Art in the Early Years: Part 4: Painting

The Suffolk Early Years and Childcare Service (Suffolk County Council)
Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Painting offers young children a world of opportunities for experimentation and expression, so early years settings should equip them with ample materials and varied techniques.

Painting, one of the six areas of artistic experience that should be available to children within the EYFS, offers them opportunities to explore, experiment and communicate their ideas through colour and mark-making, using a variety of materials and tools.

As with the other areas of artistic experience (drawing, collage, textiles, 3D and printmaking), childrens' ability to gain confidence in representing their ideas through painting depends on a rich 'enabling environment' and the guidance of supportive adults.

The EYFS commitment card 'Enabling Environments 3.3 - The Learning Environment' notes: 'A rich and varied environment supports children's learning and development. It gives them the confidence to explore and learn in secure and safe, yet challenging, indoor and outdoor spaces.'

Within that, adults need to allow children the freedom to explore and experiment with painting while talking to them about the properties of the media. So, children should have opportunities to explore different colours, textures, densities, surfaces, tools, and techniques (see box and below).

Practitioners should provide sets of powder paint for mixing:

  • - hot-coloured paints (reds, yellows, oranges)
  • - cold-coloured paints (blues, greens)
  • - black and white.

Colour-mixing should be an essential part of the painting experience. Choosing and mixing their own colours is hugely exciting for young children and an activity that supports children's decision-making, self-reliance and powers of observation.

To extend colour mixing opportunities, provide a range of:

  • - yellows (brilliant yellow, lemon, yellow ochre)
  • - blues (brilliant blue, Prussian blue)
  • - reds (brilliant red, crimson, vermillion).

Practitioners should not be precious about any mess or prescriptive about what colours children use to represent particular objects, as this will only be detrimental to the creative process and restrict the full range of learning opportunities available to children.



When introducing techniques, processes and materials to children, describe what you are doing and explain the choices you have made. Avoid prescribing the finished result and encourage children to make their own choices.

Practitioners are often amazed to observe children building on what adults have modelled and their creative use of tools that expands and goes beyond what the adult anticipated. For example, while out walking, children and practitioners at St Edmund's Pre-School Suffolk collected a range of natural materials, which they then used in a collaborative painting outdoors. One boy was observed creating his own paintbrush by attaching feathers, grass and leaves to sticks with masking tape. Other children then copied this idea.

Meaningful interactions

Painting as a creative experience provides many opportunities for discussion. Encourage the children to:

  • - use a range of senses to explore and describe the colours, properties and processes involved within this creative experience
  • - observe and discuss changes in the properties of the paint as it becomes wet, dry, flaky or solid
  • - describe textures and techniques - for example, 'thick', 'thin', 'wet', 'dry' and 'dribble', 'splatter' and 'drip'
  • - talk about their choices of colour, techniques, paper
  • - talk about changes in paint, and cause and effect.

Engaging environments

A well-planned creative workshop, whether indoors or out, allows children to be self-sufficient, able to select, use and return resources independently. Settings, therefore, need to provide a range of paints, paper, materials, tools and surfaces.

For example, provide opportunities for children to paint with water the outside surfaces such as the playground, shed, and exterior walls. Boys in particular have been observed enjoying this experience wearing hard hats, as it allows for imaginative role play within the theme of building and decorating.

It is important that children are involved in all the aspects of the painting process, so settings should enable them to:

  • - select their own apron from accessible pegs
  • - fill up water pots and choose from a wide variety of media, tools and surfaces
  • - select and attach their paper or material of choice when using easels
  • - use mark-making tools to put their own name on a painting (if they choose)
  • - put the completed artwork on an accessible drying rack
  • - wash up their brushes and paint pots once they have finished.

Further painting activities, such as bubble or splatter painting, will require adults to model the techniques and a level of supervision (see box). The practitioner will need to use their knowledge of child development and the children in their setting to make professional judgements about what to offer.

Engaging experiences

As mentioned above, children should be given the time to explore different colours, textures, densities, surfaces, tools, and techniques. Provide opportunities for them to:

