Is there anything more glorious than sitting down at a table full of fun art supplies and letting loose? While free-painting definitely has its place, a few well-placed limitations (especially with kids just learning how to use new tools or mediums) can take creativity to a whole new level! Limiting color palettes, mark-making tools, additional media supplies, or even time, can turn an afternoon art-making session into an opportunity for major creative exploration.
If you’ve ever tried workng on a mixed media painting project, you know there’s always a possibility it will turn into one big brown square. Especially when working with older kids, this can create a lot of frustration with the final result and the process. Slowing it down, taking time to focus on marks and movements, and teaching a couple of simple tips along the way can help everyone enjoy the process. If you’ve run across our scribble art collages, constellation process art, or mixed media leaf art collages, you might have already tried out a few of our favorite techniques!
The paintings we made for this post were done in a few different layers with LOTS of different kinds of mediums/tools and took a little longer than a typical class period to complete. If you’re working in a classroom setting, with quite a few kids, or one-on-one with a toddler or kinder, you may want to keep it simple with fewer layers/fewer mediums.
Tools for mark experimentation and textured layers:
To get started, I’ve shared a few of my favorite supplies for making mixed media art with kids below. Some of them (like inks!) are messier and more permanent than others, so be mindful of what you think your kids can handle, the time you have, and how much clean-up you’re ready to help with. 🙂
Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains a few Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*
- Watercolor or heavy mixed media paper
- Primed cardboard
- Primed and sanded scrap wood
- Acrylic paints
- Tempera paints
- Milk paints (pre-mixed or powders to mix your own)
- Large foam brushes – an easy and inexpensive way to cover large surfaces
- Synthetic hair paintbrushes in a variety of sizes and brush types
- Sumi-e brushes (these are a little more expensive than typical paint brushes, but make gorgeous marks!)
- Hake brushes (again, more expensive)
- DIY brushes from natural materials like leaves & sticks
- Bamboo reed pens (so good!)
- Bingo daubers for ink, paint or glue (a fab tip from art teacher extraordinaire, Cassie Stephens!)
- Oil pastels
- Soft pastels
- Sidewalk chalks
- Black pens
- Charcoal sticks or vine charcoal
- Silver and gold permanent markers
- Small cardboard scraps to drag through paint
- Wooden blocks and dowels for stampings geometric shapes
- Loose parts like bottle caps, screws, washers etc for mark-making
- Old artwork scraps, newspaper or other items for collaging
- Toothbrushes, whisks, silverware or other household items for splattering paint
- Cottonballs or Q-Tips for stamping
- A sponge or bubblewrap for stamping
- A paper tube wrapped with rubber bands for rolled texture printing
- An eyedropper for drips, dots and splats
- Glue for collaging or to create raised lines
- A small cup with pouring spout for pouring paint directly on to a surface
- A hairdryer for speed drying
- Masking or painter’s tape
I find it can be amazingly helpful (for kids and adults!) to create a few simple rules. Rather than speeding through a lot of decisions (“what colors/brush/how many…?”) limiting the need for a lot of decision-making can allow the focus to shift to marks and movements and keep kids from feeling overwhelmed.
You can use any combination of the variations, tips, and techniques below to unlock boundless creativity through controlled processes! I laid out the exact steps we went through to create the paintings here, but don’t feel like you have to do exactly what we did. Whether you try one or two or use them all, it’s a fun way to mix up your usual art-making process and will definitely lead to some different results and surprises.
Variations on Experimental Layering and Mark-Making:
Variation 1: Instead of starting with a blank piece of white paper, start with paper that already has 1 flat layer of bright color. Or try using a black & white simple-patterned paper. This is honestly one of my favorite tips. It’s always interesting to see which colors kids choose, and the paint colors they pick to go with it. It’s a great way to ensure a colorful, dynamic final result.
Note: When working with lots of layers of paint, inks, etc. I find it so helpful to tape all paper edges down to the surface first (if not all, at least top and bottom). It keeps wet edges from curling up, holds the artwork in place, ensures that the final piece will dry nice and flat and when you pull the masking or painter’s tape off, it leaves a lovely clean edge.
Variation 2: Cut paper in half or into smaller squares and rectangles. A large, regular-sized piece of paper can sometimes feel intimidating. Multiple smaller “canvases” can allow kids to test out quite a few different mark-making tools without having to do it all on the same single art surface.
Variation 3: Limit color palettes. To create our painting for this post we limited our palette to 6 colors and used 1 color per mixed media layer.
Variation 4: Use 1 tool at a time. Using a single tool allows focus on the specific mark it makes, and allows kids to recognize which tool they used for each mark in their final art pieces.
Variation 5: Limit time spent per layer, tool or medium. For older kids, this can actually turn art-making into a more dynamic game. Opening up the body and mind with loose, open movements is just as important as trying controlled, deliberate ones. Setting 15 or 30-second time limits can be a great way to encourage kids who might feel hesitant or feel the urge to carefully plan their next mark.
Variation 6: Tell a story through layers. I’ve found that some kids enjoy the gestures and feeling of using a tool so much they can easily let loose and just make marks. Others need a more concrete form of motivation or direction to feel engaged – for this, I suggest storytelling. Reading a book together and using the bits of the story/themes for layer inspiration or using stories kids themselves have written both work well.
You can use prompts such as “use your pen and ink to show how this portion of the story make you feel” or ask them to illustrate action verbs (“use your cotton ball to jump across the page like Peter Rabbit”). Telling a story through simple marks also adds another level of complexity & personality to the finished work!
Variation 7: Introduce a different technique for each layer. For instance, we created the painting in the post using the following layers:
- Layer 1: We started with pre-painted (1 color) half-sheets of paper (*dried completely before beginning).
- Layer 2: Brush marking with a paintbrush of choice. *Dry with a hairdryer before starting the next layer.
- Layer 3: Mark-making with ink and tool of choice.
- Layer 4: Experimenting with sgraffito (scratching through a layer of still-wet paint) using cardboard scraps or paintbrush handle tips. *Dry with a hairdryer before starting the next layer.
- Layer 5: Mark-making with pastels.
- Layer 6: Stamping or mark-making tool of choice.
- Layer 7: Paint splattering with a toothbrush. eyedropper or wet brush.
One last note…anyone who’s ever purchased good art supplies knows paints, brushes, and paper can get expensive fast. Mixed media art projects provide a perfect opportunity to discuss care of brushes and other tools. Leaving brushes soaking in water loosens the bristles and will wear out your brushes quickly. Brushes should be cleaned off in warm water then set on a towel when not being used instead. Before putting your brushes and tools away, wash gently and thoroughly with mild soap and water, rinse and towel-dry.
Hungry for more mixed media art? I put together a list of over 50 of my favorite art projects for helping kids experiment with new art mediums. Find the perfect companion story to pair with your art project by checking our collection of over 100 art-themed picture books.
*A note about Amazon affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Amazon. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click-through to make a purchase, we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!