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Oil & Water Swirl Painting

Without paint, the pictures will simply look oily.
Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images

While oil and water may refuse to mix together, they can play nicely to create paintings that are marbled, swirly and simple to make. An artist of any age can enjoy experimenting with oil, but it’s especially useful as an art project for children. In one afternoon, children can learn about colors and the properties of oil and water while also making paintings they can be proud of.


When you’re painting with oil, look no further than your kitchen cabinets. Simple vegetable oil works fine for painting, and it’s less expensive than olive oil or other gourmet varieties. You’ll also need tempera paint to add color to the paintings. Buy powdered paint in the colors of your choose from a craft store. Gather up a variety of materials to paint on; large sheets of paper are easy to use, but your children may also enjoy experimenting with other surfaces such as cardboard and foil. You’ll also need water, spoons, paintbrushes, newspaper and a shallow pan. Buy a disposable foil baking pan such as the kind used for roasting turkeys.


Preparing to paint can be just as much fun as the painting itself. Let children pour oil into small bowls and sprinkle in some paint. Teach children about color mixing by asking them to predict what will happen when they mix multiple shades of paint into the oil, then let them test their hypotheses. Once they’re happy with the color, fill the bottom half of the baking dish with water and let children spoon some colored oil into the water. Give them whisks or spoons and ask them to try to mix up the oil and water; no matter how long they try, they won’t get the two to mix.


There are a few different ways to create swirled oil and water paintings. Children can carefully float their papers or other materials on the top of the water and carefully lift them back out, or they can experiment with using paintbrushes. With paper laid out in front of them, let children run their paintbrushes across the top of the water to pick up both oil and water and draw swirls onto the paper. Encourage them to layer multiple swirls on top of one another until they’re satisfied.


Since oil can leave greasy stains on surfaces, you must choose the proper place to let your paintings dry. Lay out a dozen or so sheets of newspaper and rest the paintings on top. Let them dry on a hard surface such as a tabletop. Oil paintings will take much longer to dry than simple water color pictures. Depending on the paper and the amount of oil you’ve used, the paintings could take two days or more to dry. Even when dry, the oil can still seep into cloth, so frame pictures or store them between layers of cardboard.

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