  • - add white paint to primary colours to make different tones
  • - mix coloured paints directly on to hands
  • - mix coloured paints by combining blobs of paint on a table or other surfaces
  • - place hot-coloured paints (reds, yellows, oranges) at the base of the paper and make sweeping movements to spread and mix the paint, forming a 'flaming' image
  • - place cold-coloured paints (blues, greens) at the side of the paper and make wavy movements to spread and mix the paint to form a 'watery' image
  • - mix one colour with small amounts of paints in other colours. For example, mix red with other colours to produce new colours within the red 'family'. (Extend this by talking about and collecting 'families' of colours.)
  • - thicken and give texture to paint by adding flour, sand, sawdust or icing sugar
  • - paint on to wet and dry surfaces
  • - explore bubble painting, splatter painting and straw painting
  • - paint using big sweeping movements on big surfaces with a variety of large tools and paint
  • - make marks on various surfaces and with various painting tools (toothbrushes, combs, spatulas, fingers)
  • - work with brushes or fingers on a variety of papers
  • - make marks and different movements using lollysticks, fingers, combs and so on for tools
  • - paint or make marks on windows or other transparent or translucent surfaces, and observe the effects created when the light shines through
  • - use paint with collage, drawing, printmaking and 3D materials
  • - create both individual and group paintings, indoors and outside.

And always provide children with the time to explore further ideas.


Here are some suggestions for introducing painting in some familiar experiences.

Exploring my environment

Within both the 'natural' and 'built' environment, provide opportunities for children to:

  • - talk about colours in the natural environment and experiment with ready-mix paint to make greens and browns, so children can respond to things they have observed
  • - mix seascape colours (blues, greens and white), encouraging children to use their hands and other tools to apply colours to a surface using wavy and stormy lines. Discuss the children's feelings and ideas as their painting develops.
  • - look at the sky and clouds on different days and in different conditions. Talk about and explore sky and cloud colours by mixing blue with white to produce different tints, and record the colours on a variety of surfaces.
  • - observe building materials from the built environment as a starting point for colour mixing. Mix 'piles' of colour on trays and paint blocks of colour on large paper to create a colour wall.
  • - experiment with making paint, using ground brick, clay, charcoal, chalk and stone and use this to colour surfaces. Talk about the colours and how they were produced.
  • - mix favourite colours to paint individual boxes. Use the boxes to create a group building. Photograph and reassemble it.
  • - talk about aspects of buildings and encourage the children to paint features that interest them, such as door, window, drain pipe, chimney.
  • - add sand to ready-mix paint to form a textured surface and draw lines and marks in an image in response to built features.

Creatures and animals

When children observe or interact with animals, you could provide opportunities for them to:

  • - comment on and discuss the movement involved in stroking an animal, and compare this to applying paint to a surface with a brush. Experiment with stroking paint on to paper of different sizes with a variety of brushes.
  • - experiment with mixing thickener (flour, icing sugar, powder paint) into ready-mix paint. Brush the colour on to a surface and then use a comb, fork, stick or fingers, to scratch through the wet surface. The children could explore ideas to show the texture of a creature's skin, scales or fur.

Myself and others

Within the theme of 'myself and others', you could provide opportunities for the children to:

  • - look at a variety of family and group images. These could be used to generate ideas for paintings on a variety of surfaces using different paints and tools.
  • - create their own portrait. Select from a range of clothing and artefacts for dressing up. Provide a mirror to enable the children to see themselves within a frame. You could provide large frames for group portraits. The children may also want to respond using paint. Photograph the poses.
  • - look at and talk about each other's poses.
  • - look closely at themselves in mirrors. Some may want to paint a portrait. This provides opportunities for discussion - for example, about their choice of backgrounds and clothing for the portrait and about how each child feels.


Bubble painting

Put a small amount of detergent (washing-up liquid or bubble mixture), paint and water into a standard paint pot-sized container. Add a little water and mix until you can blow bubbles. Use a straw to blow the mixture until the bowl is full of bubbles. Gently place a piece of paper on to the bubbles so they burst and leave an imprint. Repeat the process to build up the density of colour on the paper.

Splatter painting

Dip a toothbrush or nailbrush into paint. Holding the brush with the bristles turned towards the paper, draw your finger or a lollypop stick down the bristles, so allowing the paint to spray away from you. Alternatively, flick a paint-loaded brush at a surface to create more dramatic effects.

Straw painting

Experiment putting blobs of watery paint on to paper and using a drinking straw to blow wet watery paints around the surface.

Part 5: Printmaking will be published in Nursery World on 26 May



Morgan, M Art 4-11 Art in the Early Years of Schooling (1988, last reprinted 1995) available from:

Suffolk County Council (2005) Art and Design in Suffolk Key Stages 1 & 2. A scheme of work available in book and CD form. Available from:

Suffolk County Council (2006) Art in the Early Years: A resource to support creativity. Available from:

Matthews, J Drawing and Painting: children and visual representation (2nd edition 2003). Paul Chapman Publishers

The National Strategies Early Years (2008) Mark Making Matters: Young children making meaning in all areas of learning and development. DCSF.

Reggio Emilia:

Wright, S (2010) Understanding Creativity in Early Childhood. Sage Publications


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