Unraveling the Mystery of Wet-on-Wet Painting

I resisted what is known as wet-on-wet painting for several years.  I think a part of that was just in response to the Anthroposophical reasoning behind it (I can’t currently find the link but years ago I read that Steiner believed that angels inhabited color so doing wet-on-wet painting was a way to summon these angels–I’m not entirely sure about the accuracy of that statement, as it has been some years since I read it).  However, if you leave out the Anthroposophical weirdness, wet-on-wet painting is actually very therapeutic and produces lovely pictures, and it’s simpler (and cheaper) than it looks.

Now, at our house for the past 2 years we have had Painting Day every Thursday afternoon.  In Waldorf, reverence for supplies and the process is stressed, and that sounds pretty good to me in the expendable and irreverent age that we live in, so I’ve put a fair bit of effort into things.  For instance, we have a basket just with our painting supplies.  We currently use old t-shirts as smocks but since Cecily is about to outgrow hers, one of our first kindergarten projects will be to decorate our own painting smocks–I’ve contemplated using aprons but I think I’m actually going to go again with white t-shirts, only much larger.  When we’re all set up, we have a little painting song that we sing and we light a painting candle.  I must admit it is lovely painting by candlelight.  It really does accentuate that this is a special time.  I admire that within Waldorf setting the mood is an essential element.  I’m not a naturally-inclined mood-setter so I am grateful for any help I can get.

Now, to the nitty-gritty.  What will you need?

Our painting basket contains:

3 tempera paints of primary colors (red, yellow, blue)

1 container of white tempera paint (because sometimes you really need tan or pink)

2 glass Mason jars for dipping water

4 baby-food sized glass jars for holding the paint when you’ve mixed them with water

3 medium-sized brushes from the craft store (2 for Cecily and myself, and 1 in case Daddy is home).  Your brush needs to be about an inch in size–definitely not too small.

1 white crayon for drawing effects on our paper that we paint over

In addition to your painting basket you will need these supplies:

Painting Paper (discussed below)

Prefolds or something for dabbing water from your brushes and for wiping up paint

Somewhere to place paintings to dry (I lay 2 towels onto our floor)

A painting candle *optional but nice

A small muffin tray in case you want to mix up a batch of brown or gray

Now, if you’ve been involved with Waldorf for a while, you’ll spot off the bat, that our basket is “different” than most traditional painting baskets in the Waldorf world.  Where are the Stockmar watercolors?  Where are the painting boards?  The sponges? Well, do hear me out.

The secret is that tempera paints are much more versatile than Stockmar watercolors and much more economical.  I can buy a 3-bottle set for around $6 and they will last us 6 months.  (Stockmar paints sell for between $20 and $40 depending on the size bottles you purchase, and last for about the same length.)  In the glass babyfood jars, I mix half tempera paint with half water.  Since our yellow tends to get turned green after a few weeks of repeated use–Cecily does *usually* remember to wipe her brush, but little bits of deep blue add up quickly–I only fill up the jar maybe 1/4-1/3 of the way.  That way, if we have to pour out sweet, quiet yellow because blue has turned her green yet again, we’re not losing much.  I prefer Crayola tempera paint, as it is the only cheap tempera paint I’ve found that is odorless and true to color.  You can also buy it in a primary color set at crafting stores like Michael’s and JoAnn’s.  Tempera paint can then be used for other projects, like painting salt clay figurines for your Nativity like we did during Advent this year.  So, versatility and affordability are two pluses in my book, and by diluting the paint with water, you get the vibrance of Stockmar watercolors without the price-tag.

As for no painting boards, we are blessed with a large kitchen counter so that’s where we paint.  Once our paper is wet, I just place it on the counter, and thanks to surface tension, the paper stays put.  After each painting we do, I wipe our counter down with a cotton prefold leftover from Cecily’s newborn days (if you don’t own a stash of prefolds, I recommend you invest in some.  They are by far the best baby present we got and we use them for everything from cleaning things to wiping up spills to soaking up water on slides at the playground.)  If you don’t want to paint on your counter, then you will need some sort of surface beneath your paper that you don’t mind getting wet.  You can buy a painting board or you can use a thin chalkboard or any other sturdy surface.

