I love it when process art gets all mixed up with science. Water and oil droplet painting does just that. It’s all about the process, but it also teaches physical science to preschoolers. It’s a matter and mixtures activity (yeah, that’s chemistry) that combined with some watercolors makes a beautiful piece of frame-worthy art.
Or is it science? Frame-worthy science?
This activity came about on one of those days where it seemed like we had exhausted all our usual go-to activities. It was the middle of summer. The middle of summer when you love having your kids home but also wish they were at school because suddenly you’re remembering what it feels like to have all five of them around you all. The. Time.
The kids were bored with playing outside. They were bored playing inside. They were bored with Legos and Snap Circuits. They were bored with the doll house and the Rody Pony. They were…well…bored.
And you know what boredom leads to.
Trouble. And whining. And hounding. And Mom racking her brain for something quick and easy to throw together to get her little critters from clinging to her legs all day long. Because with five kids sometimes I’d really rather not be touched. At. All.
You know the feeling.
It was one of those days…and thank goodness for that! Because had it not been one of those days, I would not have thought up this beautiful process art activity that is a science activity in disguise.
Who knew a matter and mixtures activity would turn into such lovely thank-you cards?
Oil and Water Droplet Painting Process Art
Oil and water droplet painting is the result of mixing cooking oil and colored water to create a beautiful, spotty, slightly marbleized effect. You can find such paper at a craft or stationary store, or you can invite your kids to help you make some of your own, which is tons more fun and tons more frugal.
And it’s a boredom buster.
The process is very simple, as process art should be. So simple, in fact, that even young toddlers can give it a try and still produce a colorful and beautiful piece of artwork. Yes, even older elementary school kids love it.
- shallow baking dish
- cooking oil
- liquid watercolor (or water dyed with food coloring)
- heavy paper (sketch paper will do, but watercolor paper is even better)
- drying rack (ha, or a cookie rack will work)
- eye droppers or pipettes (Pipettes will give you smaller spots of oil).
Place a small amount of liquid watercolor in the bottom of a shallow, rectangular baking dish. Pour a bit of oil into a smaller bowl, maybe a quarter a cup is all.
Have your cookie rack set out and ready to collect the papers as they are made.
How to Make Oil and Water Droplet Paintings
Invite your children to use a pipette to make droplets of oil in the liquid watercolor. The first time we did this activity, I did this step myself, instead of asking one of my kids, because I found that William and Corinne were too heavy handed with the eye dropper and thus we ended up with a thick layer of oil on the water. If that happens, then the paper will pick up only oil and no watercolor.
But they are older now, and less heavy-handed, so this really is an excellent activity to strengthen dexterity as they must focus on their hand control. And using pipettes over eye droppers allows them to make smaller drops.
You can choose to slightly mix the oil and water for a more marbleized effect, but we preferred to leave the oil in droplets on the water. Lay a sheet of heavy sketching or watercolor paper on top of the water and oil, then pull it out and place it on a drying rack or large baking sheet to dry.
And admire the beautiful works of art!
To bring about even more vivid colors, you can invite your preschooler to use the eye droppers to drop even more liquid watercolor on the paper after you have removed it from the pan. My son noticed it first and said, “Wait, what? Why won’t it go there?” (referring to the droplets of oil on the paper).
A Matter and Mixtures Activity for Preschoolers
Use this as an opportunity to delve into the process of science and art.
Enter matter and mixtures.
Here are the facts about why the oil resists the liquid watercolor.
- Oil is less dense than water. That means that the molecules that make up water are packed more tightly than those in the same amount of oil, so water will always sink below the oil.
- Oil and water don’t mix because water likes itself more than oil. Oil is non-polar, which means it’s “afraid of water” so it doesn’t like to mix and water molecules are more attracted to other water molecules than oil molecules because they are polar. So, oil only likes non-polar molecules and water only like polar molecules. (Oil and water are snobs like that).
- Detergents like both water and oil, which is why they are so great at cleaning! When there are oil spills in the ocean detergents are used to wash the oil from sea birds who have swam in the oil, saving their lives.
Process Art Meets Chemistry
It’s all just a little chemistry, and what a smart way to sneak science into your preschool classroom. Or your kids’ summer vacation.
After the pieces dried, I ironed the paper between two pieces of brown paper bag to lift off the extra oil.
Finally, display or use.
My kids made birthday and thank you cards out of them, but I also thought that a series of them framed would look really great hanging in their bedrooms!