Painting with Mud
Art-making, sensory play, and nature exploration all in one!
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Living in Northern California after 10 years on the east coast, I’ve come to look forward to a rainy day the way I used to look forward to snow. When I was a kid, I was never one to venture out and splash in puddles. A rainy day usually meant boredom. Now, I keep looking for an excuse to throw on the rain gear with the boys and get our hands on some mud.
A few days ago it finally happened. The early January forecast called for rain! And 5-year-old JJ decided he wanted to stay inside. Rather than give in, I decided to showcase how fun it can be to explore creativity outdoors, focusing on good old mud as our artistic medium for the day.
As it turned out, we got a few sprinkles rather than the downpour I had imagined, but we made our own mud and had a wonderful morning. After all, painting with mud is a great time in any weather.
Our mud paint recipe
The idea of painting with mud captured the boys’ attention immediately. Though I didn’t have a set “recipe” for mud paint, I had a general idea, so I brought out some basic materials and supplies and let the boys help me create our mud paints:
What you’ll need:
- MUD!: The downpour in the forecast never materialized, and the sprinkles we enjoyed weren’t quite enough for a good mud puddle. One of our garden beds has transitioned into a play-with-dirt bed over the past few months, so we scooped out some soil from there and added water instead.
- Pigment: We used food coloring. Recommended alternatives are powdered tempera and liquid watercolor paint.
- Water: Have extra nearby for when you need to play with the consistency of your mud paints.
- Watercolor Paper or Heavy Cardstock: You’ll want to use thick paper given how wet and heavy your paint mixture will be.
- Brushes: We used our large Crayola brushes and foam brushes. Keep it simple when working with mud. Finger painting is also encouraged!
- Containers: I have an ever-growing stock of yogurt and hummus containers that came in handy. Any jar or bowl will do!
- Dish Soap: Dish soap can be used to increase the flow of your paint mixture. In the case of acrylic paints, the idea is to just add a drop to a cup of water which is used to mix paints on a palette. Our mud paint ended up with much more because I was mixing paint with a 3 year old and a 5 year old.
- Eggs: Eggs work as a binding agent and can transform your mud paint into longer lasting egg tempera just like Botticelli. We kept it simple for our paints, but I do hope to try making egg tempera with natural pigments sometime in the near future. Tinkerlab has a good post on this if you’re interested.
- Spray Sealant: Mud dries and flakes off your paper as dirt, so the appearance of your final painting will change over time. You can use a sealant spray to help preserve your work.
How to Make Your Mud Paint
- Prep your area by taping your paper onto heavy cardboard or other surface.
- Add water to your dirt or soil as necessary to make mud. Stir. The most ideal consistency is a smooth texture. Break down clumps or pick out pieces of wood, etc. as needed. Look out for worms! Keep some water on the side in case you need to change the consistency of your mud paint as you go.
- Add in your colors. We squeezed out roughly 10 drops of each color, and then tested it before deciding whether or not to add more. The more coloring you use, the brighter your colors will be.
- Optional: Stir in a drop or two of dish soap to increase the flow of your paints.
- Use your brushes (or fingers) to paint!
Soils have their own eagerness to change texture and transform into the shape of what they want to be ...nature is the best teacher.” - Yusuke Asai
Painting with mud as art and sensory play
While it’s tempting to make the paints ahead of time and bring them out finished and ready to use, I thought it was as much fun to make the paints with the boys as it was to use them. Our paints may not have had an ideal water to mud ratio AND probably needed to be mixed and ground more AND don’t even get me started on their fun with dish soap. But all of that aside, I think it was empowering for them to experiment and for us to learn something new together.
After we made our first few paintings, the boys wanted to keep making more paint mixtures on their own. They had a great time exploring color and texture, and were proud of the earthy greens, oranges, and purples they created. I know they’ll be watching their works dry to inspect how they change over time with genuine curiosity. Three year old Bug is already asking to make more!
From my perspective, their enthusiasm for experimenting was far more valuable in the end than making perfect paints.
More ways to play with mud
With a goal of just wanting the boys to spend some time having fun outside in the rain for a few hours, I decided to set up a couple of stations to keep them from running right back inside if they weren’t engaged with the paints. They both rotated through them at their own pace, and I ended up being the one that had to convince them to go back inside! Here’s what we did:
Nature walk for Mud Pie Adornments: I start almost every one of our outdoor activities with a nature walk. Sometimes the walk even becomes the activity itself! Making mud pies sounded like fun, so we started the morning with a short walk around the neighborhood, looking for interesting flower petals, seeds, and leaves for our mud pies. Based on the forecast, I dressed the boys in full rain gear…a bit much for the sprinkles we actually experienced, but they were ready for a full on downpour just in case!
Making Mud: Back at home the fun started before the actual projects began. Because the rain wasn’t what we expected, the boys had fun making mud that we needed for the rest of our day.
Mud Pies: Who doesn’t love making mud pies? It really doesn’t get much simpler than this. JJ has been having fun with patterns lately, so this was right up his alley. Bug’s shapes are starting to actually look like shapes, so he was proud of his circles.
Mud Play Station: Last but not least, I threw some extra containers, plastic trowels, and construction trucks into the garden bed that the boys took over a few months ago. The bed gets more shade than the others and we were having a heck of a time getting anything to grow, so we didn’t put up much of a fight when it became Bug’s newest version of a sandbox. The kid loves sensory play, and it makes a versatile and easy new play space.
Storytime with a muddy buddy
Like our nature walks, we rarely have an adventure without a fun story to go along with it. If your children enjoy being creative with mud, they’ll love “I’m a Dirty Dinosuar,” which Ann James illustrated using mud as a medium.
Lucky for us, she was having fun with her attempts to illustrate with mud and decided to document her process. I love how she interacts directly with the mud around her while working. This would be a great book to read before our after a day of mud painting!