As to the paper, just buy a heavy painting paper from the kid’s section of your local craft store.  I say “kid section” because I have compared prices of watercolor paper in the adult painting section and kid’s section and the “kid’s” paper was as sturdy and MUCH cheaper.  Currently we are using Creatology Paint Pad paper, 9 X 12 inches.  In the past I have also used Strathmore kids’ painting paper and liked it.  I know, if you’re at all familiar with Waldorf, you are saying to yourself, “Shouldn’t you be using larger paper with a 5 year old?”  Well, in the beginning, when Cecily was 3, we did, but after each painting day we hang her artwork on our walls until Dec. 31 when we take them down and make a book for that year, and I have found in doing this that the larger paper is not really that good for bookmaking.  By age 4, if not earlier, Cecily was having no difficulty painting on standard-sized paper.  So, if you want to use the really large painting paper you can, but I don’t really think it necessary. 

So, now that you have your painting supplies, what do you do?

Well, at our house we sing our painting song–a little ditty I made up to a very simple tune (The words are: Color, color, color me / Red as roses / Blue as sea / Yellow as daffodils and bees / Color, color, color me).  I really like having a painting song because it is one way of indicating that a special time is beginning.  Sometimes Cecily makes up a poem or song of her own that we say and then we light our painting candle (it’s actually just a regular taper but we only light it during painting time).  By the time we’ve lit our candle I already have our Mason jars filled with water and our brushes inside, and below that our dabbing prefold.  In front of our candle I place our paint jars that I’ve already filled with paint and diluted with water.  I lay them out from left to right: White, Blue, Red, Yellow.  I actually have them in this order because the white and yellow are the most susceptible to changing shade if Cecily forgets to rinse her brush, and by having them at the ends, I’ve found it reduces that risk.  I dunno–maybe it’s something to do with the psychological make-up of my child that this order works for us.  The real issue at hand is just having them set out orderly.  Then, once the song has been sung, I take a piece of paper (I usually tear out 8 pieces in advance–4 for each of us, though we sometimes do 5 each) and rinse it for about 10-15 seconds under running water from our kitchen faucet.  You’ll want to thoroughly wet both sides.  Then, I lay it down on our counter in front of Cecily and smooth with my hand (some people use sponges for this but I’ve never found that necessary).  Then, start painting.  I usually start with doing what I call a “wash” of one color all over the paper for background. I’ve taught Cecily how to mix colors on her paper, so she’s old hat at this, but if this is new to your child, you may want to start by telling a story about a party where 3 color fairies danced together and there was a magical enchantment that made it so a new color fairy was born when they held hands (or whatever imaginative story you can come up with to demonstrate the secondary colors) or you could just let your child discover on his/her own what happens when red and yellow mix.  In the beginning I used to tell many more seasonal painting stories than I do now, and for the longest time we just “played with color” as we called it, where form is unimportant.  The wet-on-wet technique is great for doing this because the ultra-fluid nature of the paint allows you to continually paint new shapes and designs on the page.  I’d tell stories about spring green and new leaves when we were painting with yellow and blue during spring, for instance.  However, 2 years later, we pretty much just paint whatever we want, forms and all.  Sometimes we still just “play with color” (personally, I love painting rainbows) and sometimes we have in mind what we want to paint.  The nice thing is that if you don’t like your painting, just dip more water onto your brush and smooth out the paint and start over. 

