Category Archives: all ages

Experiments With Natural Dyes

Dyed with onion skins (with some sticker resist)

Last year we painted wooden eggs for Easter, but my youngest has since outgrown her egg allergy, so we were back to decorating real eggs this year. However, I wanted to get away from the fluorescent, fake colors. I’m the one who eats most of the eggs, and the food coloring dye that leaks onto the egg white always gives me pause. So this year we experimented with natural dyes.

Way back when, in the dark times before the Internet, I experimented with natural dyes while working at a summer day camp. A group of kids and I tie-dyed t-shirts using dye made from beets and blueberries. (We’d been learning about local Native American tribes, so I’m thinking, but am not positive, that I found these dye suggestions in my research, which would have taken place in the library, with books.)

So that’s where I began with Easter egg dye, and I added in onion skins after reading this post. That blogger boiled the eggs along with the onion skins, but I was a little hesitant to give my three-year-old a raw egg to wrap, so I decided to make the dyes separately and dip already-boiled eggs into the dye. There are lots of tutorials on this–such as here (via KiwiCrate) and here (via Craft)–but it looks like many dyes need a long soak, even overnight. I wanted something the kids could see working rather quickly.

The two orange eggs were dyed in onion skin dye. The reddish one at the front is from beets, and the bluish one at the back is from blueberries. The blueberry dye and beet dye looked almost exactly the same in liquid form, but as the blueberry-dyed eggs dried, they became bluer. For all of these, I boiled and then steeped the dyeing agent, then strained the liquid through a wire mesh strainer and added a splash of vinegar as a mordant.

Dyed with blueberry dye

A couple of days later we tried spinach and red cabbage as well. These weren’t as successful. I think the red cabbage would have required an overnight soak, and something interesting happened when I added vinegar to the strained spinach dye. First off, I didn’t need to-spinach contains its own acid, oxalic acid, which is strong enough to act as a mordant all on its own. When I added the vinegar, the liquid, which was a dark green-gold color, lightened into the color of lemonade–and had no effect on the color of the eggs. I’ve been searching for an explanation (what reacted with what?) and haven’t found one yet, so if you know, please tell me!

The Easter Bunny usually leaves my kids little rhyming clues as to where their baskets are hidden. This year, my oldest mentioned he hoped his clue was in code.

Cracking the code

I used a simple number/letter substitution, but I began at “N” as “1.” I helped him work through the first word, which was three letters, using logic to figure out where the vowel probably was (in the middle) and going from there. Then he was off and running. Every year, the Easter Bunny has to get a little smarter…

Have you experimented with natural dyes? What worked best for you?

Ready for the Art Show

Both my boys wanted to enter the art center’s collaboration show, like they did last year, again. G also painted a canvas, but she’s not sure on whether she wants to let the art center borrow it for a whole month. We’re going to bring it along when we drop off the others, in case she changes her mind. Here they all are together (click to see slightly larger):

Each canvas has both sprayed watercolors and liquid acrylic, some brushed, flicked, or dripped on and some printed with various materials–wine corks, sponges, and the like. The top right one (my oldest son’s) also has some dripped black ink. This sort of painting is definitely out of his comfort zone; he likes things to be planned. Once he got into it, though, he even said (in an amazed sort of voice), “This is really fun!”

The top left canvas (my younger son’s) has a couple layers of workable fixative sprayed on. He really puddled the watercolor, and the canvas isn’t really made for that. Plus, it seemed to have a different sort of finish than the other two–same type of canvas, but a different brand. There were tacky spots that just weren’t drying, but the fixative seems to have solved the problem.

The bottom one, then, is my daughter’s. I have to admit, a layer or so back she had some sponge prints that are obliterated now by her brushstrokes, and I had to remind myself to bite my tongue and let her explore the process. She decided when she was done, and I like it now, too, although, again, whether I like it isn’t really the point. She likes it so much she’s not sure she can let it out of her sight for a month.

We’re excited to drop them off tomorrow!

