Media & Techniques

Important Tips for Painting with Children (Ep. 059)

There are so many ideas out there about the best ways to teach painting and organize the supplies in your art room. Cassie has decided to put all of her ideas on the topic into a single episode. Listen as she talks about her favorite supplies, her best management strategies, and sprinkles some of her best tips and tricks throughout the episode.  Full episode transcript below.

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Cassie: Several years ago I had an English language learner student in my room, and he was the sweetest little dude, never said a peep to me, always seemed to understand what was going on, always seemed to follow directions. So, you know, a regular guy and hanging out in my art room, until one day. It was our first day painting, painting with tempera paint in the art room, one of my favorite things to do, one of my favorite things to teach. I didn’t think anything of it, as the students were walking out of my room with little blobs of paint on their hand, because that’s the mark of a great art day. You’ve got rainbow lotion is what we call paint on our hands.

 As the kids were walking by and saying goodbye to me, I suddenly felt a nice firm whack on my bottom. As I turned around to see who had planted that love tap on my rear, my little friend who’d never said not a single solitary word to me said, “Goodbye, Mrs. Stephens,” and proceeded to walk out of my room with one giant red hand. Yeah. That same red paw print was now on my keister. Ah. The joys of painting with children.

I know way back a million years ago, in one of my very first podcasts, I shared my favorite painting story, which was where a student who was upset about getting paint on her decided to disrobe. She took off both of her coats, which I couldn’t even convince her to take off at the start of painting, and her shirt, standing topless. I heard one of the kids say about her across the room, “I can see her nipplets.” Y’all, painting with children is never a dull moment, but always a whole lot of fun. I want to talk to you today about my favorite supplies, my favorite way to set up, and my routines that I established, so that hopefully I don’t end up with red paw prints on my booty or topless children in my art room. I’m Cassie Stephens, and this is Everyday Art Room.

When I first got my art teacher gig, I didn’t have a clue about painting with no kids, so I promptly went out and got a book called Painting With Children. It’s by Cathy Topal. It’s several years old now. I mean, gosh, I started teaching in ’98, and it had been out for a while back then. But it is a great book. If you are new to painting with children, even if you’re not new, I still think you could get some awesome tips from that book. That book taught me so much about painting with children, and I have also learned a lot along the way.

I’ve hung out with lots of other art teachers, seen their different methods and way of doing things, and I think that what I’m gonna share with you today I want you to consider it with a grain of salt, because what works for me might not work so great for you. I’m gonna share what I have found to be my favorite supplies, my favorite setup, and my favorite routines for painting with children. But, like I said, you might have something that works better for you. If it works for you and your kids, y’all, you do you.

So, let’s first of all talk about supplies, because there’s nothing more frustrating than painting with crappy, I’m just gonna say it, crappy supplies, bad brushes, where the hair bristles fall out, paint colors that just don’t mix well together, or like I had one year, paint that actually flakes and falls off the paper when it’s dry. Yeah. Let’s kick it off with talking about good paint. You want to get a paint that mixes well. You want to get a paint that doesn’t flake off. You want to get a paint where the colors are beautiful and vibrant, colors that really excite the kids and make them excited about painting and their artwork.

These are the paints that I have used. I have found Blick premium tempera to be excellent. I have liked using Sax Versatemp. I find it to be great. Crayola also makes some beautiful colors. Anything that’s a washable paint, keep in mind, it’s going to be not as great as the other colors. I’m assuming they have to add a little bit of a soap or maybe more water into those colors. I don’t know. I don’t work at no scientific paint making factory. This is just a guess. But there’s something about washable colors that makes them not as great as the others. However, think of your clientele. If you know that your friends are gonna be getting paint on their clothes, you might want to invest in the washables paints. I use tempera paint with my students. I don’t use acrylic, because these are young kiddos, and I have noticed that acrylic is a little bit more expensive. So, I feel like with those three brands you really can’t go wrong.

When you’re buying your paints, cheap is not good. Do not buy the cheap paint. I know it’s tempting, because this is where a lot of my budget goes. Paint is ridiculously expensive, but you definitely don’t want to skimp on this one. I speak from experience. When I buy my paint colors, I stick with red, magenta, yellow, blue, turquoise. I usually get one huge gallon of each of those. I usually get two gallons of white and about one gallon, sometimes two, of black paint, just depending on what projects we’re going to be doing. That helps me with my between 350 to 400 students, so that’s what I order for that amount of kids.

