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Pan versus liquid watercolors for kids!

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Pan watercolors on the left, liqud on the right

Have you ever wondered what the difference between liquid and pan watercolors is? I discovered liquid watercolors a while back and now I use them all the time with my kids. Before that we always used the pan watercolors. Lately we've been going back and forth between pan watercolors and liquid watercolors. They are both great for different reasons! Watercolors are my favorite material for process based art!

Liquid watercolors come in containers and you pour out a little at a time. The colors are very bright and concentrated, so you add water to them. You will also need something to put them in. I find that an ice cube tray works great. You can add more or less water in different holes of the ice cube tray to create lighter or darker values of each color. Just like pan watercolors, you can apply them using a paint brush, or my favorite way to apply them is using q-tips. They need to be the wood stick q-tips otherwise they will get wet and go all floppy on you. Put a different q-tip in each color and kids can get right to painting! They can create a variety of lines and dots with the q-tips and they don't need to worry about mixing colors! Liquid watercolors are best when you are working with a group of kids or kids who have no experience painting. What I love about them is I can just set it up and kids can figure out what to do with them on their own!

My son using pan watercolors. Make sure to refresh water often!

Pan watercolors are great as well, but better for kids over the age of three. Pan watercolors take a bit more self control and you have to teach kids how to use them. The younger crowd will enjoy sticking their brush in every single color until their entire pan is a mess. This is inevitable and part of the process. When this happens I take the whole pan and run it under sink water to clean it out. The first time you let your kids use pan watercolors show them how to take a clean wet brush and lightly rub it on the color. Little kids or kids with no experience will jab their brush into the color and force out gooey chunks of it. Remind them to dip their brush in clean water first, then just tickle the top of the color. You will need to refresh their water for them when it gets too dirty.

After taking a bit of a hiatus from pan watercolors, I brought them out the other day. My 2.5 year old son amazed me by keeping them clean and washing his brush between dips for a full ten minutes. My 4 year old daughter has a lot of patience and does a good job of keeping her pan colors clean. I've seen teenagers who immediately contaminate all their paint colors, so it's something we need to teach our kids. My son is proof that they are capable of learning this at a very young age! What I love about pan colors is it is such a simple set up. I keep a couple in our art corner, so all I have to do is give the kids a glass of water, a paper towel, some paper and they can get right to work.

waxed paper on the floor helps keep your home clean!

What kind of paper should you use? The best paper for watercolors is watercolor paper, but it is expensive, so I supplement it with plain old white copy paper. Watercolor paper is thicker than regular paper and has a bit of texture. There are a ton of different types of watercolor paper, from blocks to pads to single sheets. Blocks are sealed around the edges so when you paint on them they don't get warped, these are usually the most expensive. Pads come in varying weights, the heavier the paper the more expensive. For my kids I purchase an inexpensive pad, and I cut the paper down in size to make it last longer.

You will want to do watercolors on a flat surface so that they don't drip. If you are at home the floor works great. When we do watercolors at home I tape a sheet of waxed paper onto the floor, then I tape the watercolor paper onto the waxed paper. This keeps my floor clean and gives the kids a clear space to work within. Blue masking tape around the edges of watercolor paper creates a nice crisp white frame after you peel it off and helps keep it from warping. After my kids use one or two sheets of watercolor paper we move to copy paper. I keep a stash of copy paper in our art corner, so they can use as much as they want.

To me watercolors are the best paints for process based art. Recently I used liquid watercolors at a parenting class that I take my son to. Below you'll see some of the beautiful creations the kids did. I brought along some clothes pins and they clipped them up to the fence after. This project was quick to set up, easy to clean up and the moms and kids loved it! Afterwards I read them Art, by Patrick McDonnell and it tied it all together. If you haven't read this book, I highly suggest adding it to your library! Its simple but creative illustrations and story line will get your kids excited about creating art!

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