Tips for Painting with Children

The first tip for painting with children is the MOST important one.  It will allow you–the adult in charge–to be carefree, happy, and relaxed to thoroughly enjoy the experience with the little ones.

Find a place where it is okay to get messy.  Otherwise you will be stressed about the paint getting on the furniture or floors or on the beautiful new wallpaper you just had installed.  Believe me, that kind of limitation will kill the experience.

Sling paint in the basement, outdoor patio, garage–just anyplace where a little drip won’t hurt.

Now that you’ve found the place to paint, everyone–including the adult–puts on paint clothes.  Now everyone is ready to get messy and you won’t freak when paint smeared hands tug at your shirt.

I like to have my children paint on canvas occasionally.  They think it is special, and it gives them the chance to experiment with opacity and blending that they don’t get to do with watercolors on paper.  I sometimes buy them the canvases with the deep, wrapped profiles–some manufacturers call these “gallery wrapped.”  (Like the one my daughter is working on in the above photo.)  These type of canvases do not need frames and are ready to hang as soon as the paint is dry.  Canvas boards are less expensive and are fun for playing around on–and they can be framed when a masterpiece is created.

Now it’s time to gather the paint.

Children need paint with lower viscosity so their brushstrokes flow freely.  Craft paints are very fluid and also are cheap so you can have lots of colors without the mixing, which can be tedious for kids.  House paint also works well for large areas and dripping.  I rarely bring out my acrylic art paints for my kids because they are very thick and much more expensive.

Give the child lots of colors to choose from.  Do not choose paint for the child that only matches the rug or the sofa or the painting will disappear into the room.  I generally only give them access to brights since children inevitably blend them all together to make “mud” anyways.

With the right place, clothes, and materials–we’re ready to paint!

Before you invite the child to paint, completely cover the canvas in any color but white.  Sometimes kids forget to cover all the areas of a canvas when they are painting; and white canvas peeking through looks like amateur art, but layered art looks infinitely more interesting.  It doesn’t matter what color the base painting is done in since only bits of it will show through the finished product.

Here is my oldest when he was four years old, working on a gestural piece.  I painted it orange beforehand and he layered on top of my base painting.  You can see on his palette that I squeezed out multiple colors–not a good idea for a child this young because they love to swirl them together to get that mud color.  And while it is good to have some of that ugly mud color in the painting, you do not want the whole piece to be a muddy mess.  I’ve since learned that when painting with toddlers, it is best to give them their selected colors only one or maybe two at a time.

And while I do let them go at it willy nilly, I sometimes offer up suggestions when they are painting.  Painting is good physical fun to smoosh and smear, but it is also a good time to learn how to appreciate interesting marks and color relationships that they are creating.  I might say, “You have a blank spot here–why don’t you add color there?” or “There is nothing in this lonely corner, why don’t you give it some company?” or “I really love those marks you are making!  Don’t paint over those beauties!”  or “Those two colors look so good together.  I don’t think I would change anything you’ve done in that area.”

Give them different brushes to use.  An interesting painting has varied sizes of mark making.  Different brushes also gives them experience on how to use different tools for different applications.

Here is the painting all finished.  I did go over a few of my favorite marks he made with a brighter color to make them pop more.  Aren’t kids just natural gestural painters?

For this painting, I let my son apply the base paint, in two colors.  He filled in around the orange with pink so we could preserve the marks he made in orange.  I had planned for the kids to draw on this in oil pastels (like crayons) so the base painting had to be more intentional since it was going to show.

Because oil pastels aren’t messy, I let them go at it in the dining room while I cooked dinner (she’s 2 and he’s 4 in this photo).  By the time we sat down to eat, the painting was finished and up on the wall.

For a real winner with the kids, you can set them up for some drip paintings.  Open up several paint cans at one time and rotate one new color every two minutes or so, revisiting colors if desired.

These turned out so fun–but here I broke my rule of base painting the canvas beforehand because it was a spontaneous activity that day.  All that white canvas board showing through drove me so crazy that I went back after the kids finished and painted all those little crevices a color.  Call me Crazy.

As the kids get older, their imagery becomes less abstract since they become obsessed with painting something.  The same tips apply, but if the children are painting regularly, they are picking up all these skills and implementing them along the way.

This castle painting, by my son when he was 7, is a good example of filling in the whole canvas and layering paint for depth.  These days he is a reluctant painter but still enjoys the time with me–but it is hard to get anything more than stick people from him.  I love this painting, on canvas board, for the interesting way he composed the interior of his castle–which makes up for the fact that it is squarely in the middle of the canvas.  The painting has great color, too, since he has finally mastered the “wash the brush, dry, and dip into another color” skill.

