Art Supplies: Perfect Paints

Paint is the perfect elementary school art medium. Picking up a paint brush is irresistible to kids and I know why; it’s when the magic happens. It’s vibrant, messy and oozy. But even though kids love paint, sometimes it’s hard to know what paint is best for the classroom. In keeping with my series on popular art supplies, here is a list of paint that has worked and some that haven’t.

Best uses for tempera, watercolor and acrylic paints in the elementary art room.

Tempera paint is by far–and I stress–by far the most essential paint to have in your classroom. I use it for more than 3/4’s of all my painting projects. I love Crayola Brand mostly by default. It’s the brand that my school district orders and when I tag onto the school’s large order, I get a better deal. I get the basic colors: Black, White (more white than any other color), Flesh, Primary and Secondary colors, Turquoise and Brown. With these colors you can achieve most any color that you desire.

Other art teachers have found success using other brands and the truth is, I don’t think they vary much. So order whichever brand offers the best deal.

Best uses for tempera, watercolor and acrylic paints in the elementary art room.

Distribution of Paints:

I like to distribute my tempera paints in 6-well plastic trays for projects that require my students to mix paints. I try to gauge how much paint the class will use because once you squirt the paint into the trays, it’s hard to save the left-overs. Sometimes I will mix colors directly in the bottles and then squirt the new color into the tray. I think it helps give the painting project a color boost. Try adding a bit of white to the standard yellow. It takes the green tinge away making the paint so much prettier.

Tip: If you need to save the paint-filled palettes until the next day, place some plastic wrap on top. It should keep the paint relatively moist for up to 3 days.

When a project calls for general colors, I like to set plastic tubs of pre-mixed paints on the tables. This is my preferred method as I don’t waste paints. Even if the colors come straight from the bottle, it makes sharing paint and brushes much easier. After the class is over, wipe the rim and place the plastic cover on. My paints will last 2-3 months with this method. Any longer and the paint will begin to smell.

Best uses for tempera, watercolor and acrylic paints in the elementary art room.

Puck or Cake Tempera Paints

Best uses for tempera, watercolor and acrylic paints in the elementary art room.

Puck tempera paints are a great time-saver. I use these paints when mixing is not a primary concern. They are best used with projects that require a layer of paint but that’s it. Trying to mix cake tempera can be done but you really need to swirl the brush around the paint for a long time in order to kick up enough color. Having said that, even if you aren’t mixing colors, you still need to swirl the brush around to get enough color on your brush. But when you do, the color is lovely to apply onto the paper.

Younger grades love working with cake tempera and the prep is so easy that I overlook the biggest drawback: a chalky finish. There isn’t much you can do about the finish but some teachers I know have applied a layer of gloss over top. Seems unnessessary when you could just use liquid tempera.

Best paper for tempera paints (liquid and cake): Sulphite Drawing Paper. I like Tru-Ray.

Specialty Paints:

There are alot of specialty paints out there that look pretty darn fun. I’ve tried quite a few and feel that most aren’t worth it. Here are the ones I’d recommend:

Sargent Art Metallic Tempera: I love, love, love the gold and silver version of these metallic paints. I wouldn’t bother buying the other colors as there isn’t much need. They are expensive, about $6 for an 8-oz bottle, but if you use them as an embellishment for a painting or collage project, you’ll be surprised at how long they can last. Even in a project that requires an entire surface be covered, like these Poinsettia Plants, you still won’t need more than 1/3 of the bottle for 2-3 classes.

Occasionally, I have purchased colored metallic paints like red or turquoise. I love these two colors as they are really a standout in some of the projects that I have done. The Cardinal in Winter is my favorite and you can see how beautifully the metallic blue paint works.

If you can afford to buy a couple of bottles, stick with gold and silver and give these a try. Lots of fun and the kids LOVE them.

Glitter Paint: I’ve purchased a couple different brands of glitter paint hoping for that magical formula but I’ve always been disappointed. The paint always ends up with a strange viscosity; a bit gluey and transparent. I’d pass on glitter paint in the tempera form although the liquid watercolor glitter paint is a bit better (but still doesn’t have the wow factor I was hoping for). Your best bet with glitter is the old shaker style glitter which you can apply on top of any paint surface. And it’s alot more fun as well.

Pan Watercolor Paints: You may all know that I adore liquid watercolor paints and it’s really my go-to choice when it comes to any watercolor project. I’ve written a whole post on the virtues of liquid watercolor but I don’t often talk about pan watercolors. And there is a good reason for that; I don’t like ’em. Mixing cheap pan watercolors is frustrating for many kids; the colors get muddy, the pans are never clean and cleaning them is a pain. BUT they’re an important part of art education, so I must use them.

I’ve used Prang brand ever since I’ve started teaching art and although they are probably as good as any other affordable paint set out there, this is the year that I’m changing it up. I don’t yet know which brand I will buy but if anyone has had success with anything in particular, let me know.  It might be time to invest in a better quality and order fewer sets and use them only for my upper grades.I’ll let you know what transpires.

Update: October 6th, 2011. I just ordered double palettes (24 cakes) of Prang Watercolor sets and by golly, they’re pretty good. I’m using them right now with a James Rizzi art project and the colors are fantastic. Maybe it’s because the palettes are brand new or perhaps it’s because the variety of colors makes it unnecessary to mix, but I like them alot.

