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Making color—Dyes and paints for school-agers

by Louise Parks


In infancy, babies begin their exploration of color. Newborns typically distinguish strong color contrasts, and with experience, toddlers identify colors by name and develop color preferences. Paint, markers, magnifiers, flashlights, prisms, and crayons invite further color explorations as preschoolers sort, combine, and often are frustrated by colors that don’t cooperate.

More sophisticated color explorations align with children’s developing cognitive and physical skills. A kindergarten child may want more than a simple answer to the question, “Where does color come from?” Answers to the question lie in a school-ager’s emerging ability to identify cause and effect, to self-regulate and avoid danger, to construct new and satisfying knowledge, and to extend color knowledge in productive, hands-on activity.


Background for teachers
Color impacts us. Culturally, historically, and geographically colors have specific and unique significance. Color alters mood, communicates emotional state, and tells others something about how we feel about ourselves in clothing, décor, and even food choices.

Consider the following:
Red demands and gets attention. We associate it with love, power, emergencies, excitement, and courage.
Blue is calm, plentiful in nature (sky above and reflected in the oceans), and restful. It’s sometimes overwhelming, and we get the blues.
Yellow brightens all of nature, represents beginnings as the sun rises each morning, and is regarded as hopeful. It’s also a color that suggests caution and sometimes cowardly behavior.
Green surrounds us in the plant and animal world and offers hope for renewal and sustainability.
Purple is unusual and mysterious, often hiding in the natural world. Its shades name many flowers and communicate richness, royalty, and power.
Brown (a dark, muddy orange) communicates impending decay while offering protective camouflage to birds, insects, reptiles, and mammals. It’s also intrinsic to many favorite foods.

Prepare for your group’s exploration of color-making by reviewing the skills and interests of the children. Most will be eager for a new art experience, but don’t force the activities on children who prefer the library corner or building with Lego® bricks.

Solicit material donations from families and the community. Charity shops often have stained or dented pots, bowls, and spoons. Because dyes stain, damaged is fine. Be alert though when shopping for slow cookers, fry pans, and other electric appliances. Always ask to try out the appliance to make sure it’s safe to use. For these dye projects a slow cooker should have both a high (boiling) and low (simmering) setting.

Always take appropriate safety precautions. Insist that children work with clean hands, wear eye protection when hammering, and wear aprons for wet, messy work. Dyes will stain fingers and likely not disappear for several days. Alert families to your dye project plans; a child’s blue hands will not fit in well in a formal family photo at Grandpa’s 70th birthday party.

Keep your eyes open for non-toxic dye stuffs. Many culinary herbs like turmeric (orange), yarrow (yellow), and paprika (orange), are inexpensive grocery items. Many familiar garden weeds like dandelion root (red), rose hips (pink), nettle leaf (green), and hackberry (purple) will get you started with natural dyeing. And plant materials destined for the garbage or compost are worthy natural dyes, including grapes and blueberries (purple), spinach leaves (light green), celery leaves (pale yellow), and beet skins (deep red). Experiment and discover.


Making dyes from nature
Access to natural dyes is often as close as the playground, a nearby field, or home flower garden. (Note: Always ask permission before gathering plants and never collect from state or national park lands.) The grocery store also offers options, typically at low or no cost. Be careful to avoid inviting children to play with food stuffs; if you’re using fruit or vegetables, for example, ask grocers for wilted produce destined for the garbage bin.

If you anticipate dyeing as a routine activity, consider including plants that make dyes in your class or program garden. Marigolds, coreopsis, zinnias, and cosmos are easy to grow, make strong dye or paint, and add bright color to the garden area.

The most effective dyes usually involve a heat source (a slow cooker works well) and require tools for cutting. Review safe knife use before every activity. Similarly, reinforce the concept that dyes aren’t for consumption—even when the dye is food-based. Like food, dyes go bad if they aren’t used promptly. They can, however, be refrigerated or frozen and thawed to help ensure effectiveness and freshness.

The general directions for making a pint of dye vary according to whether the plant material will be soaked, heated, or used without any processing.