My daughter, age 5 when she painted this, naturally flows with the paint.  This is her, art without instruction, in acrylic and oil pastels (I went in afterward in oil and did the pink, orange, and white in the sky and the light green behind the princess).  And then…

…this is her painting almost a year later with instruction.  I was blown away to see what a little technical academic instruction produced when combined with her natural talent.  While I definitely prefer her princess painting to the lone chicken, it is exciting to see what will come of her awesome combo of creativity and skill in the future.

Sometimes my kids produce great art on more temporary surfaces, such as the MagnaDoodle.  This is my son’s drawing of the ABCs when he was 3.

I loved it and snapped a photo before he could wipe it clean.

Later I used the photo to make a painting on canvas.

  I also plan to do this on a large canvas that my daughter doodled on when she was 4 by blowing up one of her hilarious princess drawings on top of the doodles.  A great way to preserve the best of their paper art!

But sometimes their doodles are too beautiful to get lost in the stack of printer paper art.  This allover drawing my daughter did at 5 was too good to file away, on printer paper with marker.  I love that she cover every square inch of the paper.  Encourage your children to fill up the surface and pay attention to the edges.

She also loves to cut paper.  What to do with all those paper hearts and snowflakes she lovingly cut and colored?  She and her younger brother painted the basecoat on each canvas–and here I go against my earlier tip on the white showing through, but I liked seeing the solid blue disintegrate  into the brushstrokes on the bottom, that I told them to stop painting and leave a partial background.  Next we layered the hearts on top with a coat of Modge Podge.  The geometric shapes were an assignment from her math class that we mounted on blue cardstock.

Now, rustle up some kids and paint and have fun!


  1. OH my goodness. THis post was every bit as wonderful as I hoped it would be. THANK YOU SO MUCH for putting this all down. Honestly, the more tips you could send my way, I would soak them all up!!!

    Your guidelines, well,
    gave me freedom. Imagine that.

    Love you girl!!!!!!

  2. Oh, I LOVED reading this! It really gave me a lot to think about. I like to do artsy things with my boys {5 and 3} but sometimes it feels overwhelming. So this was encouraging. Thanks! And I remember seeing that huge canvas they did with the oil pastels on The Nesting Place {I think, right?} – that was my first intro to your blog {which I utterly adore}.

  3. Great, great, great! But what I really need to know is: Are your children lefties??? I’m so curious because Seb and I, two righties, spawned three lefties with a rightie bringing up the rear.

  4. Tell those kids I know what I want for birthdays and Christmases! Beautiful!

  5. I really love your posts that feature your children’s painting (and also how you enhance them:). I’m making mental plans to do similar activities when I have my own some day!

  6. What a delightful post, now for my little girl to grow up a teensy bit so we can make art together. My dad got me drawing when I was 2… we shall see if she follows suit!


  7. This is so great I’m going to include a link to it in my 31 Days of Art!

    Love it! Thank you for sharing. And it gets me going to the paint store to choose some good background colors. Yum.

  8. This made me smile and is actually the second time I have read this post. So many good instructions. I’m bustin out the paints manana. Thank you so much for putting this post together.


  9. Bonnie says:

    fabulous tips! my artsy 3 yr old is entranced….and rather glued to this post…and desperate to paint more. Maybe I will be more fun after reading your post 😉 btw, she is sure she saw a horse in one of those paintings!

  10. Nicole says:

    Great tips! I can’t wait to do this with my 4 yr old! Thanks for sharing. Do you have any specific house paint colors you recommend purchasing?

  11. Yvonne says:

    Love the art instruction. I’m using it for my 4 grandsons.

  12. Fantastic site. A lot of useful information here. I am sending
    it to some buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious.
    And naturally, thank you to your sweat!

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  14. They are so adorable. They love to be so artistic. My family is planning to repaint our next week maybe we can also do this, too.

  15. Leslie says:

    This was wonderful except for one thing: children should not paint with acrylics because of the toxic fumes. They are made with formaldehyde. Children are more susceptible because of their smaller size. “Use with ventilation” does not mean just opening up a window, Tempera and some watercolor colors are fine.

  16. jackson says:

    I liked the painting tips you have mentioned, a child will really enjoy creating artwork and exploring their creativity. I have started displaying and storing my child’s artwork, to encourage them further and try to make something new. I got excellent ideas from a tutorial – I think it will be help you to creatively display your child’s art work.

  17. Wow, I love the art on the photos, these children are so gifted!

    I appreciate your tips. Unfortunately we are often too busy to set up our canvas and put on painting clothes, so we just restrict ourselves to creative activities on our PC, like

    But nothing beats the real paintbrush!

  18. Heather says:

    I am having a hard time figuring out what kinds of easel to get my boys (5 and 7). I don’t want them to have a real easel, but one that is sturdy and can grow with them. Any suggestions?

  19. Heather says:

    edit: I WANT them to have a real easel

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