Painting with Children: Where to Start and What to Do
Painting is hugely beneficial to the developing infant brain. The benefits are so widely recognised within the early years sector that you will generally find painting on offer in nurseries, preschools and Reception classes every single day. Painting can be such a joyous experience for young children too, and that in itself is enough to warrant offering it.
It may be that you are happy for your child to paint in their every day clothing. If not, then a painting apron, tabard or smock will be required. My personal preference is to provide a pre-loved oversized, button up shirt, worn backwards over clothing, with the buttons secured at the back, and sleeves rolled up. This is a sustainable, washable and comfortable option for little ones.
There are lots of commercially available aprons on the market. These are the aprons commonly used in nursery and infant schools here in the UK. They're light, waterproof, washable and withstand heavy use. Be sure to check the sizing before ordering. If you have access to an Ikea locally, then I can recommend the MÅLA aprons too, for the same desirable features.
When painting, young children need to be able to make BIG arm movements using their whole upper body. For this reason, my suggestion would be that you opt for a bulk pack of A2 Sugar Paper for painting. This size is great for accommodating large scale painting, but can also be folded and cut to size for smaller scale work. Sugar paper is thick enough to withstand wet paint, and holds up well to vigorous brush work.
Or you might prefer to opt for a Paper Roll which can be spread along the length of a table or on the floor. Both options can be used for vertical painting too. Again, be sure to check sizing before ordering and go for the widest roll you can find.
I highly recommend that you stick to white (or off white) paper for early painting experiences. While young children are still exploring and learning about colour theory (tints, tones and shades) they will find that colours are more distinct on white.
An Easel or Vertical Painting Space
Vertical painting has many benefits. Working at a vertical surface helps to develop a child's gross motor skills, improving their core strength and muscle coordination. Just imagine the movement required to fill the large scale space of an easel with paint. It's quite a work out for a little body. Spatial awareness improves, as well as hand/eye coordination and visual attention. Young children enjoy it too. The benefits are tangible for them.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you need to invest in an easel, which is a bulky piece of equipment to make space for in a small home. You can attach paper to any wall or vertical surface for your child to experience vertical painting (the inside of a shower cubicle works well, or an outside wall if you are concerned about the mess), or you can make a temporary easel out of stiff cardboard following the tutorial here.
If you decide to opt for an easel, I can vouch for the excellent quality of the range at Community Playthings, although I do appreciate that they are on the pricey side for the family home. Otherwise, my only advice would be that you opt for an easel with an integrated tray for storing your art materials at hand.
My experience with washable paint has been quite limited. We tend to stick with homemade, taste safe paints with the very young (you'll find a recipe for taste safe finger paint on page 12). We have then progressed on to this brand (which is NOT washable) because I could buy it in bulk. Historically we have got through a lot of paint here, and this is the brand that I've always used in the nursery and infant classrooms I've worked in. The children wear protective clothing, but the darker colours do have a tendency to stain clothing and hands. We will use up what we have here, but if I need to buy more in the future I will go for a simple set like this. If purchasing individually, you will need red, yellow, blue and white as an absolute minimum for colour mixing. You may like to consider adding black at a later date, once your child becomes interested in painting specific things.
Paint Pots and Palettes
This may be controversial, but my paint pots of choice are transparent, glass, recycled baby food jars (with the labels removed) with lids. I like these because they are free, durable, wash well and paint looks irresistible in them. The lids mean that you can save and store any leftover paint. In 20+ years of working with young children I have never had one break. You may decide that you'd prefer to opt for plastic, (a wise choice if you have stone or tile flooring, or stringent health and safety procedures in your setting), but I would really encourage you to source some that are transparent if you can, and that have lids. A set such as these would be ideal.
Similarly, I like to offer transparent, glass, recycled ramekins for mixing paints (we use the GU dessert ramekins). They have the same desirable features as the baby food jars, as well as having a flat, stable bottom, making them ideal for mixing paint. If you have excess baby food jars, they also work well for mixing. A plastic alternative might be something such as these.