Spray Bottle + Canvas

I just had to take a photo of the art table after my oldest had finished spraying four colors (blue, red, green, and yellow) of liquid watercolor onto a canvas. He let the colors dry in between so the mixing wouldn’t become muddied. He let go of some of his need to control outcomes and just saw what happened. He’s deciding whether he will add to this with acrylic and brush, or let it be.

Materials: Spray bottle, liquid watercolors (undiluted), canvas, and a large space, since the spray will overshoot the canvas, sometimes by quite a lot!

Patterned Paper Bag Heart Banner

Since November, I’ve been decorating our big sliding glass door to the deck with a seasonal banner of some sort. Our thankful banner was even created from paper bags! So when I saw that TinkerLab’s paper bag challenge fell at the beginning of February, I figured it was a great opportunity to get the kids involved in creating this month’s banner—but with a lot of open-ended process to balance out the product.

Materials: Paper bags (I used brown lunch bags, which are thinner); paint; scissors; materials to create patterns (ie, sponges, cork, pom-poms…whatever your kids want!); heart template; glue or glue stick; yarn for hanging; mini-clothespins (optional)

First I cut open the paper bags and cut off the bottoms so we could lay them out flat. Then we painted them in layers. We covered them in a solid color and then let that dry before going back in to make patterns.

V used gesso on one of his bags because he wanted to use watercolors on the second layer, and we weren’t sure how the watercolors would get along with a layer of tempera paint. G added all her colors of paint pretty much at the same time.

Making the patterns was so much fun! I gave G one of the bags I painted so she could use the sponge to make sponge prints.

She also used the sponge roller to layer some more paint on her own bag. V dropped red liquid watercolors onto the bag he painted with gesso, and a really fun polka-dot effect resulted.

Both boys also used the sponge on one of their bags, and on his second, N made dots with a wine cork and a big pom-pom. We ended up with a pile of colorful paper!

Once the bags were dry, I cut a heart out of cardstock so that all our hearts would be the same size (more or less). We traced hearts onto our bags and cut them out.

The boys were very specific on which parts of their patterned paper they hoped to get on their hearts, so they mostly traced on the painted side. G isn’t quite up to cutting on a line yet, so rather than have her end up frustrated with this part of the project, we gave her the scraps and a heart paper punch.


When the hearts were cut out, we glued them together in pairs so whichever side you see, it’s patterned. Because the watercolor soaked through the bag, V decided not to paste those together—one side shows white with red, and the other is paper bag color with red. G, of course, could participate with the gluing. We thought about gluing the hanging yarn inside the middle, but with so many of us gluing, and at different times, in the end we decided it would be simpler to hang them off the yarn with mini-clothespins.

And what about the hearts G punched out with the scraps? I added some more to her pile and sandwiched them again, this time with a length of perle cotton in between, to make a sweet little hanging string of hearts.

If you’d like to add your project to the link-up, you can do that below. If you’d like to enter to win a $100 Visa gift card and 3-month subscription to Kiwi Crate, make sure to add a link to your project at either TinkerLab or the Kiwi Crate blog (all particulars can be found here). And be sure to visit these other creative bloggers to see what their kids created out of paper bags for the challenge:

Paint Cut Paste, Imagination SoupHands On: As We Grow, Child Central Station, Putti Prapancha, Irresistible Ideas for Play-Based LearningTeach Preschool, The Chocolate Muffin Tree, Nurture Store, Small Types,Make Do & FriendThe Imagination Tree, Toddler Approved, Red Ted Art, Kids in the Studio, Rainy Day Mum, Glittering Muffins, Sense of Wonder, Mom To 2 Posh Lil Divas, Come Together Kids, My Creative Family, Kitchen Counter Chronicles, A Mom With A Lesson Plan, Angelique Felix, The Golden Gleam, Clarion Wren, Living at the Whitehead’s Zoo, Let Kids Create, De tout et de rien, PlayDrMomCreativity My PassionKiwi Crate, Tinkerlab

Happy Valentine’s Day, and have fun!