Basic dye-making tools and ingredients
Electric slow cooker. Buy or borrow a 2- to 6-quart size pot with a stain resistant liner. Make sure the cooker is placed on a sturdy counter, out of the way of classroom activity. If you must use an extension cord, avoid stringing it across activity areas; use cloth tape to secure the cord to prevent tripping.
Mortar and pestle. This kitchen combo has been used throughout history to crush and grind plant material into a paste or powder.
Cutting boards and knives. Good safety practices suggest evaluating children’s skills, giving clear instructions, and demonstrating and modeling knife use. Start with plastic serrated knives and a heavy cutting board. As children demonstrate skill and self-regulation, introduce small paring knives, allowing only two children to work with knives at one time (close supervision is critical).
Large bowls and jars. If you use glass, be vigilant to safety issues. Transparent containers make observations easy.
Wooden or plastic spoons for stirring. Dyes will stain these tools but not damage them permanently.
Colander or strainer.
Drying area. Hanging dyed materials is more space-efficient than designating flat counter space. Prepare the hanging line ahead of time according to the material being dyed.

Follow these general directions for the different dying methods. Introduce dyeing with the process-free method and gradually add soaking and then heating to the dyeing activities.


Process-free method
Use liquids like juices, coffee, or tea as is.


Soak method
Prepare plant material.
Put plant material into a container that has a cover.
Cover plant material with water.
Cover and refrigerate from 1 to 5 days, depending on the plant material.
Strain liquid into a container.


Heat method
Prepare plant material.
Put plant material in slow cooker and cover with water.
Simmer on high setting for 2 hours.
Let soak overnight.
Strain liquid into a container.


Dyeing and paint-making activities
Use these activities as a starting point for making dye discoveries. The activities are sequenced from simplest to most complex; each has infinite variations. Be respectful of the children in your group and always offer options, and always allow enough time for the children to ask questions and experiment independently.


Hammered garden prints
Take this activity outdoors and use a sidewalk or sturdy table for the hammering.


Here’s what you need:
leaves and brightly colored flowers
wide painter’s tape
wax paper


1. Cut unbleached muslin or a discarded, solid-colored bed sheet into 12-inch squares, one or more for each child.
2. Invite children to select one large leaf or colored flower from the class garden or playground. Leaves with thick, sturdy, and dark green leaves work best.
3. Encourage children to test their prints on scrap fabric. Some leaves are rich in chlorophyll that will ensure better printing, while some leaves have little color to transfer.
4. Demonstrate how to hold a hammer for pounding.
5. Tape the fabric in place on the sidewalk.
6. Place a flower or leaf on the fabric and cover with wax paper.
7. Put on goggles and hammer away, transferring the plant color onto the fabric.

Options: Invite children to make a print collage, sharing the fabric and printing a variety of leaves and flowers.


Thumbprint berry dye
Discarded berries make terrific soak-method dyes for paper and fabric. Start by determining how you’ll use this dye. Most simply, invite children to dip their thumbs (or rubber stamps) into the dye and transfer their thumbprints or stamp prints to paper. Invite them to incorporate the prints in larger art pieces or to decorate wrapping paper or stationery. Or use it as water color with small brushes on paper. Children can also use foam brushes to paint on fabric. If you thicken the dye with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch and heat it until thickened, children can use it as tempera-like paint on easel or mural paper.


Here’s what you need:
1 cup discarded or bruised berries
measuring cup
mortar and pestle
fine-mesh strainer
storage container with lid


1. Crush ¼ to ½ cup of berries into paste in the mortar with the pestle. Spoon the mush into a small bowl. Repeat to use all the berries.
2. Pour about ½ cup of water over the berries and soak for at least 2 hours.
3. Strain the dye through a fine-mesh strainer into a storage bowl.


Drip and drop dye
Encourage children to experiment with dye on different papers with varying textures—paper towels, easel paper, coffee filters, blotting paper, tissue paper, napkins, and rice paper, for example. The focus here is on what happens when liquid color meets dry paper. Use either natural dye or commercially produced food coloring.