Painting with fingers and hands is the best way to introduce paint to your infant. You can make your own taste safe paints by adding a drop or two of natural food colouring to plain yogurt, whipped cream or cornflour 'gloop'. You'll find a recipe here.
There are lots of commercially available finger paints on the market. We really rate the My First Crayola set. They're a lovely consistency and wash well off the skin. Alongside this set, if you were to purchase a tub of White Finger Paint then you'd be able to offer your child a wide variety of premixed colours and shades, or allow them to mix their own on the paper.
Finger painting can be fun in the bath or shower, painting directly on the tiles, shower cubicle or sides of the bath (or on oneself!) You can offer large paper on the floor, table top or hung vertically from the wall, or you can paint directly on the floor, table top or vertical space (obviously, for wipeable surfaces only).
Our favourite paint brushes for the very young are Stencil Brushes. They are available in a variety of sizes, but it is the short, thick, stubby handles that make them ideal for little ones who use a fist grip. We like these paint brushes for the 3-5 age bracket, and then would recommend a selection such as this for 5+ years.
The trick to having long lasting paint brushes is not to leave them soaking in paint or water. Provide your child with a piece of scrap cloth or a sheet of kitchen roll, and model how to clean the brush in water and then lay it down to dry. Wash brushes thoroughly and immediately after use under warm running water, then lay them to dry or stand them up in a glass or jar with their bristles upright.
We've never used these, but I have heard great things about Little Brian Paint Sticks. If the mess involved in painting is a barrier for you, then these might be a solution for your family. Apparently, Ikea also sell a version of these.
Wet-on-wet watercolour painting is such a wonderful sensory painting experience for little ones. We use and would recommend Stockmar Liquid Watercolours. They're highly pigmented, so you can create vibrant colours with just a small drizzle diluted in water. I know that many are put off by the price of these. They are an investment, but they're really long lasting. We still have and use the same set of six colours that I purchased eight years ago, and we use them a lot. You can read more about the wet-on-wet watercolour painting technique here, and about how we use these paints to make a seasonal watercolour palette here.
Of course, if you are going to go down the route of watercolour painting then you will need to purchase some watercolour paper too. Watercolour paper is expensive, so I tend to go for A3 size so that I can cut it down to size if needed. I don't think you need to be too concerned about quality at this stage, so I tend to research to find the cheapest deal on the largest quantity.
The Fundamentals of Play: Art Materials
The above blog post content has been taken directly from my digital guide The Fundamentals of Play: Art Materials. These are my recommendations for the birth - 3 years age bracket. You'll find more recommendations for the 3 years + age bracket included in the guide. I'm in the process of writing a few extra pages for the 7 years + age bracket, which will be sent out to every customer who has bought the guide, once it is complete.
Choosing art supplies can be overwhelming. Let me share with you my wealth of experience, and help you to select the materials that your child needs for the early years. This 25 page PDF guide is an instant digital download. It will provide you with a comprehensive guide to all the art materials you will need for the early years, with specific recommendations and suggestions for use.
You can download a few FREE taster pages here.
31 Days of Process Art
You may also be interested in my digital guide, 31 Days of Process Art, which includes lots of ideas for open ended process art prompts, using the art materials shared in my guide above. These activities are suitable for use at home, or within your childcare or educational setting. Simple, fun, open ended and child led process art invitations.
If you've enjoyed reading this blog post, you may also enjoy these ones:
'Mix Your Own Paint Colours' Process Art Invitation
Creating a Seasonal Paint Palette
Process Art Valentine's Day Card Tutorial
This blog post contains affiliate links. If you do click through, Bean and I will receive a small amount of commission which will contribute to new books and resources for her home education. You can, however, find all of these resources elsewhere, including other online retailers, second hand selling pages and your local library.