I remember this vase in my grandmother’s house. It sat in the glow cast by the light on her bedside table. I marveled at the swirled colors, trying to imagine how they might have been created. The story of the vase, as I recall, goes back nearly six decades to my father’s childhood. For some special event or occasion, a man had set up a vat of swirling paint colors. For a few coins, one could purchase an unglazed vase or pot. A finger slipped in the opening allowed my father to dip the vase and pull out this uniquely painted gift for my grandmother.
Eventually the vase, and the story, became my own. The colors have been somewhat dulled by time, but the inspiration remains the same. Recently as I was pondering ideas for a craft to do with children at my family reunion, I thought of this vase and did a little research into the technique. Here’s my version, which works well on small canvases or unfinished wood.
Newspapers or dropcloth, and rags for protection and cleanup
Watertight container that is at least as wide and deep as the objects you’d like to paint (like an old bucket or a plastic storage box)
Toothpicks, small paintbrushes, and popsicle sticks for dripping and swirling paint
Assortment of enamel paints (like the readily available Testor’s brand, found at most craft stores)
Enamel paint thinner
Small stretched canvases, and/or sanded wood objects for painting
First, some tips
This project is perfect for outdoors in the summer weather, as the materials can be messy, and enamel paints should be used in a ventilated area. Be sure that your children are dressed in painting clothes because enamels are permanent.
If you have an opportunity, I’d recommend practicing the technique first on your own so you are comfortable with the process. It can be a little temperamental, but when it works, the results are beautiful!
If you have trouble with clumping or sticking of the paint when you are swirling it (even though you are working quickly), try adding enamel thinner to the paints. This extends the amount of time before the paint dries. Also check that the temperature of the water isn’t too disparate from the temperature of your paints.
Protect your work space with newspapers or a drop cloth.
Place a container filled with room temperature (or warmer) water where it can be reached by everyone.
Begin by selecting a few colors you want to work with. Dip a toothpick or a small paintbrush into the enamel paint and hold it over the surface of the water, allowing drops to fall. The placement, size, and amount of each color of paint will ultimately affect the outcome, and this is part of the learning process! Work quickly to prevent paint from drying on the surface of the water.
photo by Bonnie Beal
Once you’re happy with the paint on the surface, use a paintbrush, a clean toothpick, or even a string to drag across the paint. The paint will swirl and marble across the surface of the water, creating beautiful and unique designs.
With a toothpick, create a break along the side of the surface paint large enough to slip a canvas or other object in without touching the paint. This way you can dip the canvas in the water and move it slightly forward, allowing the paint to adhere as you remove it from the water. Otherwise, you’ll find that you are painting the canvas on the way in, and overpainting on the way back out. This will all become clear after a practice run.
As you pull the canvas from the water, the paint will adhere like magic. Set the artwork aside to dry.
Depending on the size of the piece, you may have enough paint left over on the surface of the water to paint something else. Otherwise, use newspaper or rags to skim the rest of the paint off the water so you have a clean surface for the next round. Experiment with different colors and swirling techniques. I hope you marvel in both the process and the results!
Bernadette Emerson is Co-Editor & Publisher of Rhythm of the Home magazine. She lives with her husband and two young children in the midwest. When she’s not working on ROTH, she enjoys singing in a band, playing music, drinking coffee, getting lost in books, shooting photos for PLY Magazine, and following her artistic whims and creative fancies. You can find her on twitter.