You may want to tell a painting story while you paint.  I bought Brunhild Muller’s book, “Painting with Children” because it specifically states that it contains color stories, but I was very disappointed.  The stories are extremely simplistic and I didn’t find them at all helpful.  I think if you want to go the story route, just make up a simple story as you go.  You can have red do swirls down a slide and then meet blue at the bottom and they hug and run off to make purple footprints.  It doesn’t have to be Caldecott medal quality.  Really.  One of the best ideas I’ve had, or at least to my mind, was personifying the colors.  Waldorf in general likes to turn things into personifications and archetypes (Father Sun, Mother Earth, Brother Wind, Sister Spring, etc.).  Just from doing so much work with color we discovered the concrete properties inherent in the colors themselves.  For instance, if you mix red/blue/yellow food coloring together and then use an eyedropper or pipette to squirt them onto paper towels, the colors will separate with red staying in the middle, blue going to the outside, and yellow kind of peeking out of the middle.  The technical term for this is chromatography.  I know that because my husband is a polymer chemist and he teaches me cool words like that.  In every case, red is “sticky” (ever tried to clean up red food coloring off of a white countertop or spaghetti sauce out of white blouse?), blue likes to “run” to the edges (she’s our adventurous traveler) and “shout” over everybody, and yellow likes to be “happy” but she is also extremely “shy and quiet”.  When you understand these properties of color there really is a deeper appreciation you have for them–they become like old friends to play with.

So, after all is said and done, you place the last painting on your towel or table, sing the painting song again, blow out your candle, and clean up.  It makes for a very fulfilling afternoon.

In case you need a refresher on color-mixing theory:

Red/Yellow = Orange

Red/Blue = Purple

Yellow/Blue = Green (add more yellow for a lime green, more blue for a teal)

Red/Yellow/Blue = Brown or Gray (to get brown, add more red and yellow than blue, and to get gray, add more blue than red or yellow)

If you are feeling adventurous, one technique I like to do is after you do a color “wash” background for your page, you put your dominant index finger inside a prefold or cloth and wipe off a shape in the paint.  It leaves an ethereal white effect, or you can paint over the white with another color.  I’ve also tried drawing on my paper with a white crayon and then painted a “wash” over it to reveal the hidden designs but that is a bit tricky as you have to press really hard with the crayon for it to work.  However, it’s one more fun thing to check out.

If you want to read a less detailed but more poetic account of wet-on-wet painting, check out what Parenting Passageway has to say on this: http://theparentingpassageway.com/2009/01/02/wet-on-wet-watercolor-painting/ .  Carrie always has such a knack for turning a phrase just the right way.

Also, if you are looking for some fun things to do with your paintings, why not make a book?  https://canticlesbycandlelight.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/das-buch/  Or, if you aren’t feeling that adventurous, what about something a bit simpler? https://canticlesbycandlelight.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/whoa-it-moved-it-really-moved/

No matter what you do, have fun with it and enjoy.  The joy you bring to the painting table is actually the most important part.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hakea
    Feb 19, 2011 @ 15:34:23

    I really like your practical approach to Waldorf/Steiner education – sourcing out cheaper but just as effective materials and acknowledging some ideas as unusual or not useful. I also like your respectful approach to art – the process and the product.

    I absolutely love tempera paints. Sometimes I like to wet the paper and throw or smear the powder onto the page.

    Thank you for an informative and interesting post.


    • hakea
      Feb 19, 2011 @ 15:38:04

      Oh, and I forgot to mention that I really like white t-shirts as paint shirts too. I really like the paint sploshes and smears as an effect on the shirt.


  2. Allison
    Feb 19, 2011 @ 17:14:20

    What a great idea about the tempera powder–I’ll have to give that a try! And thanks so much for reading!


  3. Trackback: stylish blog award? « hakea
  4. Lydia
    Jul 13, 2011 @ 14:49:56

    Thank you thank you thank you for this. Lately my dear son has been requesting to play with paints. I told him he MUST wait until I come up with a good process. Bs is very advanced for his age and would not be satisfied to just go to town on a cheap character based painting book. He knows this and has agreed to wait. Today whenever he comes in from play I will let him know we will be starting soon!


  5. emilyteagarden
    Jan 08, 2016 @ 10:33:55

    Hello! Thank you for sharing your method of using tempera paints with w.o.w.
    I didn’t have the stockmar paints and was so glad to find your tutorial!

    I look forward to following your blog.

    Always maintain a joyful mind – – Pema Chodrun, great author and Zen Nun



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