Creating a successful easel painting experience in preschool

Creating a successful easel painting experience in preschool

Easel painting is an amazing opportunity for children to express their perception, feelings, interests, and creativity through art.

And yet, easel painting is often not offered as an opportunity for many reasons which include, among others, the time and effort it takes to set up and the clean-up afterwards.

Setting up the easel and teaching kids to care for the easel is work for the adults but I think it is an investment that is worthwhile.

These two year olds paint at the easel almost every day. As you can see in the photo above, these children are quite engaged in the process. In order to help children be more successful in the process, they need to have consistent opportunities and the freedom to explore the materials and tools.

Through practice, young children will learn how to manage the paint and they will go through a variety of stages in the process including…

  • Exploring: at this stage they are not really interested in creating as much as they are interested in exploring the materials and tools.
  • Mixing: The children will want to mix the colors in the paint cups and on the paint canvas until it all turns to a muddy brown. Later the mixing may begin to be more purposeful but at first it is just part of their need to explore.
  • Expression: The children will begin to express their feelings and interest through the painting process after they first have been allowed to explore and mix.
  • Creating: The children will begin to paint recognizable or explainable pieces of work. They will be able to share a story about their artwork or tell you what they have created.
  • Purposeful: The children will be purposeful in their use of the easel. They will begin to have a plan for what they want to create but will feel free to adapt their painting to what impresses them at the moment.

There are many ways the teacher can be involved in sparking imagination and helping young children enjoy the easel painting experience. The child above is painting an elephant. The children were reading “Elmer the Elephant” and the teacher invited the children to try and make their own elephants on the easel. Other ways you can encourage positive and creative use of the easel includes…

  • Change up the kinds of tools the children can paint with: use other painting tools such as feathers, sponges, skinny brushes, fat brushes, finger paint, and so on.
  • Change up the texture and type of paint that is used.
  • Change up the kinds of paper the children paint on.
  • Changing the shape of the paper the children paint on.
  • Change up the location of the easel – put it by a window or near another easel.
  • Spark ideas for the children to consider as they paint by: adding music in the back ground; placing a flower on a table nearby; making suggestions based on book read; putting a small picture at the top of the easel or nearby for viewing.
  • Let two children paint together.
  • Position the easels so children can see each other’s work.

AND add colors! I know this makes a mess but this is part of making easel painting fun and inviting – so add color!

As for clean-up, this is one idea that may help. This teacher places the paint in a smaller plastic cup then puts the smaller cup inside the easel cup. When it is time to change out the paint, she simply throws the plastic cup away.

Do you have other helpful tips for easel painting? I’d love to hear them!

See Large Easel Drawing by Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning


  • Rebecca Posted September 30, 2010 8:06 am

    If you put a zip lock baggy in the cup…you can pull it out and save it that way (doesn’t dry up) and helps with clean up!

  • jenny Posted September 30, 2010 8:19 am

    We offer easel painting every day – if the weather is fine we set out some big buckets of soapy water on the grass and the kids love to wash up the paint things, and wash down the easel. They are so into it that they do a better job than we do! And it saves us cleaning up.

  • niki Posted September 30, 2010 9:30 am

    I teach 2’s and the easel is a HUGE hit with almost every child. We cover the floor around the easel with newspaper. This saves the floor AND keeps other children away while the artist is creating. Only the painter can stand on the newspaper. We also put a trash bag over the top of the easel before we hang the paper. This way the easel doesn’t get covered in glops of running paint.

  • Scott Posted September 30, 2010 11:53 am

    I agree with you, Deborah. Consistency is key. We offer easel painting as an option every week, unless we’re painting elsewhere that day. Kids develop different techniques and have opportunities to explore their ideas.

    Thanks so much for your ideas on variations at the easel.

  • Sarah Posted September 30, 2010 10:04 pm

    We do the paint in the ziplock baggies, too. It works great. Anyone know how to get years of dried up paint off the easel? If I could do that, I would cover it in the trash bag, too.

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted September 30, 2010 11:47 pm

    The trash bag is a great idea – I will give that a try!