Fluorescent Paints: I bought a set of fluorescent paints last year. They were expensive; about $50 for six, 16oz bottles. Would I buy them again? Probably not. I did find having the pink and orange on hand was great as it’s hard to get a good vibrant pink and orange from mixing the standard tempera. Aside from these two colors, I didn’t think the other colors (yellow, green and blue) were of any great advantage to any of my projects. If you can order separately, get the pink and orange and then at least you will have the bright color in your paint arsenal.

Acrylic Paints

Best uses for tempera, watercolor and acrylic paints in the elementary art room.

I rarely use acrylic paints in the classroom as I find them a bit troublesome to prep. Squirting into paint palettes is a bit messy and if you pour the paints down the drain, they have a tendency to clog the sink. Instead of palettes, you’ll need to use wax paper or rip a page from a magazine. And if you choose this method, children will need their own paint palettes. A bit of extra work but okay for special projects.

I have used acrylic paints instead of liquid tempera on papiér mache projects. This not only adds glossy but a bit of structure as well. When I use acrylic paints for this type of group project when color requirements are limited, I will squirt acrylic paint into individual tubs. Works great.

Children should wear smocks or else the paint will stain their clothes, although I have found that acetate (nail polish remover) will remove a few spots here and there. I do love the glossy, intense colors and have used them on canvas sheets.

Best paper for Acrylic Paints: For individual projects I use canvas boards or sheets. Regular sulphite paper is fine, too.

Have you found any other must-have paints? Please share what you have found!

Here are three links for great art supplies….

eNasco Art Supplies


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If you are anything like me, you try hard to craft your perfect curriculum. Ultimately, a new art project will intrigue you and before you know it you are teaching a lesson on Penguins instead of Picasso.

Use this handy project worksheet to keep track of all your grade level art projects and ensure that your bases are covered.

Photocopy two sheets for each class per each grade. For each lesson, record the date, the project name, artist’s name and what medium used.

With just a glance, you’ll be able to see how many times you studied an artist, if you introduced a book and how many times you used a particular art medium.

What do you think?

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  • Katie Morris

    I’ve used Crayola watercolors and they are really vibrant. I think some of their sets have different rules for mixing colors which makes me wonder if it would confuse the students. I thinking it was something like mixing red orange and red violet to make a red, for example, but I can’t remember for sure.

  • lauralee

    I love the prang semi moist oval DOUBLE sets, really nice color selections, especially turquoise and magenta. Have tired other and still go back to prang.

    • Patty

      That’s good to know. I was thinking of trying another double set. Glad you like them.

  • Therese

    What are the paints in the first photo underneath the watercolors? Those colors are beautiful!

    I love Blicks student grade tempera and Sargents liquid watercolors- I just ordered the Sargents Metallics- so I’m so glad you recommend them! Can’t wait to get messy! 🙂

    • Patty

      The paints you are referring to came in an art kit for kids. It doesn’t have a brand name. I agree. Pretty colors!

  • phyl

    I purchase mostly Sax Versatemp for tempera – good consistency and less expensive than Crayola, plus they are from School Specialty which is where I’m supposed to do my orders.

    I also use a lot of acrylics, in particular for papier mache projects, clay (air dry clay is all I have), and plaster bandage sculpture. I am partial to Nasco’s Bulk-krylics. They are a school grade acrylic but the colors are pretty nice. I’ve aslo used Blick’s school acrylic and they are OK too. I do NOT like Chromacryl. The colors are wonderful but the paints are SO thick they are hard to get out of the bottles so there is a lot of waste, and they are also tougher for the kids to keep their brushes clean.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge

      Phyl, what brand of air dry clay do you like to use? I tested several this summer but I’m not sure I’ve found the ‘holy grail’ yet!!

  • eam

    I use Reeve — it’s a palette with landscape colors. To mix, I’ll often have kids use a glazing technique.
    I too use acrylics — liquitex or Reeve brand — I stretch the acrylics by having kids gesso the paper first — it’s fun and the paint goes on so smoothly. Sargent for liquid watercolor and Dick Bilck for tempera paint.

  • sue

    I also like the crayola tempera.

    Have you ever tried the crayola tempera mixing mediums? Glitter, pearlescent and texture? Was thinking about trying them out this year.

    Any ideas on how to preserve tempera paint on canvas? Polyurethane or something?

    • heather

      I order those every single year and my kids adore them. I have mixed them with other liquid paints besides tempera and get great results. The peralescent is generally the fave around here.

  • joanna

    I am a HUGE fan on tempera cakes for my little ones…the do tend to stain my tables, though, when the kids push the paint along the sides of their papers! They love them because only THEY get to use them!!!

  • debra bearden

    A good tip that I found works great is to add 2-3 drops of dishwashing soap to the paint when you dispendse it for the kids. Mix it in and it makes clean-up super easy without affecting the texture of the paint.

    • Patty

      I’ve heard this tip before. Any help with clean-up is great. Does it change the consistency of the paint? More silky maybe?

      • debra bearden

        I didn’t notice any difference in the paint.