Paper. My students only paint on paper. I don’t buy watercolor paper. I don’t get fancy papers. I cannot afford with my budget to get canvas boards. So, the paper that I get is an 80 pound to a 90 pound sulfite paper, and I buy it by the reams. I have found this paper to be the best for everything. You can collage on it. You can paint on it. It’s not going to warp. It’s not going to get all wrinkly. You shouldn’t have to iron it. By the way, and when I say that, you’re probably thinking, “Say what?” If your paper ever does wrinkle, if your student’s artwork does wrinkle, you can take an iron, put it on a low setting, and just iron the back of their work. I used to do that all the time, before I discovered buying paper that’s a little bit heavier in pound.

Aprons. Yuck. I hate aprons, but I have them available to my students, and they are optional. I have gone through every different kind of apron possible, from the really thin plastic ones that are disposable, what a waste, to the … Crayola used to make some really great ones that you could just pull right over the heads of students. I would cut the ties that were on them, so all they did was just throw the apron on. Or even the ones that have an arm length all the way down to the end of the wrist. I bought those one year and found that the wrists are so tight on them that my poor, little students’ little circulation was getting cut off their hands.

Currently, what I have are canvas aprons that look like a chef’s apron. You just pull it over your head and tie at the waist. I believe I got them either form Blick or perhaps from Dharma Trading Company, because they’re all white canvas. I think I had initially bought them to wear myself and to tie-dye them, but they were so small that they actually worked out to be the perfect size for my students. I have them on hooks in my room. My kids know that if anytime they want to wear an apron, they can go get one, but please don’t ask Ms. Stephens to tie them. Go find a friend if you cannot figure out how to tie your apron.

Now, I feel like water dishes had always been the bane of my existence. I’d use those giant cool whip containers or even yogurt cups, but the thing that drove me bananas was that they would often spill. Now, you can find these great cups. They’re called no spill cups. I have those. I love them, but my new favorite thing are doggy dishes. If you got to the Dollar Tree … I’m laughing, because I literally mention the Dollar Tree every single podcast. If you go to the Dollar Tree, you can get dog bowls. I fill mine one side with water, and on the other side I place a sponge. That’s so my students can wash their brush on one end and dry it off on who we call dirty, old SpongeBob on the other end.

I was gonna mention sponges next. My sponges, I usually buy the full size sponge and just cut it in half, and that tends to fit perfectly on that other side of the doggy dish. The reason that we have a sponge there is because if a student cleans their brush in the water and doesn’t dry it off, then dirty paint water will get in the temper paint and contaminate all of the colors. That’s what the sponge is for.

Let’s talk brushes. There’s nothing more frustrating than painting with a brush that just isn’t cutting it, where the bristles are falling out, where the tip isn’t nice and pointed. I have found, just like the paint, you cannot skimp on brushes. You can’t go cheap with brushes. My favorite brush brand hands down, the only brushes I order, are Royal & Langnickel. I like their green handled brushes. I’m laughing, because I don’t know what exactly they’re called. They’re not called the green handled brushes, but they are the ones that are all green. They are rounds, meaning they’re pointed, not flats. My students just don’t use the flat brushes as much.

I usually every year buy another set of the green handled brushes. They come in a wide variety of sizes. I buy them I say every year. It’s probably every other year, because we paint so much that we just about wear them out. Plus, I don’t like washing brushes in between every single class, so I have a ton on hand. Then at the end of the day I’ll do it, or I have a student pop by and wash brushes for me.

Then last, but not least, ish … There’s two more here. Baby wipes. I mean, at the end of our class … My classes are usually about 30 minutes long. I have three sinks. I don’t have time to have all of my students wash their hands, when really it’s usually just a couple of little places on their hands that are colorful. We call it rainbow lotion. Rub it in, so it’s not wet. You can wash your hands when you get back to your room and use the restroom. That’s usually how we operate in my room. Of course, if we have an accident or somebody has painted their hand, then we will usually wash our hands at the sink. Having baby wipes on hand is a luxury, but it’s one that I can’t afford. Plus, I hate the idea of all of that waste. So, that’s how we handle hand washing in my room. Basically, we just don’t.

Then my new and favorite discovery is this, ice cube trays with lids. That’s how I distribute my paint. Now, previously I’ve had just regular ice cube trays that I would cover with Saran wrap, or I’ve used egg cartons, but these new lidded ice cube trays, which I found on a couple of websites, but Walmart I discovered was the least expensive, have been so super. That’s how we distribute the paint. I believe my ice cube trays have 14 little sections in them, and each section has a different color of paint. Some of them I’ve premixed. Some I have not. It just depends on the project that we’re doing. Okay. So, those are the supplies that I have on my tables when it comes to tempera painting with my kiddos.

