6 Tips for Managing Watercolor Painting in the Classroom

6 Tips for Managing Watercolor Paints in the Regular Classroom via Wonder Teacher Today I interrupt my current series (integrating visual art with writing personal narrative stories) to bring you 6 quick tips for painting in the classroom. Before I get into the kinds of paintings I asked the children to create for their personal narratives, I think it’s important to share some of the tips for success with the “art” part of the lesson!

Painting in the classroom is much easier to do than most teachers realize. In fact, I have come to believe that watercolor paints should be just as basic in the “regular” classroom as crayons and markers. They really are that simple and mess-free. (If you know the tricks!)

Here are my top 6 tips for managing watercolor painting lessons:

1- Take time to teach your students how to use watercolor paints properly. There are two videos previously posted on this site: the first is a general “watercolor basics” video and the second is focused on mixing watercolor paints to get unique colors, such as skin tones. Teach yourself these techniques and then teach them to your students. Modeling is critical! I always remind the children to get their paints wet and juicy before they start, rinse the brush well between colors, be gentle with the brush, and leave the wet painting flat to dry.

2- Make the effort to gather the right quantity and size of water cups or bowls. I really can’t overstate the importance of proper water containers. Too tall and they tip over easily. Too small and the children are constantly needing to change out the water. You want something with a wide base (so it won’t tip over) that’s not too deep but not too shallow.

I have found that a smaller size rectangular plastic container (the kind that comes with a lid) usually works well. It’s also nice if the plastic is clear because then you can draw a permanent marker line on the outside indicating where the water fill line should be. (Also known as the “Don’t fill the water over this line or you’ll get in trouble” line.)

Quantity is a big issue too. If you have 5 students reaching across desks to share one water bowl, expect a mess. Most accidents happen because students are reaching. Also, reaching across a table every time you need water really slows down the painting process. Water is a critical ingredient in watercolor painting!  It’s ideal for each child to have his or her own water cup. The other good alternative is to have two students sitting side by side with a shared water between them.

art management tip- fill water to line

(For teachers who think their students “can’t handle” watercolor paints and cups of water I have to say this: My colleagues and I taught 3 year olds in preschool how to use watercolor paints independently. There was a little bin on the art shelf that held 2 trays of paints, 2 small cups with a line drawn halfway up, 2 brushes, and some sheets of paper. My little 3 year olds knew exactly what to do. They took out the bin, laid out their paper and paint, carried the cup to the sink, filled it halfway with water, and returned to start painting. They also cleaned up the entire area independently. These were “regular” (energetic and active!) 3 year old children. If they can do it, elementary school students can do it!)

3- Use quality materials. Cheap art materials (like dollar store paints and brushes) produce cheap-looking art. Cheap-looking art produces “cheap” writing, lacking inspiration and rich language. Sounds harsh but it’s true. It’s worth the extra dollar or two to get paints that have quality pigment and brushes that are going to hold the paint well. I address this issue in the watercolor basics video.

4- Assign each child his or her own pan of watercolors. For several years I kept a class set of watercolor pans. I passed them out when we needed them and collected them when we were through. No matter how much I emphasized to the children the importance of rinsing their brush to prevent the paints from getting “muddy,” it seemed like after a few weeks my pans were always a mess! Then I started working with schools as a consultant/resident teacher. Several of the classroom teachers I worked with assigned the watercolor paints we ordered to students individually, writing their name or number on the front of the box. I was amazed by how much more invested the children became in keeping their paints neat and clean! Once they knew that those paints were theirs to live with all year (and take home when summer came,) they magically remembered to rinse their brushes! Imagine that! 😉

I would never start a school year again without procuring a basic tray of Crayola or Prang watercolors for each student (with their name on it.) It’s a “necessity” to me now- right up there with glue and scissors!

Quality paints create quality art

5- Get the right kind of paper! It really matters. I address this issue in the watercolor basics video. My favorite kind of paper to use for most of my painting projects is 80 pound White Sulphite Drawing Paper. I used to order the big sheets and cut them down, figuring I might want the big size for a large project. In reality, I spent too much time at the paper cutter trimming it down because 90% of the time I just need 9×12 paper. That’s the perfect size for students to fit on top of a desk alongside paint and water. These days I just order the big ream of 9×12 80# white sulphite. It will last all year! Avoid card stock, construction paper, and copy paper. They either shred and wrinkle or prevent the colors from mixing properly.

6- Make a clear plan for passing out water, paints, and paper. Most of the time, art-based lessons get “crazy” due to a lack of procedures. Teachers will tell me, “My lesson was a disaster! The kids were up all over the room, spilling water, dripping paint on the floor… I’ll never do that again!” The real problem in those scenarios is that there were no clear procedures and routines for passing out and cleaning up the materials. Important tip: require students to remain seated unless they have a legitimate reason to be out of their seats.

Here are my procedures for passing out materials:

  • One student passes out paper.
  • One student gives each child a 1/2 sheet of paper towel (good for cleaning up mess, blotting “mistakes” from their art, etc.)
  • Call one group of students at a time (usually by “team” or “table”) to get paints from their art box (or pick them up from a storage area in the classroom.)
  • Call one group of students at a time to get their water (having already taught them the procedure for getting water.)
  • If you are passing out any special brushes, assign one student to pass them out.

