Mess-Free Painting With Water

I love doing art projects with Lewis and usually don’t mind the mess, but there are some day when I’d rather have something quick and easy with minimal clean-up. I’ve seen the idea to paint with water outside before but it is much too cold for outdoor water play now. I’ve thought a bit about how to convert this to an indoor activity, but had yet to come up with any brilliant ideas. Well, I recently came across this idea for “Paper Towel Artwork” on the blog Fun & Engaging Activities for Toddlers. (Unfortunately it seems this blog is no longer being updated, but looking through the archives I did find several good ideas for activities to try with Lewis.)


Getting started. Dipping his paintbrush in the water.

Basically the idea behind the paper towel artwork is to color on a paper towel with markers and then give your child water and a paintbrush. When they “paint” the water onto the paper towel the colors all bleed making a neat effect. Easy set up, minimal mess, easy clean up – sounds good to me!

I started by getting out the markers and a few sheets of paper towel. I sat on the floor with it with our big pad of drawing paper since I knew Lewis would be interested in the markers too. He is getting better about knowing to color only on the paper, not put crayons/markers in his mouth, etc. I did one sheet with shapes, one with some flowers, and one with his name and some little patterns. Nothing fancy, just things that would catch his attention and a variety of colors to look pretty with the water. A few times he joined in by grabbing the markers and adding his own marks to the paper towels. When he’s a bit older he’ll be able to do the whole activity himself, drawing his own pictures and then “painting” over them with the water.


We actually did the coloring a few days before the painting part, so I’m not sure if he remembered coloring on the paper towels with me by the time I got them out again to paint on. The cup holder on his highchair tray worked perfectly for pouring a little water into, since he wasn’t able to tip or spill it. You could also just put some water in a little dish.

He doesn’t recognize his name or letters yet, but I like to give him some exposure to them to start getting his name looking familiar to him. As he painted I talked to him about what he was painting on. “You’re painting on the letter “I”. It is purple. Now you put some water on the squares at the bottom. Look how the color bleeds on the paper towel.”

After painting on his name he chose the sheet with the shapes. He has been very interested in shapes recently, and is starting to recognize some of the “basic” shapes by name.

Pointing to the star, his favorite shape.

Pointing to the star, his favorite shape.

The shape sheet actually turned into a bit of a learning activity. I would ask him if he could find a shape, and then he would paint on that shape with the water. He correctly found star, square, circle, and heart but wasn’t sure about the diamond. This could be a fun way to practice numbers, letters or even sight-words with an older child. Similar to activities I’ve seen where you write letters or words with chalk outside and then have them spray them with a spray bottle as you name each one.

"Can you find the red circle?"

“Can you find the red circle?”

He was starting to lose interest by the time we got to the flower sheet, but I decided to give it a go anyway since he wasn’t asking to get down yet.

You can see some of his drawing contribution across the top of the flowers.

You can see some of his drawing contribution across the top of the flowers.

He decided to try something new with this sheet and dipped his fingers in the water instead of the brush. He tried painting some of the water on with his fingers but also thought it was good to just lick the water off his fingers. I gave him his sippy with some water but he continued to want to dip his fingers into the water. Then he noticed the cup I had for putting more water onto his tray and asked for that. He helped pour the rest of the water onto his paper, then was mad that it was all gone.

"I'm upset because Mommy won't get me more water to make a big mess with."

“I’m upset because Mommy won’t get me more water to make a big mess with.”

He seemed to have fun painting with the water, although it was hard to tell how much he was really noticing/understanding that the water was making the colors spread. We saved the first two pictures and let them dry, then I hung them on the fridge. The flower picture got ripped and went into the trash.

The next day he found a paintbrush and was walking around with it. He brought it in the kitchen, took the pictures off the fridge, and pretended to “paint” on them for a little while with the dry brush. We will definitely be re-visiting this activity!

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