Elsie’s Guide to Painting with Kiddos

I receive a lot of questions about painting with Nova. I hear so many moms say they “feel bad” for not doing more art with their kids or that they want to learn how to do it with zero mess. I’m here today to share my tips, but also some tough love about that zero mess part!

Tip 1: Let it be messy

You wouldn’t tell your kiddos they can’t play soccer or go in a swimming pool just because they’ll need a bath after each time, right? Don’t let the mess of painting keep you from doing it! Painting is messy, but do it anyway. 

We’ve had days where Nova makes barely any mess and all we need is a quick wipe down with a wet cloth, but we’ve also had days where I carry her straight to the bathtub, and you know what? I regret zero of these “extra” baths. It’s more than worth it!

As the parent, it’s your job to constantly decide what’s worth it and not worth it. Going out to eat at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night …  maybe not worth it. Dealing with six straight weeks of crying before ballet class … maybe worth it. But art? Art is always worth it. Tattoo those words in your brain. The difference between your child having an extra artistic childhood, or not, is in your hands.

When I get messages about how to paint with a toddler without the mess, I laugh. Honestly. Do you think I have some magic secret that you don’t have? Toddlers are really messy and so is paint. But the experience, the outcome and the memories make it so worth your investment of time and energy!

Tip 2: Just use what you have

I let Nova paint with my own craft paints 90% of the time. I’ve gotten some shaming comments for it, but I stand by my choices. Here’s why! Acrylic paint is prettier than kids “washable” paint, but the ingredients are not that different. And washable paint doesn’t always wash out either. For this reason, we just use painting clothes so we don’t have to worry about getting paint on the clothes.

All paint is at least somewhat toxic and should not be eaten. It also should not be left on the skin. So as long as you are fully supervising your child and cleaning them up when you are done, I don’t see an issue with letting them use “adult” paint.

I love the lifestyle of sharing what’s mine with Nova. We do this in so many areas of our lives. We share our food with her at every meal, which I believe has expanded her palate. I let her play with all my things within reason. Jeremy lets her play with his instruments in his studio (supervised, of course). Overall, I guess I am one of those parents who believes kids don’t need a kid “version” of every single thing in your home. A lot of the time they can just use the same things as adults.

I grew up using my mom’s paints. Besides watercolors, I don’t remember her having separate stuff for us. I remember the feeling well. It felt so cool to me that she would let me use her grown up things. I want my children to have that same experience.

If you’re an avid crafter like me, sharing your “stash” will cut down on things you need to buy and at times save waste because you can use leftover supplies for kids crafts. You really don’t need to go out and buy a bunch of stuff just to paint with your kids!

I do let Nova paint on my old canvases. I do sometimes let her paint the same one over and over. We also paint on scrap paper (things like old notebooks I find in my office.) Kids aren’t picky, they just want to paint. 🙂

Tip 3: Customize your routine to your child.

Our routine was completely different when Nova had a shorter attention span than it is now. Now the most important thing to her is the quantity. She wants to paint and paint and paint. So I prep a bunch of papers of canvases or greeting cards for her to paint.

As she gets older, we’ll change up our routine countless times, I’m sure!

When I first start with Marigold, we’ll probably just do handprints and things like Play-Doh. Then work our way up from there!

I’ve learned that at every age it’s important to keep retrying things. Just because your child didn’t like art six months ago does NOT mean they don’t now. Kids change so fast. So if you have a discouraging art experience, just throw your supplies in a box in a closet and try again in six months. Don’t give up! 

I hope these tips have been helpful. My mom was an incredible inspiration to me. As we were growing up, she had endless art projects for us to try. I truly believe I owe the creative part of my brain to my mom and that’s the number one motivator for me as I attempt to give my own kids a creative childhood.

Don’t overthink it. This isn’t supposed to be complicated. I know that cleaning up paint isn’t “fun,” but neither is cleaning up poop and we all do that every day, right? 🙂 You can do this! xx. Elsie

Credits//Author: Elsie Larson. Photography: Amber Ulmer. Photos edited with A Color Story Desktop.
  • I couldn’t agree more!! My daughter is about Nova’s age. She LOVES painting and uses all my acrylic craft paint too. The dollar aisle at Target often has fun little wood, small canvas or ceramic seasonal items to paint which she loves. Eggs for Easter, a birdhouse for summer etc. And paper mache dinosaurs are another fun object to paint. It’s going to be messy. I just assume at this point that our kitchen table and chairs will take a beating – they aren’t precious and if they do get ruined, they can be repainted in a few years. Oh and to keep clothing from getting ruined, she usually paints only wearing her undies – which she doesn’t mind one bit! In my experience, little kids love being naked! haha

  • Shaming comments over paint? Really? The mom shaming never ends and it is the main reason I am on zero social media. I purposefully look at your blog and 1 or 2 others daily. Anyway not the point here but I like that you call it out and say No Thanks. Love that you paint with Nova. My kids are not as enthusiastic but we have an art cart they can roll out whenever they like. Love the reminder to let them get dirty!