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Spin Art {A Review, of Sorts}

The kids received a spin art contraption for Christmas, so over break we played with it. I didn’t realize, when ordering, that it was the Melissa and Doug brand, which has gotten not-so-great reviews over on Amazon. But it was, and while I can see why it’s gotten not-so-great reviews, we played with it quite a bit and had success after all.

One of our favorite parts was watching it spin. The stopped card often looked very different from the card in motion, and really, we were all mesmerized by the way our eyes saw the paint as it spun. From a more experimental standpoint, it interested me that the card reversed with each crank. This set is powered by moving the hand crank–if you pull it toward you, the card spins one way; push it away, and it spins the other. So you’re alternating directions, and I kept trying to figure out if that changed the nature of the design a lot, a little, or not at all.

Some practical points–no matter what I did, I couldn’t get the suction cup to stick to our table surface (which is just melamine, nothing fancy), so I held it down while the kids cranked. The cards that came with the set were too small to fit into the slots without slipping out; things worked better when I cut our own, slightly larger than 4″x4″ on all sides. And the designs came out much better when we squirted the paint on while it was spinning, instead of before.

The very first one we tried is in the top left corner, and that’s the one we squirted the paint onto before spinning. Really, not at all impressive. The thin circles in the one next to it were made by drizzling paint on as it spun. N liked to squirt lots of paint, and he got big cool-looking splotches that took a while to dry.

V started wondering, What would happen if I poured the paint in the opposite direction of the spin? And How about if we draw on the cards before adding paint? So we definitely have some room for experimentation, once we figured out the best way to work with the set-up. I haven’t ruled out a salad spinner for the future, though!

What’s your favorite spin-art method? Do you have any tips to share?

Doodle Rocks

Materials: Rocks; liquid acrylic craft paint; brushes of various sizes; permanent markers, including metallic

We love to collect rocks. Not too long ago, after seeing beautifully painted rocks at Jen Muna, I decided I wanted to try it myself. And then I figured the kids could give it a try, too. This is an extremely open activity. I spread out the materials (having previously rinsed the rocks and let them dry) and we each took our designs in whatever direction we chose.

That is a busy table! Even dad participated in this activity. I think all of us used a combination of paint and markers, sometimes on the same rock. Here are the results.

G's rocks

Most of G’s are painted, in colors of her choosing, of course. The lighter orange one is permanent marker. On one of these (I’m not sure which) she colored with marker and then painted over it. (Warning: Acrylic paint will not wash out of clothing.)

N's rocks

On some rocks, N used marker and paint together. The bottom ones were drawn on with metallic marker (he decorated both sides of some of his rocks, so some images aren’t shown). The flower in the top middle was created using paint (and a thin script brush) over metallic silver marker, and the ones on either side were drawn after seeing his dad’s rocks, below.

V's rocks

V spent quite a bit of time experimenting with different brush sizes. He also likes to add his initials and his name (blurred out) on most everything!

My husband and I also played with the materials.

Parents' rocks

The top four are mine, and the bottom two (the ones that inspired N) are my husband’s. I experimented with stamping on the rocks (which worked so-so, since the rocks weren’t perfectly flat).

This is a relaxing, open-ended activity that is easily adjusted for all age levels. And if you and your kids are compulsive rock collectors (as we are!) it’s a fun way to turn your finds into creative canvases.

Favorite Projects of 2011

I hope plan to get back to regular posting after my big kids return to school in January, but meanwhile, I wanted to share some of my favorite projects from this past year. Looking through the posts reminds me of all the neat things we tried!

In January, we tried our first tape resist project, which led to many more experiments with resist, including scribble resist (scribbling is so much fun!). We also tried shadow drawings for the first time.

In February, my then-toddler got sticky hands with yarn art, and the following month, we tried to paint like Monet after digging into some art books.

April is National Poetry Month, so we made some paintings in response to a poem. In May, we had a ball with scratch foam printmaking, and we got outside to draw the irises once they bloomed.

