Finger Painting With a Purpose

With finger painting lessons and activities students can see their hands and fingers as tools for creativity.

By Alison Panik


Finger Painting Lessons

A blank sheet of slick paper. A spoonful of yellow finger paint. Can you feel the excitement? If you haven’t finger painted since you were a child, it’s time to get your hands in the paint to remind you of the joy of an unplanned art experience. One of the pleasures of finger painting is the singular process of exploring and feeling the paint. Students can feel the surprise of seeing what images suddenly turn up (“Hey! I see a face there!”), and the magic of mixing colors. Not to mention the ooey-gooey feeling that most kids love! And don’t for a second believe that finger painting is only for preschool and kindergarten children. Older children can get just as much (if not more) pleasure and emotional satisfaction from this art form.

There are many benefits to finger painting. Messy play stimulates the senses. Finger painting strengthens hand and finger muscles and contributes to fine motor skill development. Finger painting is a medium of self-expression that is open and free. Ruth Faison Shaw, the “first lady of finger painting” rediscovered the art of finger painting in the 1930s and developed paints and techniques for its use with children. Shaw said, “For finger painting aids the imagination and gives a delight in creating things subconsciously,  things that one may not even have seen or dreamed of before.”

But finger painting provides more than just an opportunity for growth and expression. It’s also fun!  Encourage students to use more than just fingers when finger painting. The side of the hand, full palm. even the forearm can be painted and applied to a surface. To manage this obviously messy art form, have plenty of wet and dry cloths on hand. Cover the table surface with a plastic cloth that can be wiped down or hosed off. Be sure children are wearing a smock or a shirt that can be removed after the art experience. Have an area set aside for drying artwork and plenty of paper for children to use to create more than one finger painting. The art lesson plans below provide a variety of purposeful finger painting activities.

Finger Painting Lessons and Activities:

Rainbow Finger Paints

Finger painting isn’t just for the primary grades. Students in third through fifth grades gain a deeper appreciation for the nuances of color mixing as they create using their fingers as their painting tools. I would add to this lesson an introduction to the work of finger paint artist Mary Ann Brandt to give students exciting paintings to aspire toward. Demonstrate how to use tools like craft sticks and fingernails to carve away trees and other natural objects from the painted surface. Brandt’s "Ladies of the Corps tree line is a piece I would share with students.

Finger Painting and Feather Painting with Nature

In these lessons preschool children use the sense of touch to explore paint while using their imaginations to recreate objects they have seen in nature. This set of lessons includes excellent book references which should be gathered prior to the lesson and shared before and after the art experiences. Plan time to go outdoors to look at the clouds prior to creating cloud prints. Ask parents to donate old hand towels and dish cloths to make clean up easy and green.

Finger Fun

This kindergarten lesson invites children to see their hands and fingers as printmaking tools. I would also demonstrate how to add shading to painted figures using fingertip dots on one side of the object in a darker shade and to the other in a lighter shade. Students might also enjoy exploring the effect of combining fingertip dots of two colors in one area. They can look at the dots close up to see their individual colors, and then step back to see how those two colors combine to form a new color when viewed from a distance.

Sea Inventory

Hands and fingers will be very busy with this lesson! Kindergarten students use their coloring muscles to draw and color a beach mural. Then they use their finger painting skills to paint a frothy white ocean. Next they use their hands in plastic baggies to spread glue over the beach area, and use their hands to sprinkle sand over the glue. Finally, they use their fingers to count shells and other objects in the murals. Their little hands will need a vacation at the beach after this lesson!

Brilliant Peacock Plumage

Pique curiosity in students of all ages with an investigation into peacocks! You can make connections to classroom studies of birds, take a class field trip to a zoo or farm where children cam see real peacocks, or partner with a teacher to piggyback a creative writing lesson with this art experience in which children use different parts of their hands to create colorful peacocks. Teachers demonstrate how to use each part of the hand following the steps described in this lesson.

Elementary Art Guide

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Alison Panik