Here’s what you need:
paper of varying textures
natural dye or liquid food coloring
eye droppers or pipettes
table padded with old newspaper


1. Encourage children to touch and discuss the paper textures. Offer a wide variety cut in 6-inch squares. Support conversation about the children’s observations of color, weight, texture, and surface and encourage predictions about what happens when a drop of color falls to the paper.
2. Provide several bowls of dye. Use natural dye as is; dilute 10 drops of food coloring in ¼ cup of water.
3. Invite the children to use eye droppers or pipettes to drop a spot of color onto a piece of paper. Add colors in single drop measurements and discuss the results.

Alternatives: Fold the paper and dip it into the dye. How does it spread? Dry, refold, and dip into another color. Discuss color blending.

Make a rice paper collage and hang in a sunny window for a stained-glass effect.

Note: The dye will stain fingers and unprotected clothing. Provide proper protections.


Spray and spatter mural
Use natural dyes or commercially produced food colorings to create a cooperative art work. This is a great outdoor activity—you don’t want to worry about errant spatters.


Here’s what you need:
length of fabric
spray bottles
mixed dyes
long-handled paintbrushes
cornstarch thickened dye (see Thumbprint berry dye above)


1. Use the clothespins to attach the fabric—yard goods or a discarded bed sheet—onto a long fence.
2. Fill spray bottles with different dye colors.
3. Invite children to paint the fabric by spraying dye. Allow creativity and independent decision-making about blending and liquid absorption.
4. Allow the mural to dry.
5. Prepare thickened dye in different colors.
6. Show how to spatter paint: Dip the brush in paint, hold the brush handle at the end, and tap the brush end across the hand to apply paint in a splatter pattern.
7. Allow time for conversations about dye absorption and paint application.


Translucent vegetable dye
Powdered vegetable dye is available in school supply stores and comes in a range of colors including blue, red, yellow, and green. Blend colors, if desired, before mixing into paint.


Here’s what you need:
vegetable food dye
1 tablespoon water
liquid starch
measuring cup
measuring spoon
mixing bowl
stirring spoon


1. Dissolve ⅛ teaspoon of dye powder in 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl.
2. Stir in liquid starch, ¼ cup at a time, to reach desired color intensity.
3. Encourage conversations about this paint, exploring the differences among opaque, translucent, and transparent paint colors.

Alternative: If available, encourage children to use this paint on plexiglass. Compare its effects to tempera paint.


Pot dyeing fabric
T-shirts, socks, and other all-cotton fabric is easy and satisfying to dye. Before starting, wash new fabric to rid it of sizing chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Alum and cream of tartar are mordants—chemicals that helps color fix permanently to the fabric.


Here’s what you need:
2 large slow cookers
plant leaves, flowers, and fruit
cream of tartar
wooden spoon
measuring spoons
measuring cup


1. Begin by determining the scale of the dyeing process. You can likely dye 4 pairs of socks or a single T-shirt in one batch. If you’re using cotton yardage to make curtains, for example, you’ll need to plan for several dye baths with 1 yard of 45-inch fabric in each. Remember, the fabric is absorbing the color. When the dye bath is clear (and color-free), there won’t be any additional color change on the fabric.
2. Prepare the vegetable matter. Gather discarded vegetable leaves and skins (onion skin, purple cabbage leaves, berries, and marigold blossoms, for example), and chop or tear coarsely. You’ll need about 4 cups of plant to 2 quarts of water.
3. Dissolve 3 tablespoons of alum and 1 ½ teaspoons of cream of tartar in 1 cup of hot water.
4. Pour 2 quarts of water into one slow cooker and heat. Stir in the mordant mixture and bring the water to a simmer.
5. Put the fabric in the water and simmer on low heat for 1 hour.
6. Pour 2 quarts of water into the second pot with the chopped vegetable matter. Cover and simmer for at least 1 hour or until the dye bath is a deep color.
7. Strain the dye bath through a colander and pour the liquid back into the pot. The vegetable matter can go into your compost bin.
8. Remove the fabric from the first pot and let it drain in the colander.
9. Add the fabric to the strained dye bath and stir. Simmer for at least an hour or until the dye bath is almost clear of color. Stir often to make sure the color is evenly distributed.
10. When you are satisfied with the fabric color, remove it from the dye bath and put it in a sink full of cold water. Rinse the fabric until the water runs clear.
11. Hang the fabric on a line to dry.


