How to Paint a Cooler

how to make a painted cooler

Painted coolers are a great way to add character to your trips to the beach, pool parties, tailgating, fraternity traditions or other outdoor gatherings. The materials are easy to find and the techniques are fairly simple. All you need is a cooler, some paint, and your imagination.

painted cooler ideas

Each side of your cooler can be different!


decorating cooler supplies

First Step: Paint Cooler with Gesso

First, wash and dry the entire cooler. Once dry, paint the first coat of gesso over the entire surface. Let the first layer dry and add an additional 1-2 coats until you have even coverage and can no longer see the original color of the cooler. The gesso gives you a blank canvas to create your painted cooler and allows the paint colors to really pop out and look brighter.

gesso application

Apply at least 2 coats of gesso to the cooler. Let dry in between coats.

Step 2: Sketching onto the cooler

Gather your cooler painting ideas and inspiration by looking through magazines, searching online, or using your own photos. Sketch out a design on a separate paper at first, or you can draw straight onto the cooler.

pencil sketching designs Use a pencil to lightly sketch your design onto the cooler.

Step Two: Painting the Background Colors

Tape the sides with painter’s tape. Paint your design in sections. For the wave, I’ve painted the colors from lightest to darkest: Sea Aqua, Turquoise Blue, and Primary Blue. The sun and rays are Naphthol Red and the sky is Marigold. You may have to paint 2-3 layers each color, as some colors are translucent (like the Naphthol Red and Primary Blue) and your sketch marks will show through the first layer.

ice chest painting Paint in your design one section at a time.

Step Three: Adding Details

Once dry, paint in details with the detail brushes or draw them in with paint pens. (Be sure to do this part outdoors or in a well-ventilated area when using the DecoColor paint pens.) The paint pens allow you to have really clean lines and a nice, finished look. It’s also a great way to add contrast. I traced the waves with a Sharpie paint pen Medium Point in blue and the sun with a Sharpie Medium Point in red.

outline with paint pens Trace the outline with a paint pen for a clean, finished look.

Design Variations

If you are not comfortable drawing your design directly onto the surface, you can use transfer paper instead. Place the transfer paper face down onto the cooler and secure with painter’s tape. Tape your drawing or image onto the transfer paper. Trace your design with pencil. Lift up the transfer paper to be sure that your design is transferring onto the surface. Paint in your design and trace it with a paint pen (I used a Deco Color fine line in black).

transfer paper tips

Transfer your image onto the surface, paint in sections, and outline with paint pen.

Painting a beach scene can be simple and all you need are a few colors of paint. First, draw in the details. Then, paint in your background. To paint the ocean, dip your brush in two different colors of blue (one on each side) and paint broad, arching strokes, making sure to layer as you go. Paint small sections at a time, allowing each layer to dry, so that you don’t end up over-blending. The same technique can be used to paint sand, but with two colors of yellow instead. Use a small sponge brush to add clouds to the sky.

two colors on brush technique

Use two colors on the same brush to create a blended look for sand or ocean. Use a sponge brush to create clouds.

To add crashing waves, use an old, dry brush dipped in white paint and dry-brush onto the section where the ocean color meets the sand color. To add more depth to the ocean, paint a lighter blend of two colors on top of a darker blue background. Paint in the details and outline with paint pen.

decorating a cooler Draw in the design, paint in the background, add details to background, paint in design and outline with a paint pen.

You can also add a drawing or words to an already painted background. Wait for your background to dry completely, then cut out the words or images you’d like to use. Place them on top of your background to get an idea of where they will go. Then, place transfer paper face down under each word or design. Trace the outline with pencil.

transfer paper letters tips

For simple backgrounds, add images or words on top with transfer paper.

This is especially helpful for words, as it is much easier to “draw” a word in a particular font and then paint it in versus hand-lettering with a paintbrush. Use a paint pen to trace and fill in the words. Paint pens also give you a lot more control versus a paintbrush. paint pen letters Trace and fill in drawn words with paint pen to give the appearance of brush lettering.

Adding Decoupage

You can also add interesting designs and images using decoupage or patterned tissue paper. Cut out the design or image you’d like to use, and with a foam brush, add a generous amount of Mod Podge to the surface of the cooler. Quickly apply your decoupage paper on top of the glued surface and apply more Mod Podge on top of the paper. Smooth out any air bubbles with the brush or your finger--just be sure there is just a little bit of Mod Podge to smooth around otherwise you may rip the paper if it becomes too dry too fast. Wait a few minutes and watch to see if any air bubbles form. If so, just dab your finger in the Mod Podge and smooth out the bubbles. Let dry. Trace around the entire edge with a white DecoColor paint pen.

mod podge cooler

Cut out patterned tissue paper and adhere with Mod Podge. Outline with paint pen when dry.

Step Four: Sealing in Your Design

When all of the paint on all sides are dry, coat the entire cooler with a thin layer of Mod Podge Outdoor. Let dry 15-20 minutes then add several light layers (drying in between). Allow 72 hours after the last coat has dried before using outdoors. You may need to reapply every few months for continued protection.

painted ice chest

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tutorial on how to paint a cooler and that you’re inspired to create your own!