Finger Painting

While there is not necessarily any right or wrong way to do finger painting it is often misunderstood by adults. They have a mental picture of a child trying to paint with a finger dipped in a pot of paint. It is much more fun and very much more effective than that. A generous quantity of well-mixed paint the consistency of coating sauce is placed on a non-porous surface and spread out with the hands. Fingers are used to make designs, patterns or, more rarely, pictures in this so that effectively the paint is the background and the part where the paint has been removed is the ‘picture’.

Obviously a formica-covered table would be ideal but a plastic covering on an ordinary table, an old large plain tray or an enamel tray will do just as well. The surfaces to avoid are those which are porous and so take moisture out of the paint and become stained at the same time.

Ready-mixed finger paint is very expensive and often less pleasant to use than home-made versions. Ordinary powder paint can be mixed with cold-water paste or Polycell j some people use a cold-water or boiled starch, or even a cooked sauce of flour or cornflour and water would do. There are other recipes involving soap flakes and gum arabic which would perhaps keep longer but since finger painting usually stops only when the paint runs out this is unnecessarily extravagant. The other way is to provide one large bowl of uncoloured paste and three or four pots of dry powder paint, again each having their own spoon. Whichever method is used it is usually wise for an adult to do the serving as once children who have started to handle paint try to help themselves to more the spoons and bowls become progressively messier. Three or four colours are more than adequate as a good deal of mixing goes on during the painting and this is one of the things children are bound to notice. Colours should be chosen with care. Red, for instance, very quickly turns everything an indiscriminate brown. White is an exciting colour to have with just one other colour.

Children’s first reactions vary. The less enthusiastic ones can sometimes be encouraged by suggesting they try using just one finger-nail. Those who happily use both hands produce the most attractive symmetrical designs. All four fingers will produce swirls, the designs made by little fingers are quite different from those made by forefingers or thumbs. Those individuals who flatly refuse to put their hands anywhere near it can sometimes be encouraged to make themselves a stiff cardboard comb to use as a pattern-maker. Older children may gradually spread their paint until they are working together in pairs or as a group. The hesitation some children show about committing themselves to paint and paper, perhaps realizing that once they have put paint on paper it cannot be taken off, does not exist here. The attraction is in the doing and the appearance of the design has little to do with artistic competence. Many children find finger painting soothing and will stay at it for a long time.

There are differences of opinion as to whether or not prints should be taken. As with other creative activities the pleasure is usually in the doing. There does however come a point, normally with older children, where they do seem to want a ‘proper’ picture of what they did. Apart from this, taking prints by laying a sheet of paper over the painted surface and pressing gently to transfer the picture is a very common, simple technique and is worth showing them for this reason. Many of the children will notice that they get a mirror image, they see that succeeding prints vary, they find out that the amount of pressure applied to the paper makes a difference to what happens, and these are all valuable learning situations.

It would be a pity to miss this opportunity to extend the children’s experience.

The adults’ part in this activity is obviously to provide the materials but their first and most important job is to control the situation, especially if the children are very young and inexperienced. A further supply of water for sluicing most of the paint off hands before proper washing is also useful. The other point to watch is that supervision should be constant. It takes at least one and a half adults to watch four children at a time in a finger-painting session. The other is usually a helper who can keep an eye on the children going to wash their hands properly while she is also supervising something else which is not quite so potentially messy. As children become more used to this activity, as with every other type of play, they learn to manage for themselves. If each kind of painting is provided fairly regularly there is not the same mad rush to ‘have my go right now’ that there is with a twice-a-term-only frequency and this too makes for cleaner management.