Expressive Arts & Design

Mixing it up: paint, pumpkins and primary colours

Eighteen months ago, when I first set up a new painting easel for my granddaughter Daisy I made one big mistake.

The art paper roll was correctly fitted, the brushes were ready, each paint pot was full and the easel stood out on the lawn, ready for Daisy to begin her artistic endeavours. 

So what had I got wrong? I had arranged for her to have red, yellow and blue paint to use, but of course her favourite colour was (and still is) red so she wanted red paint in all three pots! 

The red mist clears

Once that was rectified, Daisy was happy to paint and enjoy the sensation of using a single colour of paint to cover the paper as she practised with both her left and right hand to gain brush control and coordination. The easel acquired some decorative splashes and the activity was a big success.

In the following months, Daisy has had many opportunities to try her skills at painting, as well as working on her figure drawing and tripod grip.

Now it’s time to go back to the paints and use them to investigate how colours mix together. So the activity I’m focusing on for today’s blog involves taking pairs of those three primary colours and mixing them in equal parts to give orange, green and purple – the secondary colours.

Exploring and using different media and materials is important for a preschool child’s development and this activity is a fun, uncomplicated opportunity to spend 15-20 minutes doing just that!

Activity preparation

Preparing a basic set of paints for young children is fairly easy. You only require the three primary colours (red, blue and yellow) and you can add white and black if you want to widen the options. 

Three pots or primary colour poster paints, a paint brush and some printed paper images of pumpkins, ready to be painted

Pots of poster paints are the best type to use; children will become very familiar with these in Early Years settings and at school as part of their Expressive Art and Design studies, which will see them exploring and learning to use media and materials.

Ready-mixed poster paint is widely available from all high-street crafting stores as well as online. It’s best to select paints designed specifically for children to use as they are usually designed to be washable, and will come out of clothing in a machine wash, and to ensure you select real primary colours, rather than shades.

The inspiration for this colour-mixing activity came when I found some pumpkin outlines online for Daisy after our recent pumpkin weighing and comparison activity. Having used pumpkins for a previous crafting activity I thought Daisy could use her crayons to colour in the pumpkins and simply give them spooky expressions, or we could use this as an opportunity to do some colour mixing with the poster paints. 

Time to mix it up

To make an orange colour we needed the red and yellow primary colour poster paints. Together we put equal amounts of yellow and red paint onto a paint mixing tray and then swirled them together until we saw the paint turn orange

The main part of the pumpkin outline was then painted to Daisy’s satisfaction, leaving just the stalk. To mix up some green paint, we took the yellow and blue primary colours and repeated the equal amounts mixing and swirling to get the result and then applied that to the stalk.

Finally I showed Daisy that we could mix red and blue to make purple for the background, if she wanted to use it (instead, she decided we should use it on one of the pumpkin stalk leaves!).

Daisy loved mixing up the orange paint most of all, and kept refining her work until her second batch of orange – with lots of additional yellow – was a much closer colour to the real pumpkins she could see nearby.

After a while, Daisy was ready for a snack, so we stopped and didn’t have the chance to explore what colour could be made by mixing equal parts of the three primary colours together. The answer, of course, is brown – so if you’re undertaking this activity you can use that colour to paint some ground for the pumpkin to sit on!

Remember if your child is becoming distracted it’s best to let them move on to a new activity; my desire this time was for Daisy to learn about mixing colours together, not to improve her painting skills!

Four printed outlines of pumpkins on white paper, which have been painted by a child with various shades of paint
Daisy experimented with different shades for her pumpkins, their stalks and their leaves

Now that we’ve started to show Daisy how to mix colours together, this kind of activity can be repeated mixing other colours, in differing amounts, using the primary colours and painting on some basic seasonal outlines (green festive trees and holly, reindeer, robins, squirrels). It can also lead to opportunities to talk and extend Daisy’s vocabulary of colour too, even inventing names to describe her different colours!

The colour-mixing activity I described above shouldn’t be too messy. My favourite, messiest way of investigating colour mixing is more physical and won’t suit every child, or parent, but many will find it fun…

Another mix-up: shaking hands

Before starting, place your paper on a flat surface and prepare a bowl of warm water and towel ready to wash hands. Then select two different primary colours and put a primary coloured paint on one of your hands and some of the other primary colour on the child’s hand. 

The next step is to ‘shake’ hands with the paint hand so that you can feel, hear and see the two colours mixing together! Then twist your hands together to ensure you get paint onto all the fingers. You separate your hands and then each make handprints on paper to see the results. 

Remember to keep a clean, unpainted hand free to hold down the paper as you do the printing!

I love this option because I find that, the more that a child interacts with the mixing process, the more they are engaged with it. 

Of course, when it comes to colour mixing the options don’t stop at painting: there are many different activities to look at colour mixing using coloured waters, coloured doughs, sands and even bowls of jelly!

Granny Smith says…

  • Another fun seasonal option for paint-mixing can be found in this previous Autumn blog, where I touch on the joys of leaf painting.
  • Some grandparents and parents can find managing messy play an intimidating prospect; don’t worry – you can find my easy primer on it here.

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