Tie-dye stripes
Tie-dye projects invite creativity and originality with basic natural or commercially produced dyes. Use the pot-dyeing technique above to prepare the dye baths. Include several color options. This project is best done outdoors; if weather demands going indoors, be sure to protect floor and work surfaces with plastic or layers of newspaper.


Here’s what you need:
cotton fabric
heavy string
rubber bands
large flat pans
sponge brushes
large plastic tub
pictures or real examples of tie-dyed fabric


1. Introduce tie-dye by discussing how dye colors fabric. Areas of fabric in the dye have the ability to absorb color; areas not in contact with dye don’t absorb it. Beyond not dipping fabric in dye, color resist can happen if the fabric is folded, tied, or otherwise secured to deep dye from parts of the fabric.
2. Tear or cut the fabric into 6-inch by 18-inch pieces, one or more for each child.
3. Instruct the children to wet the fabric and to wring it out thoroughly. You may need to demonstrate this.
4. Help the children gather the fabric along the 6-inch side—accordion folding or scrunching.
5. Secure the fabric at 2-inch intervals with string or rubber bands.
6. Pour about 1-inch of dye into flat pans.
7. With a sponge brush, paint alternating sections of the fabric with dye. Let the fabric set for about an hour to partially dry.
8. Carefully remove the rubber bands or string.
9. Pour water and vinegar into a plastic tub at the ratio of 2 quarts of water to ½ cup vinegar. The vinegar will set the dye so it doesn’t wash out.
10.Put the fabric pieces into the vinegar bath to rinse. Remix the vinegar solution if the colors start to bleed.
11.Hang the fabric to dry.

Alternatives: Use unsweetened powdered Kool-Aid® as dye. See for a quick overview on the process. You can either make the dyes on the stove beforehand or use the crock pot, which will take longer.

Instead of securing sections of fabric with rubber bands or string, tie knots. Or scatter the tied sections to make dots rather than stripes.


Mock batik
Batik is an Indonesian fabric-painting technique that uses wax and dye. Children can learn this resist technique—wax protects fabric so that it doesn’t absorb dye—with natural dye, Kool-Aid® dye, or food coloring mixtures.


Here’s what you need:
12-inch squares of cotton fabric
wax crayons
prepared dye solutions
wide painter’s tape
large flat pans
newspaper padding
warm electric iron


1. Wash the fabric to remove sizing chemical. Dry thoroughly.
2. Cut the fabric into 12-inch squares, one or more for each child.
3. Help children tape fabric squares to the work surface.
4. Invite the children to use the crayons to draw a design. Help them understand that color doesn’t matter; the wax forms a protective surface on the fabric so that the dye won’t be absorbed. In the video, wax is applied with a special tool after an intricate design is sketched by hand. If you show the video to your class, discuss how the traditional technique is similar to what you will do—and how traditional batik is unique.
5. When the children’s designs are complete, prepare the dye baths.
6. Pour dyes into flat pans and invite children to dye their fabric squares, leaving the fabric in the bath for at least 15 minutes or until the color is absorbed.
7. Remove the square from the dye bath and wring out the excess liquid. Let the squares air dry.
8. In this technique, color is set with heat. With careful supervision, help each child turn the fabric square wax-side down on a newspaper pad. With an iron set at low heat, press the fabric to allow the dye to set and the crayon to melt away into the newspaper. Use fresh newspaper as necessary.

Let children use their finished squares as table mats or bandannas.


Blakey, N. (2002). Go outside! Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.
Henry, Sandi. (2005). Using color in your art: Choosing colors for impact and pizzazz. Nashville, TN: Williamson Books.
Kohl, M. F. (2010). Art with anything. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.
Kohl, M. F. & Potter, J. (1998). Global art. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.
Oldham, T. (2012) All about dye: 10 kid-friendly projects. Pasadena, CA: American Modern Books.
Senisi, E. B. (2001). Berry smudges and leaf prints: Finding and making colors from nature. New York: Dutton.
Starbuck, S., Olthof, M., & Midden, K. (2009). Hollyhocks and honeybees: Garden projects for young children. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.