Ever since my 13-month old turned one she’s been fascinated with candles, so every week or so we bust out a birthday candle and sing five or six rounds of Happy Birthday to her. One of these candles was lying around and N, my three-year old, decided to draw with it. I immediately saw the opportunity to turn this into a wax-resist watercolor lesson — you know, where you paint with watercolors on top of a waxy drawing in order to reveal the lines of your drawing — and I ran to grab the watercolor paints, brushes, water, and paper towel.

Candle Wax Watercolor ResistBy the time I settled down and got it all set up, N was ready for the paint.

The set up: Watercolor paper, birthday candle, paper towel (for blotting saturated brushes), bowl of water, watercolor paint palette, brush.

Candle Wax Watercolor ResistN has been painting with watercolors for a couple years now, but every time we sit down with them I have to remind her how to clean the brush by making it “dance in the water,” and how to use the paper towel to blot excess water. But of course she never uses the paper towel. In my experience, watercolor paint is not the best painting medium for young children because it doesn’t allow for fluid mark-making as much as other gooey + runny paints like tempera might, but it’s appealing to parents because it’s cheap and far easier to clean up than tempera. So, if you’re inclined to use it, go for it, but don’t expect the paint cakes to hold onto their distinct colors for long!

Candle Wax Watercolor ResistMy one year old couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join in — it’s impossible to distract her away from the art table when we’re working at it, so she got her own paints, etc. Did you catch my rookie move up there? Dont’ worry, I caught it quickly…

Candle Wax Watercolor ResistOrange smock to the rescue! We have all sorts of aprons, but I find that my kids are most comfortable in my old t-shirts. If we’re working with really wet stuff, a waterproof apron is still the best way to go. Little R was interested in holding a brush, but this became a fingerpainting/pick-the-paint-cakes-out-of-the-case project for her.

Candle Wax Watercolor ResistAhhh, a lovely quiet moment of art making. Circling back to the wax resist part of this post, I imagined that N would be enthralled by the magic of it, especially since she initiated the candle drawing in the first place. But she wasn’t all that impressed and turned her watercolor painting efforts toward other things in subsequent paintings. It was still an afternoon full of passion and industry, so no complaints here! And while our final product didn’t turn out so “spectacular,” I urge you to give this project a go if you think your child will enjoy it.

How do you respond to self-initiated art activities?


  1. Oh, see, I didn’t even notice the lack of a smock (nobody ever wears one here). I was more looking at that bowl of water right at the edge of the table! I haven’t tried watercolor cakes with that age–I use liquid watercolors with G (although they do fade). I just got some student-but-good grade watercolors to use with the boys, some pans and some tubes, too. My oldest has been asking for different types of paint.

    And to answer your question–I facilitate them, of course, as much as I’m able!

    • Ha! I’m sure I would have mentioned the water bowl on the edge of the table too if it had fallen over, but I didn’t even notice it. And I agree with you that liquid watercolors are my favorite. And it’s interesting to compare different materials, as I’m sure your son is figuring out with all those wonderful paints!

  2. We just did this recently. I drew some stuff on white paper using a white crayon and then gave my daughter the water colors and let her go at it. She was pleasantly surprised to see a picture showing up and she loved it!

    • That’s awesome, Josie. Maybe next time I’ll do some drawings first, and then she can just focus on the reveal. Great idea.

  3. My two – a little older than yours – made Valentine’s Day secret messages for each other using this technique. It was so sweet seeing their little hearts, kisses and the odd letter or two being revealed as they water-coloured over the wax.

    Lovely idea x

    • Julia, yours is a lovely idea, too. Looking forward to suggesting this as my children get older.

  4. This is fun. I observed a huge difference between Crayola watercolors and cheap watercolors in picture quality while doing watercolor painting. Using watercolor paper helps too. I just wish my daughter did more self-initiated art – she was never the one to draw or paint a lot – she is quite a left-brainer interested primarily in math, logic and words.

    • Isn’t it tricky when our children’s interests don’t parallel all of our own? Early on I thought my older daughter had little interest in art, but to my delight her interest has grown as she’s gotten older. And I’ve noticed the same thing with paint (and crayons/colored pencils/etc.)….some are superior to others. The baby was painting with a Crayola set and N was using one from Melissa and Doug.

  5. We love this activity in our classroom as well. We usually put it out at the literacy area and encourage the children to write secret messages to one another! Thanks for the reminder!

    • That’s clever, Deanna. How lucky are your students?! I would have loved being in your class.

  6. This sounds fun and i can ask the kids to help me with the candles. Thank you for sharing this. I’m doing this on weekend.

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