Now, let’s talk about the setup. So, if you can imagine, I’ve got rectangular tables in my art room. In fact, I recently posted a video all about this, so if you need a visual, you can either hop on over to my YouTube channel or my blog, and you can actually see what exactly it is I’m talking about. But my tables are rectangular, and there’s four kids to every table. I like to always have a set of supplies in between each two kids. That means I have a lot more prep to do, but the reason I do that, especially with painting, is this. I don’t want my students to have to reach across the table to get different colors of paint or to wash the brush. I don’t like the idea of them reaching, because I’ve noticed that the more reaching and stretching that they have to do, the bigger the chance is that they’re going to drag their sleeve through their artwork or spill a dirty cup of paint water.

So, I like to always have things as close to my students as possible. I also find that they’ll do a better job that way. They’ll be more focused. They won’t have to stand up to go get a different color and reach and get it across the table. I have these trays. They actually came from a hospital supply company, but they’re just a tray that has a lip on it. Inside that tray with the lip I keep the ice cube tray filled with our colors, their doggy dish, one side with water, the other side with a sponge. The reason I love the tray with the lip is because it allows me to easily put the paint on the tables and take it off when I need to, and if there are any spills, it doesn’t get on the table. It stays inside the tray.

So, one thing is this. Gosh. Sorry. I lost my train of thought. One thing that I don’t put in their ice cube trays is black paint and white paint. If you’ve painetd with kids for like five minutes, then you know that they have an obsession with black paint, and they want to paint everything black. They’re so emo, our kids. I don’t know why it is. It’s just the fascination I think of just being able to cover everything completely. So, I actually don’t put black or white in their trays. I keep those in separate condiment cups, and then as those two colors are needed, when we’re color mixing or just they want them in their painting, I can have them go grab one of the condiment cups of black or white, so that they can have that to paint with.

Now, the amount of water that we put in those little doggy dishes, I try to fill it about half full, but our doggy dishes are pretty shallow, which means that water gets dirty pretty quickly. In between classes, in between my 30 minute classes, of I have a minute, which actually this year I have no minutes, I try to change out their water, or if it’s an older grade level, I can say, “Okay. So-and-so, would you right now go change out all the water dishes and put clean water on the tables?” Or, as the kids are working, I’ll just walk around, check on them, and swap out their water. That’s how I have my paint trays set up for my kiddos for tempera painting.

Now, let’s talk about routines. So, as you know, because I’ve told you three thousand million trillion times, I am not the most consistent person on the plant with anything in my life, but when it comes to painting with children, I am kind of a stickler, because I want them to establish really good painting routines when they’re young, as young as kindergarten, because that means they’re gonna just continue to have these really great painting routines established and be able to make beautiful paintings because of it. I feel like as an art teacher, one of my biggest jobs is to show the kids how to properly use the supplies, so that they’ll be successful in their creative process. So, let me just share with you how I introduce this whole painting procedure from kindergarten, which we started last week, on up.

So, I show the students the tray, and I tell them, “All right. Today, we’re going to start painting, and we’re painting with a special kind of paint called tempera paint. It’s probably different than any other paint that you’ve ever used,” especially my kindergarten friends. They’re used to water color paint in their classroom, but not this juicy, amazing, colorful stuff. I tell them that they can pick any color they want to, but first we have to learn the parts of the paintbrush. So, I share that their paintbrush has three parts, a handle … It’s called a handle, because that’s where your hand goes. The ferrule, which I tell them is called the danger zone. It’s called the danger zone, because if you put your hands there, then they are in danger of getting dirty.

Last, but not least, there are the bristles. The bristles are the hair or the tippy-toes of your paintbrush. I tell them that their paintbrush should have really pointy tippy-toes, pointy like a ballerina. A ballerina, she always dances on her tippy-toes, just like their paintbrush should always be on their toes as they’re painting. A paint brush ballerina never ever scoots around on her bottom, because don’t nobody want to do to the booty scooting ballet. I tell them, “If I see that your paintbrush has paint in the danger zone or if your paintbrush is entering the booty scooting ballet zone,” meaning they’re grinding their paintbrush into their paper, giving it those terrible spider legs, that they are going to have to take a painting break. I’ll address that in a moment.