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted September 30, 2010 11:48 pm

    I love those ideas Jenny!

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted September 30, 2010 11:48 pm

    We tried that today – I love the idea!

  • kristin Posted October 1, 2010 6:43 am

    this is a timely post. just this week i decided to let anyone who wanted to easel paint do so. i think we spent most of our day shuffling paper and water cups (we were using watercolor) but i am sure that if we do this every day, they will be doing it on their own!

    as for the crusted on paint, i kind of like it. : )

    but the baggie idea is fantastic one i’ve never thought of.

    thanks, all.

  • Lisa Phelps Posted October 1, 2010 8:51 am

    Love the reminders and ideas about the joy of painting at the easel – thank you. I noticed is that your students stop to put on smocks before they paint. We do not use smocks at our school because sometimes having to stop and put on a smock interrupts the impulse to create. The easel is available every day and the children use it often. We let parents know that we will be getting paint on our clothes sometimes, so they send the children in clothes that can get dirty! Have you ever tried attaching a paint brush to a construction helmet and painting with your head?

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted October 1, 2010 9:04 am

    LOL – no I haven’t tried painting with heads yet – that is too funny! We do put on smocks and haven’t seen any problem because many of the children wear them for the entire art experience. We actually rotate into an art room and the children put on the aprons and wear them the entire time for all the sensory, paint, water play but they can take them off if they wish.

  • Paula Posted October 5, 2010 11:49 am

    To clean up years of gunk on your easel break out the spray bottles! I often redirect the gun play in the room to the easel. I paint two large circle targets on the easel and then fill spray bottles with water. The children love to watch the colors on the easel bleed and blend while allowing them to get their power play on. :-). Doesn’t take long for all of that paint to come off.

  • emily Posted October 7, 2010 9:14 pm

    Try a magic eraser to get the dried up paint off…..those things work great!

  • karen Posted November 21, 2010 12:47 pm

    I teach PreK. They love to wash out the paint pots and brushes in the sink – and it frees the teachers to help with clean-up elsewhere in the room.

  • Fiona Posted November 21, 2010 7:59 pm

    That’s a super idea with the bag! The toddlers at my nursery haven’t seen the easel in a while so a bag will help as I’m sure they will go painting crazy!

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted November 21, 2010 8:10 pm

    LOL – I hope they have fun!

  • Renelik Posted November 21, 2010 9:43 pm

    Can anyone share with me what’s the difference between painting or drawing on an easel and on a tabletop? Is an easel a necessary tool? My children have been painting and drawing on tabletop but I wonder how an easel might help them.

  • Deborah J. Stewart Posted November 21, 2010 10:35 pm

    Hi Renelik,
    The best way to share with you the difference is to encourage you to experience it for yourself. But I will do my best to explain the differences.

    I think the essential difference between painting or drawing on a table versus an easel is perspective. Many artist paint on easels because they can view the painting straight on which helps to give better judgement in their work.

    Often times, when young children paint on a table top, they are in a sitting position looking down or over their painting. When they wish to paint at the top of a canvas – they must reach over and across the canvas. If they wish to look out the window or around the room – they must lift their heads up and away from their painting to do so.

    We spend most of our time viewing our world by looking at it at straight ahead and at our own eye level. We do not look down at our world but out and across. By placing the paper at the child’s eye level they have a more realistic perspective of the dimensions of what they are creating. In addition, the experience of standing up to paint versus sitting in a chair and leaning over our painting is very different.

    I do a lot of observations and I noticed that when we invite our two year olds to use a paint brush and paint at the table – they lose interest after a few strokes but when we invite them to the easel, they will stay until their entire canvas is covered with paint and we often have to tell them to stop so someone else can have a turn:) Painting at the easel seems, from my observation, to keep the children more engaged.

    Finally, when children are painting at an easel – they are better able to still view their world or even view the paintings (or drawings) of their friends if there is more than one easel standing side by side. In the end, I think both type of painting or drawing experiences have value but the key point to remember is that they are different experiences.


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