    • Yes yes yes! I was shocked to read you received that kind of comments. I loved your post. My kid wasn’t interested in art when he was one and the more he grows up the more he likes it. I couldn’t agree more about following their interests and trying again after a few months cause interests may change!

  • YES. Yes, yes, yes, yes. I love how honest you are, and that you don’t beat around the bush (in this post, as well as in the past when people ask you questions–you’re up front and honest!).

    This sentence in particular hit the nail on the head: “You wouldn’t tell your kiddos they can’t play soccer or go in a swimming pool just because they’ll need a bath after each time, right? Don’t let the mess of painting keep you from doing it! Painting is messy, but do it anyway.”

  • Oh I love this so much! It brings me joy to see your photos of Nova painting and you two being creative together. I second your advice about try, try again with art. My 6 year old was never into drawing or arts and crafts until this year. Now we fill notebooks with pencil drawings (his favorite things to draw are monsters) and create masks out of construction paper. I *never* thought he would be into art but we kept trying and now it’s a part of our weekly routine!

    Sending love from Seattle xo

    • Both girls and boys should be able to CREATE in artistic ways! Thank you for stepping up and sharing how easily it can be done. Art in any shape or fashion can be a wonderful self esteem builder ! All that matters in these younger years and beyond is their self esteem because with that , everything else can/will fall into place! Thank you Elsie and especially for your MOM who you are modeling after! Love following you!!

  • Great tips!

    I’m not a parent but I was an art specialist at a summer camp and led lots of craft stations for kids and the other little tidbit I wanted to throw out there is that parents who feel like they are not particularly creative or artistic shouldn’t feel guilty. You aren’t acting as an instructor or teaching them how-to. You are merely giving them the space, materials, encouragement, and freedom to create! In fact, I’d say the more independently you let them interact with the supplies the less frustrated you will both be. And you might be surprised that as you spend more time being creative with them that it sparks more creativity in you. <3

  • Any tips on keeping your kid from, uh, problem painting? We used to paint a lot more in our house, and I’d love to paint more, but my 3.5 year old makes it impossible. There’s just me with two kids, and if I turn my back for a half second to help my 5.5 year old get more paint, clean her brush, etc my little one has started painting the walls, the dog, her hair… heaven forbid I try to use the bathroom! It wouldn’t be such a problem if we had a craft/art area, but our house is such that we have to paint at the dining table. I expect messes, but there’s only so much time to paint over our walls!

    • Sounds like a sibling rivalry thing, the younger is jealous of the older ones ability and acts out so that you have to pay attention to her. Not in a good way but any attention is better than feeling you can’t compete with your older sibling, right? Can you separate the painting time so that you paint/craft with the older one when the younger is on a play date? And vice versa. It’s more time consuming for you but you will at least get time with the children individually to admire and encourage their creativity and it sounds like the younger really wants for you to be proud of her achievements. My younger painted the play room floor one time. It’s one of the few occasions that my mouth has opened and no words came out, from that time on, I let her paint by herself with my complete attention. Lasted about ten minutes and then she was in to something else. The painting the floor thing never happened again.

  • I cannot wait for my daughter (1.5 years old) to not try to eat EVERYTHING. I know not all kids are so mouthy, and I hope for your sake that Marigold (best name ever) can resist putting paint covered hands (and bubble wands, and playdough) right in her mouth. But all in all, I could not agree more with this art-positive creed.

    • Lynn, there are recipes for edible versions of paint, play dough, and other art supplies so that children who learn by tasting can still join the fun.

  • Love this, my boys are teenagers now but always loved painting when they were younger. We had an art easel that they used often. During warmer months I would always set them up outside in the shade, they loved it!! I have many of their creations framed and hung in out home. Another favorite of theirs was painting with buckets of water with large paint brushes on the concrete and block walls outside in swim trunks. This would keep them entertained for hours!!

  • When my niece was really little we bonded by creating art. When she was around 5 or 6 she drew a drawing of our cat who had passed away called “Minnie with a boo-boo.” I loved it so much I framed it! A year or so later we were talking and she said.. “… but I’m not an artist…” and I was like “Yes you are!! Look I have your drawing framed on my wall!” Since then she truly believed she was an artist! She’s 11 now and still draws and creates. I was CRAZY to know that I influenced her <3!!!!

    • How sweet is that! My nephew is 2.5 and I am hoping to be a source of creative encouragement for him and his little sister/brother due very soon. I hope he, like your niece, will keep a creative streak going into later childhood with some love and encouragement!

  • I love this Elsie!! when my son was younger I bought all kinds of kids art supplies and while we have used some of those, I find when we both do art together and share supplies it’s easier and actually makes it into the schedule. 🙂 It helps that he is 9 now too so much more independent and while many boys that age might not be into making crafts with their mom, mine still is (maybe more so) so I’m lucky!