1. shadow drawings 2. yarn art 3. Monet painting 4. poetry painting 5. scratch foam printing 6. iris study

In June, inspired by an Eric Carle book, we made peek-a-boo paintings, which were so much fun to plan, execute, and view. We also oohed and aahed as we colored on hot rocks with wax crayons.

Summer, finally! In July we played with sun print paper and began designing and decorating t-shirts in various ways. Two of my favorite methods used freezer paper stencils and scratch foam printing.

Heading into fall…I liked my daughter’s painted jar-o-lanterns and her color mixing adventures. And, of course, we celebrated the winter solstice with homemade lanterns.

1. peek-a-boo paintings 2. hot rocks 3. sun print paper 4. freezer paper t-shirts 5. scratch foam t-shirt 6. jar-o-lanterns 7. preschool color mixing

What an artful year we’ve had! I wish you a happy, creative, and inspiring 2012!

Tin Lanterns (Two Ways)

We made these lanterns to celebrate winter solstice, but they’ll be welcome all through winter. We made one version appropriate for older kids, and one better suited to younger kids.

Tin Can Lanterns

Materials: Clean tin can (I used 28-oz tomato cans) with the lid taken off with the type of can opener that doesn’t leave sharp edges; water; hammer and nail

Age level: Elementary & up

Fill the can with water and freeze overnight, either in the freezer or outside. I left room at the top for the water to expand, but it expanded downward for some reason. (If you want your lantern to have handles, you need to be able to punch a hole up near the top, so you’ll need ice up there.)

When the water is frozen, gently tap out a design using a hammer and nail.

We did this in the living room, as you can see, just spreading out a towel and using some old cloth diapers to brace the cans. We made our holes in the ridges of the can, so it was easier to brace the nail. It only takes a gentle tap.

I told the boys to turn the can so that they were always banging the nail straight, not at an angle. They’re 7 and 10, and both of them were easily and safely able to do this. G “helped” me by holding my hammering hand, but I wanted her to be able to create her own lantern without help, so I took inspiration from these jar luminarias at Family Fun.

Aluminum Foil Jar Lanterns

Materials: Glass jar; aluminum foil cut to fit; nail, toothpick, pushpin, or similar (to make holes); foam, cork, cardboard, or similar (as backing while making holes); tape (I used double sided)

Age level: All ages, and suitable for preschoolers

I happened to have a roll of cork lying around the studio, so I spread it out on the table and lay the piece of foil on top of it. G used a nail to punch the holes because it made a slightly bigger opening than a toothpick. I showed her on a scrap of foil how to punch the hole up and down, and how dragging the nail (like you’re drawing with it) will tear the foil. Then she punched her holes.

When she was done, I wrapped the foil around the jar, tucking a little under the bottom and a little around the top edge. I used a piece of double-sided tape to secure the overlap on the side. G ended up making two lanterns, of random design.

Tin can lanterns: my snowflake and N's initial

I placed tea lights in our cans and jars for use indoors. If you want handles on the tin can lanterns, punch a hole on either side at the top and string with ribbon, twine, or the like. But you need to have ice behind while you’re tapping the nail; otherwise the can will dent. (Also, you might not want to use a candle if you’re carrying the lantern; perhaps one of those battery-operated tea lights?)

One of G's aluminum foil jar lanterns

Because my ice expanded downwards, the bottom of our cans were a little warped, but I just gave them a tap with my fist and they flattened enough to sit level on the table.

Our grouping of luminaria, reminding us the light will return

Happy Solstice! And now we turn, ever so slowly, towards the sun.

Children Making Gifts (With Links)

I’m stepping out of the usual process-focused activities to give you a glimpse of what my children are making their loved ones for Christmas this year, and to share some links and ideas. Because my children vary in age, ability, and interest, their gifts do, too. Perhaps you will find something here your child would like to try.

First up, my three-year-old, who absolutely loves bookmarks. She likes to empty the bookshelf that holds chapter books, quietly spiriting them away one by one, each with a bookmark inside. If you try to reshelf them, she’ll exclaim, “I’m reading that!” She’s been known to “borrow” her brothers’ library books, too, claiming them as her own with a bookmark and sticking them in her bedside shelves. She thought giving people handmade bookmarks was a fabulous idea. Here is her painted, salted sheet of paper before cutting:

And here are some finished bookmarks.

