canvas Tote Bag

This step is entirely up to you, because different hobbyists have opposite opinions. Some say that you should skip pre-washing because it adds more time to the project, and unwashed fabrics are easier to work with, depending on the bag you use. More experts advise pre-washing a cotton tote in case the fabric shrinks, plus washing removes any chemicals or protective agents on the bag’s surface.

Step 2: Insert a Protective Layer into Your Bag

You can use a piece of cardboard, wood or hard plastic. Insert it into your bag. This layer will stabilize your bag, help the paint adhere better to the canvas and prevent it from bleeding through to the other side.

Step 3: Prime Your Canvas Painting Surface

While many DIY canvas tote bag painters don’t prime their bags, others do. It’s totally up to you. You can apply a primer like gesso to your painting surface, following the instructions on the priming product. The primer will help prevent the paint from clumping and will make the top layers appear more vibrant and even.

How to Paint a Canvas Tote Bag

Now that you’ve got your supplies, it’s time to get creative! We’ve got an easy step-by-step process you can follow right at home, as you start painting your tote bag.

Step 1: Figure Out Your Design

If you’re planning to work free-hand, you can do a pencil sketch on the cloth tote to determine your composition. If you’re painting large areas of your tote canvas, you can use painters tape to mark off those elements. We always recommend checking out Pinterest or YouTube for design inspiration, and for more in-depth tutorials on painting text or creating specific designs.

Step 2: Prepare Your Paint Colors

Add your chosen paint colors to your palette, or prep the paint colors by mixing them with your fabric medium, by following the instructions on the bottle.

Step 3: Apply Your Paint

We suggest painting any larger areas first. Since the canvas will absorb paint, you’ll want to work in layers. Apply a light base layer and let it dry for several minutes. This first layer will seal your surface and prevent additional layers from bleeding through the fabric. Then go back and build up your layers.

Step 4: Add Smaller or Top Elements, and Accent Paint Colors

Then, move on to your smaller elements and accent paint colors that might go over a base layer of paint.

Tips for Stenciling on Totes

If you’ve decided to use stencils for your design, here are a few specific steps to take and tips to make this process as easy as possible. Here are the general steps to stenciling on your canvas tote:

Stabilize your fabric.
Secure your tote fabric using painters tape or masking tape. If the canvas has a fabric grain, line up the grain so that your graphic will be aligned.

Position your stencil on the tote.
Lots of crafters use a repositional adhesive spray when they affix stencils to their canvas tote bags so they get crisper results since the paint won’t bleed under the stencil. Even though canvas is a stiffer material, it can still move slightly when you’re applying your paint. Cover any area of the stencil that you don’t want to use with painters tape.

Start applying paint and finish your design.

Start with small amounts of paint. Wet your paintbrush and squeeze out any excess moisture. After you dip your brush in the paint, dab some of the paint off on a paper towel before applying it to the canvas tote. We recommend applying the paint in a vertical position, rather than at an angle.

Complete each smaller area or element before moving on to the next. When you’re done painting, remove your stencil carefully to let the paint dry completely. Rinse your stencil right after you’re done.

Step 5: Let the Paint Dry, and then Use Your Bag!

While you might be raring to show off your cute new painted tote right away, it’s a good idea to let your tote dry overnight. Use your clips or clothespins to hang your tote in a cool, dry room for 12 to 24 hours to make sure it’s 100% dry before you throw your gym clothes in it and head out the door.

Pro tip: Decide whether you want to heat set your design, once your canvas tote is totally dry. If you’ll be laundering the bag frequently, this is a good step to take. When you heat set your design, you melt the canvas into the acrylic so it further bonds to the fabric.

To heat set your design, place a piece of parchment paper over your design. Set your iron on a medium setting and then glide it lightly over the parchment paper. Generally, you’ll want to use your iron for about three minutes to fully seal the design.

Other Ideas to Customize Your Canvas Tote Bag

Here are four other quick tote bag decoration ideas to get your creative juices flowing, if you want to try some ideas besides painting. You can also search Pinterest or YouTube for some great ideas and tutorials.

Iron-On Patches

One easy way to customize your canvas tote bag is to buy or print heat transfers that you can easily iron on your tote. 

Dip-Dyed Canvas Tote Bags

If you’ve got some fabric dye, you can turn your canvas tote a whole other color or you can create an ombre effect by submerging the tote in sections for 10 to 15 minutes each.

Embroidered Monogram

Add your hand-stitched monogram (or someone else’s) to a canvas tote for a truly personalized look.

Sequined Canvas Tote Bag

Did you know that you can use sequins by the yard (and some fabric glue) to create your monogram, or spell your name or a message, or build a shape or two on your tote bag?

The Bottom Line

We say you can never have too many canvas tote bags, to store items at home, to bring along on trips and to use when you’re out shopping at stores. That’s why customizing and personalizing your tote bags are so much fun! (They also make great gifts and items to sell.) We hope you give these techniques a try and have a blast making a custom creation that you love.