    I love your line about “art is always worth it!” So great for all of us to remember!!

    It is also important for all of us parents out there to remember that when other folks are sharing their successes in parenting (whatever they may be) it is not to make anyone “feel bad”. We are all doing our best balancing a million things and we share successes to celebrate them and share inspiration!

    Kuddos to you, you are doing a great job and I love seeing your creative pursuits with Nova!

    Colleen
    Seattle, WA

  • Great post! I love painting with my toddlers even if it always ends in a bath. I do have a question about your routine with Nova.

    Do you limit her color palette when she paints? It seems like my kids always end up with everything greenish brown because they mix it all together. But Nova’s paintings are so colorful! This may just be age, but I was curious.

  • This was such a good post Elsie!! I’ve also find that it’s helpful to keep supplies in a place where it’s easy to grab them. I have a little caddy with markers and crayons, etc. nothing too crazy and we keep it in our pantry. I have a roll of white paper with it and my favorite go to is to rip a piece off and tape it to our coffee table and let the kids go to town. They have a big surface to create on and it literally takes one minute to clean up. The beautiful thing about art is there is no right or wrong way to do it and I totally agree we got way dirtier playing soccer last night then we’ve ever gotten doing art 😉

  • I love this! I just wrote last week about how to encourage creativity in toddlers (my daughter just turned three, so that’s what I know so far) and one of my tips was also to let them make a freaking mess. My mom always let me do my thing (which was arts and crafts in all shapes and sizes) when I was little, which I am positive played a huge role in me studying architecture and becoming the ‘creative’ that I am today. So if my mom managed to clean up after me and my two sibblings after we were done painting, I think I can do it for my daughter as well. Even if she doesn’t end up being an artist or a creative of any kind, I am absolutely positive it affects the way she thinks, solves problems etc. It is truly one of the greatest things you can give to your children. So I say yay! to the mess! Thanks for the great article.

  • I guess I just found the whole tone of this post off puting. If another mom reached out for tips I guess it’s great that you had a nice laugh over her life. Art is always worth it is a great personal mantra- for your life with one kid, a creative job, and maybe cleaning help that’s dealing with the roughest pieces of cleaning up this kind of project. There are a million great ways to engage kids in art that doesn’t have to be painting, and the tone of this was just disappointing and kind of snotty. Maybe moms in situations other than yours (more than one kid, expecting and watching a kid, no outdoor space to paint and on and on) are actually looking for real tips, not a deal with it and haha and an extra bath is always great. I have three kids and I’m generally and professionally artistic so I always get asked tips by other moms and I’ve never felt as superior as you seem to feel about paint. This could have been done better from all sides and I’m bummed to see this side of you.

  • loved this!! my nephew loves painting but is super neat and hates getting all messy hahah still working on that :p

  • I love this! You are right…let them do it anyway! A mess should not discourage this kind of creativity. Just make some adjustments and obviously, don’t let them paint while sitting on the nice sofa. haha. I was very fortunate because we have a large bathroom in the basement that we rarely ever use, so I just set the kid’s paints and easel up in there and if it got on the vinyl floor, no big deal! The sink made it easy for clean-up and I even let them draw on the glass on the enclosed shower with dry-erase markers. I think it was called the “art room” more than it was called the bathroom.

  • Yes! Embrace the creativity, don’t stress about the mess. My four adult daughters grew up painting, sculpting, and hot gluing with wild abandon and every crazy minute was worthwhile. Acrylic paint is vastly superior to tempera for its sensuous feel and solid coverage; I kept a box full of glass and plastic throwaways – like salsa jars and packaged cookie trays – and my girls loved nothing more than to cover those objects in acrylics just for the fun of it. My best advice to moms with young artists is to let go of expectations around finished projects and simply enjoy the creative process.

  • I love your first tip the most. So often people want to keep things neat and clean and perfect. Art is about freedom to explore . Let it be messy!

  • Hello Elsie,

    Long time reader and fan! Thought I’d share this funny story. I pulled out the paints and paintbrushes on a rainy day recently for my one and a half old daughter. Oh my goodness – she HATED it so much, haha. I think it was just too messy for my little festidious one. And the more she squirmed/flailed/cried “no” the messier it got – a vicious cycle of angst-y baby art. Alas, once we got cleaned up and calmed down I just had to laugh – best laid plans, right? I love to create and craft, and this experience has not deterred me to share these passions with her – perhaps just in due time. I will always remember our first foray into the arts with a smile.

  • Hey I have been trying to let my toddler paint more, rather than our normal “crayons and scissors” routine since reading this. I would love, (and I bet lots of other parents would too!) a post on what you do with all of the output! Let’s get real, some of it is bound for the recycling bin, but a lot of it is too cute, or too special!!
    Thanks!

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