I love this project because it is simple, yet with a beautiful and useful result.
She chose the ribbon color for each one, I looped it through, and she pulled it tight.

My seven-year-old realized he could sew recently, so I asked if he’d like to try making felt Christmas tree ornaments. He very much wanted to. I sewed on the embellishments, since that’s a smaller needle and thread (but he arranged them first), and he sewed and stuffed the trees. Here he is sewing:

No photos of the finished trees, in case any relatives are reading. They are something to treasure, though.

My oldest also wanted to make ornaments, making more paint-drip globes like we did last year (using this tutorial). Last year, we made them for the boys’ teachers; this year, he’s making them for aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Here are the original six dripping upside down.

But a funny thing happened…on four of them, the paint dripped right out without adhering to the glass. Weird, right? So I rinsed out the remaining bits of paint (not much) and swished some rubbing alcohol around inside, assuming there was something in there that was repelling the paint. When they were completely dry, we tried again, and this time the paint stayed put. Last year we had enough to make extra, and we have several hanging on our tree. They’re simple and lovely.

Some more links for you:

Last month we made recycled crayons for the youngest cousins, using fun candy mold shapes. Our how-to is here.

A couple of years ago we made these surprise snowballs for cousins—they were easy to make and hopefully fun to use! I included a rhyme with them: Wash your hands, wash them every day/and your “snowball” will slowly melt away./And when it’s melted more than a little/You’ll find a surprise tucked in the middle!

And recently, as a countdown calendar activity, we made bird seed “cookies” using these directions. I doubled the recipe and we were able to make two larger and two smaller cookies. The birds loved them–and we’ve enjoyed watching the birds love them! And you don’t need special cookie cutters (although those do look cute)–for one of our molds, I cut about two inches off the top of a 32-oz yogurt container. Be warned, though—the mixture is very sticky.

Rubber Cement as Masking Fluid

(Note: The rubber cement bottle is full of warnings. It contains chemicals and latex. It smells bad and the fumes can be hazardous. It’s flammable. It can cause allergic reactions because of the latex. I decided I was comfortable using it with my three-year-old for a short amount of carefully supervised time in a controlled environment. You may decide differently based on your child’s age and temperament. Please use common sense, okay?)

Materials: Rubber cement, watercolor paper, liquid watercolors

Rubber cement can act as a frisket (masking fluid), protecting part of the paper from paint to create a resist effect. G and I tried it out first, but we’ll be sharing with the boys, too.

The bottle comes with a paint brush, so G wanted to paint with it.

I experimented as well, both by trying to paint an image with the brush on one small square, and by drizzling it onto another. I wasn’t ready to sacrifice a paintbrush to create fine, controlled lines, but I may do that with the older kids. When you’re done applying the rubber cement (and more on technique in a minute), you need to let it dry.

While we were waiting, G painted a picture with the watercolors on another sheet of paper.

When the rubber cement was dry, we painted over it with liquid watercolors. “Look!” exclaimed G.

You can see how it’s resisting the watercolor. G really spread her rubber cement thin and over a large area; this probably isn’t the way to go for a striking resist effect. I’d recommend drizzling or applying in a more blobby way (we’re so technical here!), because spreading it out makes the next part difficult.

When the paint is dry, you can rub off the rubber cement to reveal your resist. We had to work hard to get all of the rubber cement off of G’s painting!

G’s painting is the large one on the left. On the right are my two experiments–for the top one, I used the brush that came with the cement to try to paint a snowflake. It worked well enough, but the brush is big and smears the glue around. For the bottom one, I mostly drizzled (I used a wooden clay tool because it was handy). That’s my favorite–the glue drizzled thickly enough to get a strong contrast between white and color.

I’m thinking next time I might remove the brush entirely and offer something else, to encourage drizzling. Hmm, I wonder what would work best? Ideas?