That’s it! After a few minutes of purposeful and focused movement, the children have their materials and all you’ve had to do is direct and supervise!

Procedures for cleaning up:

  • Give students a 1 minute warning that time is almost up, then require them to wash out their brushes and lay them on their desk. This is an important step. Often, I’ve found that if I don’t “force” them to put down their brushes, they will keep painting and tune out my clean-up directions.
  • Call one group of students at a time to dump their dirty water and rinse their container. They should then stack the containers on a counter or table. (If 2 students share water, I let one go get the water when we start and the other clean it up at the end. They see that as fair.) Control the number of children dumping water- only 2 or 3 at a time! A long line of children with dirty water is a recipe for disaster.
  • IDEAL: Leave the wet paintings on the desk next to the wet watercolor paints with the lids OPEN and leave the room for lunch, special area, or dismissal. I always try to time my painting lessons before a period of the day when we leave the room. Wet paintings can be difficult to move (they drip) and watercolor paints stay in better shape if they are allowed to dry quickly (with the lid open) instead of with the lid closed. Also, moving wet pans of watercolor paint is often what causes them to get mixed and muddy. When students return to the room, it will be easy to collect the dry paintings and call groups of students to put paints away. If things are still damp, call one group of students at a time to carefully carry their artwork and then their paints to a designated area in the classroom.
  • If you MUST clean up while everything is wet, do it slowly and carefully. Lay out some bulletin board paper on the floor in a low-traffic area. Call students 2 at a time to carefully bring their painting to the drying area, keeping it as flat as possible. (If a painting is really wet, you might want to do it yourself!) Call groups of students to carry their open paints (as flat as possible!) to a table or counter where they can be left to dry.
  • Offer students a baby wipe or damp paper towel if they need to clean their desk or hands.

Once students go through these procedures a few times, they become routine and the children will do it easily without step by step directions.

Potential Pitfall #1, Changing out dirty water: Decide in advance your “rules” for dealing with dirty water. First, make sure children understand the difference between “tinted” water that is still fine to use and “dirty” water that is muddying their paints. Once the water is truly “dirty” I usually allow my children to get up and change out the water. Or, as I move around the room and monitor their work, often I will carry a clean cup of water with me and quickly switch it out when I see a dirty one that needs replacing. The important thing is to make sure children aren’t taking unnecessary trips, playing in the sink or overfilling their cups. If you make your expectations clear and monitor behavior, this usually ins’t a big problem.

Potential Pitfall #2, No sink: It can be a real hassle to do art projects without a sink in your classroom. I know from experience! However, don’t let this stop you. Over the weekend I’ll share my “bucket method” for bringing water into your classroom when you lack a sink.

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  1. I just love your site! Added you to my list of awesome art ed blogs. Love your videos, too. :)

    • Patty, You just made my weekend! I admire you and your work so much. In fact, you and Sally at Fairy Dust Teaching were my biggest sources of inspiration in starting Wonder Teacher. Thanks so much for your kind words. It means a great deal to me. :-)

  2. Lots of great tips for the art room as well! Thanks so much for the detailed post.
    Rina recently posted..Kandinsky Circles MuralMy Profile

  3. Susan,
    Finding this post is perfect timing! We just painted and wrote about a world without trees (after reading The Lorax). I LOVE the finished products, but if I am being honest- it was pretty painful and I know it is completely my fault for not having the correct procedures in place. I am not exaggerating when I say I took notes off those post and will be referring back to it very soon! Thanks so much!
    Katie King
    Katie King recently posted..Five for Friday and a Freebie!My Profile

    • Katie-
      Thanks so much! I am glad you found some helpful tips. Once you get your procedures in place, painting becomes a true pleasure with your students. Keep me posted and let me know how it goes in the future. :-)

  4. Debbie Cummings says:

    For a no sink method, I recycle laundry detergent containers with a spout to dispense water. It doesn’t leak and the kids can still get their own water when needed. I also put 2 different colored plastic cups in a recycled wipes container. The students know that the blue cup is for dirty paintbrushes and the pink cup is for pouring out dirty water. If anything spills when pouring out their dirty water, it spills inside the wipe container.

    • That’s so smart Debbie! Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    • Do you use prang watercolors or prang washable watercolors?

      • Washable ones usually don’t have the same deep color of pigment, so I prefer non-washable. However, they aren’t as easy to get out of clothes. So, you really have to decide what’s best for your teaching setting. With young children, I sometimes settle for washable, though they really aren’t as good in terms of color quality and technique.

  5. I have a way of minimising potential pitfall number one.
    As a watercolourist myself I use two water containers : one for washing my brush and one for rinsing. I introduced this to the kids in my art classes , from year one, and although it is not fool proof and still requires some water changes along the way it does minimise it. I also have a system of how to set out the water containers that works really well (17years of teaching art in a primary school has given me time to develop a pretty good way of minimising potential spill hazards as you describe with kids reaching across each other to reach water and paint containers. Here’s a link to a post that shows how I have the kids set up for painting. You are right the kids are very able to do this for themselves from a young age, I think it is important to arm them with the skills to do these things for themselves. It might take a bit of time to start with but once it’s an established routine they can do it very quickly! Really great for including a bit of choice based learning opportunities too once they know how to organise themselves.
    dette recently posted..Building on our experiments.My Profile

  6. Christine says:

    This is so helpful!!! I teach after school science and always make a big mess.

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