Painting with Water

    October, 2015

    Kids, did you know that October 19-24 is National Chemistry Week? This year's theme is "Chemistry Colors our World" and here is one of their activities. Read to the bottom for a bonus activity for Halloween!

    Some artists use the absorbent property of canvas to create interesting shapes and patterns. In this activity, painting with water over marker designs on coffee filters will produce different shapes and artistic butterflies. You'll need:

    • Paper butterfly2 circular white coffee filters
    • 1 pipe cleaner
    • Water-based markers
    • Scrap paper (not newspaper)
    • Paintbrush
    • Paper towel
    • Cup of rinse water


    1. Place the coffee filters on top of a piece of scrap paper.
    2. Use several different color markers to create a design on each coffee filter.
    3. Place both coffee filters on another piece of scrap paper.
    4. Dip the paintbrush in the water and paint over the designs with the wet brush. Rinse the brush in the water several times while you are painting with the water. Watch how the designs change.
    5. Fold the pipe cleaner in half. Hold the pipe cleaner about 2 cm from the fold and twist two times. This will leave a small loop.
    6. Scrunch one of the coffee filters along an imaginary line down the middle of the filter to produce one set of the butterfly’s wings.
    7. Place this filter inside the open ends of the pipe cleaner, centering it close to the twisted end.
    8. Repeat Step 6 with the other coffee filter. This is the second set of the butterfly’s wings. Place it above the first filter, inside the open ends of the pipe cleaner.
    9. Twist the two pieces of the pipe cleaner together about 4 cm from the open end of the pipe cleaner. This will hold the two filters in place.
    10. Turn down the ends of the pipe cleaner to look like antennas.

    The filter is made of a special type of paper that absorbs water easily. Paper towels are made of a similar type of paper. The colors in the markers dissolve, or are soluble in, water. When the water is painted onto the coffee filter, the colors dissolve in the water. As the paper filter absorbs the water, the dissolved colors move with the water and create the resulting color patterns.


    BONUS: Gather a few empty toilet paper rolls. Have an adult partner carefully cut two slits into each roll to look like eyes when the roll is held horizontally. Vary the size and shape of the eyes; scary, spooky eyes are best for Halloween. Wait for nighttime. Activate and place a small differently-colored nightstick into each roll. Place the rolls around your yard and have your friends walk by. Boo!

    Editor, Dr. Kathleen Carrado Gregar, Argonne National Laboratory