After explaining the different parts of the paintbrush, we talk about paint. I tell them that when they get their paintbrush and they dip it in the paint, only the toes of the ballerina need to have paint on them. Then I demonstrate painting on my paper for whatever project that we’re doing. Then I tell them, “Before you change color, my number one rule is that your paintbrush has to take a bath and dry off on SpongeBob. When your paintbrush takes a bath, it goes all the water down into the doggy dish, and it scrubs,” and I demonstrate that, so they can hear the little scratching sound. Mostly I do this, because I don’t want my students to just dip their paintbrush in and out of the water and consider that clean.

They need to put it all the way down at the bottom of the doggy dish, scrub it until they hear a scratchy sound, take it out, wipe the brush on the lip of the doggy dish, and then dry it by swiping it back and forth on SpongeBob. I tell them, “The reason you have to wipe it back and forth on dirty, old SpongeBob is so the ballerina can get her pointy toes again. We don’t want to grind the paintbrush into dirty, old SpongeBob, creating those spider legs.” Then we talk about changing a new color, and we have a big, long chat about why we can’t have our paintbrush bounce from one color to another color to another, because that would contaminate all of the colors.

I also share with them that, “Everybody in the whole school uses these paint trays, so if you mix up the colors in the paint tray, you not only ruin it for you and the person you’re sharing the paint tray with, but everybody else who follows you and has to paint with that same tray.” I emphasize strongly that if they mix up the colors in my paint tray, that they will have to take a painting break. So, let me share with you what that looks like. In fact, I’ll give you an example.

I was painting with kindergarten. They were doing a beautiful job and this one student in particular doing smashingly. I walk away from her, and then I happened to look back over at her table, and I see her taking her paintbrush and going from one color to another color to another color, just dipping it all around the tray. I said, “Everybody freeze.” I walked over to her. I calmly took away her paintbrush, and I said to her, “You are doing the one thing that I said that you could not do.” I told everybody else to unfreeze, so that I could have a private conversation with my friend and not humiliate her. I just basically wanted her to stop what she was doing.

I asked her, “What do you think it is that you are doing wrong with your paint?” She said that she was dipping her brush from one color to another color to another. She knew what she was doing was wrong, and she knew she wasn’t supposed to be doing it. I said, “Do you remember what we said might happen if we were doing that?” A painting break. So, that means she just had to go sit on the floor, where I was giving instruction, for two minutes. Then when she came back, I asked her to demonstrate to me how she was going to change colors. Instead of dipping from one color to another color, what was she going to do? She demonstrated that to me. I watched her do it. I said, “Great job,” and that was it.

So, that’s what a painting break looks like for me. When I shared this recently on Instagram, I got a lot of … I don’t want to say a lot of flack, but I got some flack. Some folks said, “Well, it’s all about mixing, and it’s all about exploring.” I agree, but those mixing and that exploring, that happens on a student’s artwork, and we talk about that. That’s where all of the paint mixing needs to happen, not in the paint tray. Now, I know a lot of us might have students that are not capable of not mixing those colors together. For those students I do a couple of things.

They either get their own paint tray … That way if they do mix the colors up, then it only affects their artwork. Or when I give them their own paint tray, I only give them all warm or all cold colors. That way if they do mix the colors up, then their beautiful masterpiece doesn’t immediately turn muddy, but the colors still stay beautiful and vibrant, since they’re analogous colors. I’m sharing with you what works for me. If this sounds a little too strict or too whatever for you, then don’t do it. But after teaching painting to children for 20ish years, this is what I have found works, and this is what I have found makes my students successful in painting and achieving all of the ideas that they have in their head and in their hearts. That is my ultimate goal.

Cassie: So, thank you for letting me share all of my supplies, and setup, and routines for painting with kids. I hope that you’ll be able to take away something from this big, long podcast episode.

Tim Bogatz: Hello. This is Tim Bogatz from Art Ed Radio. If you have not listened to Art Ed Radio or you haven’t listened to it in a while, now might be a good time for you to jump back in. Last week I talked with Ben Schumacher about his amazing project that he does called the Memory Project, creating portraits for orphan kids around the world. This week AOE president and founder, Jessica Balsley, is on the podcast for an interview. Next week I will be talking to Susan Verde, the author of all sorts of amazing children’s books.

If you haven’t given Art Ed Radio a try, make sure you check it out at or whatever you subscribe to your podcasts. Make sure you also check out the AOE website this week. We have some awesome lessons and a couple great articles that will really make you think. So, take some time this week to visit and check it all out. Now, let’s turn it back over to Cassie, as she finished up the show.

