Intimately Connecting with Paint Tools

by Michelle Ramirez

“In our work with these materials, we strive to honor the ways in which children live in their bodies, growing relationships with materials through their physical encounters with them.”

~Ann Pelo

“Would you like to come to the art studio to meet our new paint brushes?”

I asked this question as I buzzed about an already living, breathing life of a classroom during our second week back to school. Some children excitedly expressed, “Yes” or “I want to!”, while others looked with an expression as to say, “What do you mean?”

In my hand I held a container of new brushes that were as white as fresh snow. I wondered how they would hold up to also meeting the children for the first time. I reminded myself of the journey children had already been on the previous year when they were introduced to paint basics on the Yellow Side. These children who have been with us might greet these brushes like an old friend, while children joining us for the first time might be weary of having a ‘relationship’ with an inanimate object.

I wondered…

“How might children engage in scaffolding their own knowledge about paint and brushes to other children?”

Knowing the richness of stepping back as a ‘teacher’, I guided the children into our newly formed, shared art studio and continued to wonder what would shape our experience as I prepared for what I hoped would be a child-led exploration.


James took a few minutes to observe the details of the flat brush. He felt the soft bristles as he gently stroked it between his fingers.

After the children were settled with their chosen brushes, I made space for children’s voices and ideas by encouraging them to share their preexisting knowledge about paintbrushes with the group.

“You can’t push hard on them”-Alanah

“You use them for painting things”-Arjun

“You need to wash them with water”-Olive

I soon realized that the connections that the children had with these art tools revolved around limits and agreements about the use of the brushes. While all these tips the children provided about the brushes are crucial for the longevity of their life at our school, I found myself wondering again…“ What about the relationship they carry within their creative abilities with the brushes?” Why was the care of the brushes at the forefront of their responses rather than what they could do with them?

Another realization surfaced about how the delivery of information we as adults share from our own agendas shapes the impressions and connections that children have about their experiences.

Olive chose the thin round brush, while Alanah chose the medium-sized flat brush. “This brush is kinda pointy” -Olive



Investigating the impact of hand strength on the bristles…

What happens when you brush gently?

What happens when you use more pressure?


In the images above, children use the brushes on delicate areas of their bodies, before exploring with paint.


Arjun selected a flat brush. James became curious about the name of this brush. As I held it up, I showed him that the ferrule of the brush is flat, so the bristles held within are arranged in a flat line.

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Camden and I did a side-by-side comparison of different sized angled brushes. As we all looked at these brushes, we talked about how they are like a mountain; they have a high point and a low point much like the angles that can be seen on a mountainside.


Max felt the bristles of the flat brush on his chin and neck . 


Before using actual paint, we held imaginary jars of paint to practice “kissing” the bristles to the top of the paint. The purpose of this was to learn how they can have more control of where their paint goes by not having it drip down off of the ferrule or handle.

Children are encouraged to take ownership of the entire process of the painting experience. The process of setting up and cleaning up is modeled in a way that allows children to become comfortable and competent with setting up their own palettes and washing stations. Children are also encouraged to prepare the work space for the children that may enter the studio after them. 


Molly looks on as Aiko studies the creation she has made using a variety of thin and thick brushes.

Dry bristles on the fan brush versus wet bristles on the fan brush 

Farrah explores with the fan brush…

“It’s like a fan and it’s kind of spiky when I put water on it.”

When do you need to wash your brush?
When you are finished painting or want to change paint colors.

How to wash a paint brush

  • Set-up a jar filled halfway with water. Place a dry towel next to the jar.
  • Gently swish your brush around in the water without pushing the bristles down on the bottom of the jar. Swish at least three times.
  • Wipe the bristles on the lip of the jar.
  • Wipe the bristles on the towel. If the bristles are still dirty, you will probably see paint on the towel. You can do Steps 2, 3, and 4 again until your bristles wipe only water onto the towel.

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