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There are lots of characters in anime, comics, D&D, and games that have leather as some aspect of their costume. However, real leather is not a material that most of us will want to use for a cosplay costume. Not only is leather difficult to work with, but it’s also fairly expensive. So instead, it’s best to use cheaper, easier materials and make them look like leather.
The two aspects to help create the appearance of leather without using actual leather are texture and weathered colors. If you don’t have both aspects, the leather won’t look realistic. For these two tutorials, I will be making some basic leather straps, but the same principles can apply to leather arm bracers, leather armor, or other aspects of your costume that you want to look like leather. You can even paint shoes to look like leather if they currently look too plastic-y.
The first method I go over will use cheap faux leather. Some faux leather looks more realistic than others, but if you want to keep the price down, you can get the cheapest plastic-looking leather you can find and paint it. The second method will be using only EVA foam (or craft foam) to create a leather-like effect.
Method 1: Making cheap faux leather look realistic
The benefit of using faux leather for a costume is the texture. Most brands of fake leather will have an unnatural, plastic appearance (unless you get something high-scale), but they will still have a decent texture that you can use to your advantage by adding thin layers of paint on top.
If you intend to make “leather” straps or armor, it’s best to use the faux leather with some craft foam or EVA foam underneath to help give it a more solid appearance. However, if you’re making wearable clothing, you can skip the craft foam and go straight to the painting after you’ve constructed your garment.
1. Cut the craft foam and leather
First, you want to cut out whatever shape you want for your leather armor from your craft foam (or 2mm EVA foam). Then place your foam against the back of your faux leather. Draw a line that gives at least half an inch of extra “leather” around the outside of the foam and cut it out. The extra length of the faux leather is necessary because you will need to fold the “leather” over the edge of the foam shape.
In my case, I will be creating simple leather straps. So I’m cutting some long rectangles out of EVA foam and then cutting wider rectangles out of the faux leather material.
2. Glue the leather to the craft foam
Now you want to glue the faux leather to the craft foam. I use hot glue for this since it adheres the two materials very quickly, but you can also use just about any other kind of glue if you prefer.
Place the craft foam on the back of the faux leather material. Apply some glue to the edge on the back of the foam and fold the leather over the top, careful not to burn your fingers. Since hot glue hardens fairly quickly, it’s best to work in small sections at a time, folding the “leather” over the foam.
When working on corners, you want to avoid creating too much bulk. Clip the corners as shown in the image above, before folding the faux leather over, so you can still press it down flat on the back of the foam piece.
Alternatively, you could sandwich the foam between two layers of faux leather. Glue (or sew) the leather together at the edges, completely enclosing the foam in the middle.
3. Paint the leather strap
Once the leather strap (or armor) is assembled, it’s time to paint it. Start by adding a wash of a darker color to the “leather.” This is watered-down paint that you apply and then rub off, allowing the paint to settle into the crevices of the textured surface.
After the wash dries, it’s a matter of layering different shades of brown to create a natural variance in color. You’ll generally want to make the edges darker and the center of the strap or armor piece lighter. It’s also a good idea to apply the paint in thin layers with a rag or sponge to give more texture to the paint. (for more tips on painting, scroll down to the last section of this article)
Assuming the back of the strap will not be visible while you’re wearing the costume, you don’t need to worry about painting the back. However, you do want to make sure the sides and edges are painted, since these will be visible parts of the costume.
4 Basic principles for painting something to mimic the texture of leather
When it comes to painting your “leather” surface, there is no one way to get the perfect paint job. I encourage you to start with a test piece of whatever material you’re using. This will give you the chance to try out different techniques and applicators until you get the result you’re looking for. While you are painting, use these tips to help you get a better result.
1. Make sure it has some texture on the surface
The reality is, real leather can actually be sanded down and smooth. However, it’s quite difficult to replicate that kind of flawless, matte leather finish with just paint. Unless you’re really good at airbrushing and creating realistic smooth colors with paint (in which case, you’re probably not reading this because you can make better fake leather than me), it’s best to try to mimic leather that has a rough surface, rather than a smooth finish.
The rough texture helps to create uneven variations in coloring that don’t have to be as precise as a smooth surface. If you use cheap faux leather, it will usually have a textured surface to work with, and you can easily create a textured surface on EVA foam.
2. Apply thin layers of multiple colors
Like most things in nature, real leather is not going to have a surface that is only one color. If you look at it very closely, you’ll see there is a variation in the color of a single piece of leather from lighter undertones to the dark caramel, rustic brown, etc.
To mimic this natural occurrence, you’ll need to use multiple colors on your faux leather surface. What I always do is:
- Start with a solid layer of a light color. A light tan is usually a good option for dark-colored leather, while an ivory color is best for a lighter type of leather look.
- Add a thin layer of slightly darker paint. There are many ways of making it a thin layer. You can thin the paint with water, paint it and wipe it away with a rag, or apply the paint with a sponge, cloth, or something similar. The goal is to make sure you don’t paint a solid layer of paint.
- Repeat step 2 for three or four layers. Use slightly darker paint each time. By the time you finish, the first layer should barely be visible, but you’ll get the occasional light color coming through the dark in small spots.
- Go back with a thin layer of one of your light colors to highlight some areas of the “leather” and create a variation in color. The center of large “leather” pieces or areas where the surface of the leather would experience friction are places where the leather will naturally be lighter.
3. Don’t use a paintbrush
For the most part, you’ll want to use other objects to paint your leather other than a paintbrush. At least, you want to avoid a good, smooth paintbrush. Something old and bristly can still be useful here. Other objects that you can use are a cloth or rag, a sponge, or even your fingers.
This is because you don’t really want to create a smooth layer of paint on the surface. You want the paint to create its own random texture while you’re applying it. So pressing it on and rubbing it with a cloth or sponge, can help you create a more realistic look. You can also press paint on with a bristled brush (as opposed to painting smoothly) to help create an unusual texture that gives your faux leather more character.
4. Make areas near edges and cracks darker
In general, areas that are less exposed to light and friction will maintain the original, darker color of the leather more than other areas that fade with time. To mimic this effect, you’ll want to make the areas on the edges of the leather and along any seams the darkest color. Then add a gradient to fade that darker color into the lighter color you’ll see toward the center of the leather piece.
You can make the difference between the colors as drastic or subtle as you want. For some types of leather, you’ll really notice the difference, while for others it’s barely noticeable, especially if it’s a newly-made leather piece. So test out what you like best.