Cassie: Now, it’s time to take a little dip into the mail bag. It’s funny, because some of these questions actually pertain to what we’re talking about today. So, this first question says, “What do you use the sponge in the dog bowl for? Is it to wipe up spills, or do they use it to wipe their brush on?” So, not for spills. If the spills happen in those trays, I don’t even care. I mean, thankfully, the tray captures the spill. The sponge is for them to dry off their brush. Now, I will tell you that the sponge does get pretty soggy. So, usually around lunchtime I’ll take the sponge and just kind of squeeze out the water. It’s actually better if the sponge is kind of on the dry side, because we want it to absorb the water from the paintbrush. Like I said, that’s what’s worked for me.

In my very first school, I didn’t have a sink, so I had the kids use a paper towel, and they did a method that I call pinch and pull, where they had to pinch the paint out of the brush and then pull it. That worked pretty well. It’s just that we went through a lot of paper towel, and then sometimes as they were squeezing the paint out, the paint would get on their hands, so not the best method. This currently is what I am finding that works the best right now. I’m sure, just like everything else that we do, we find even better ways of doing it. I’m sure I’ll get on Instagram and be like, “Oh my gosh. That idea’s genius,” which is how the lidded ice cube tray thing came to be.

“Does the water spill out”, this is her second question, “Of the doggy dish?” I have found that those dog dishes are meant to be pretty stinking stable, so they are pretty solid. I’ve never had an water spills, unless it was a kid carrying the dog tray to the sink to refill it, and thank goodness, it wasn’t a big spill, because those little dog dishes from the Dollar Tree, they don’t hold much water.

“If I use the dog bowls for clay, I put the slip on one side. Do you have suggestions of what would go in the other?” You know what? I love using these dog dishes for clay also. When we do it, we actually do the same thing. We have the slip, which is just water, and then we throw bits of the clay that we find on the table into that little side, and it creates a slip. Then the other side, we usually use it to hold our toothbrushes. Not our actual home toothbrushes, but the toothbrushes that we use for slipping and scoring. I don’t use a slipping and scoring tool when it comes to clay. If you want to hear how we do clay, you can listen to the podcast about that, but we use a toothbrush for the slipping and scoring.

So, great questions. Good job tying in. Now, she also had a couple more, and this is about sewing and embroidery. I’m actually doing a ton of fibers with my students right now, so hang with me. We’ll have some upcoming podcasts about that, but one question she says is that, “How do you stop the burlap from fraying?” Currently, my second graders are learning embroidery, and they’re doing it on burlap. Burlap is great, because it’s pretty inexpensive, and when the kids are stitching with it, they can kind of see through it well enough to see their hand underneath, which is super helpful. The problem is it’s a woven fabric. It’s a woven fiber, so sometimes the little pieces like to fall out.

What I do is this. I cut the rectangle shapes or whatever shape that my students are going to be embroidering on, and then I draw a line of glue around the edge of the burlap, and I let that dry overnight. So, I usually just have all my little rectangles of burlap laid out on a table. I very quickly just draw a line of glue around the edge. That locks the fibers in place well enough that if they don’t sit there and pull at the burlap, that the burlap will not fray. Great question. Like I said, let’s talk fibers real soon, because that’s what I am currently up to my eyeballs in. If you have a question for me, then what are you waiting for? You should send it to me. You can find me at the Everyday Art Room at

Hold the phone. There’s something super important I forgot to share. So, when I buy those colors of paint that I mentioned, red, magenta, yellow, turquoise, blue, white, and black, I also like to have premixed colors for my students. I learned this trick from my friend, Ginger, who you can find over on Instagram, @PaintbrushRocket. She’s the best. She, and I learned this from her, premixes a lot of her own colors. The reason this is so great is because if your students are not doing a study of color mixing … For example, my third graders are right now painting patterns on a plate for circle loop weaving. Our focus is not color mixing. Our focus is painting patterns, and I want to give them a variety of colors. So, from places like Sally Beauty Supply or from food supply places you can buy ketchup bottles. Sally Beauty has them I think for hair dye.

I like to mix colors in those bottles, shake them up really well, and then make a huge variety of different colors that I put in those ice cube trays for my students. I can’t believe I forgot to tell you that. That’s kind of an important detail. In closing, thank you for joining me today on this long voyage of painting with children. Next week you should totally join us, because we will be talking about which burritos you should eat while prepping all of those painting supplies. My favorite burritos are bean burritos, because it provides a nice crop dusting opportunity later on while your kids are working, not that I would do that. Are you kidding? This is art class, not fart class. Have a great week, guys.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.