Little Squirrels: painting with nature

A set of six paints in natural tones with brushes made from twigs, leaves, and feathers. Text reads: Painting with Nature
In today’s guide we’re going to offer up some suggestions of how to mix up your own paints from the kitchen and garden, and experiment with homemade brushes.

We really like this activity because:


  • It’s very flexible, with loads of room for experimentation;
  • It provides lots of opportunities to practice using descriptive language;
  • It’s a good opportunity to find out more about how artists throughout history have used natural resources. 
  • Everything can go on the compost heap, in the food waste bin, or back in the garden at the end. 

Kids really love it because:


  • It starts with a scavenger hunt around your park or garden;
  • It’s nice and messy, with plenty of mixing, squishing, squashing, and finger-painting. 
A child's hand holding a bunch of flowers and leaves

A note on safety: as always, take care if collecting things outside to wash your hands well when you get home. Remind little ones taking part that the paints – although made with some foods – aren’t for tasting. 

A note on using food for crafts: We explored this a bit last week when we were making sensory playdough, and explained that we try to avoid crafts and play activities that use otherwise edible food. With the exception of the two suggested spices, this activity can be done with scraps, dregs, and food otherwise destined for the compost bin – you shouldn’t need to buy in any new food or use things that could otherwise have been made into dinner. You may find it useful to freeze scraps, skins, and peelings in sandwich bags or tubs to save up enough to make paint or you could ask other people to save you things like onion skins. And remember, if you’re only making a few different colours then you only need to make a little bit of each. 

A row of paintbrushes made from sticks and bundles of flowers, feathers, leaves, and grasses
First, make your paintbrushes. 

Take a bag and go collecting in your garden or local park.


You’re looking for some thin, stiff, straigh-tish sticks to make the paintbrush handles, and a range of items to make different kinds of bristles… feathers, leaves, flowers, twigs, grasses, herbs – if you can tie it onto the end of a stick then give it a go! You might also find some things you could use to make paints – particularly blackberries! 


When you get home, work together to create the paintbrushes.

Gather the materials you’ve collected together into small bundles and tie them tightly with string to one end of the stick. You can aim for paintbrushes that make specific effects – soft and smooth, scratchy and spiky – or just experiment and see what happens! 


Once your brushes are ready you can use them with any paint you already have, or you can try making your own paints. 

Swatches of six natural paints beside a jar of green powdered nettle
These colours were made with mixed berries, clay soil, nettle powder, loamy soil, tumeric and paprika
Finding colours for your paints

Soil for browns, greys and blacks. Yep, it’s time to make some mud! Put a scoop of soil into a box or tub and add water, a little at a time, until you get a smooth muddy mixture. You can try collecting soil from different spots to see if they offer different colours – a clay soil will be more reddish for example – and you can decide whether you want to strain out any bits or leave your mud paint textured.

Alternatively, if you are planning ahead a little, rub some soil through a riddle/ soil sieve and spread a tray of it out in the sun to dry for a smoother paint. 


Turmeric for a beautiful bright golden yellow – a little goes a long way! Mix it with water, or a splash of milk or yoghurt. 


Beetroot for a bright, soft pink. You can either save water used to boil beets, simmering it to reduce and concentrate it, or simmer beetroot peelings and off-cuts for around 45 minutes, straining out the bits before painting. You can also use beetroot juice if you have any of that sloshing about. 


Onion skins for an orangey-brown. Save up your onion skins until you have a nice handful. Put them in a pan and just cover with water, and simmer for around an hour, then allow to cool and strain out the skins. 


Strawberries, cherries, or raspberries for a reddish pink. Use fruit that’s too squishy to eat, or things the slugs have nibbled in the garden. You’ll get slightly more juice out if you give the fruit a quick blast in the microwave, then mash it well with a fork before squeezing it through a muslin or rubbing it through a sieve. 


Blackberries or blueberries for a blueish purple, using the same method as the strawberries. 


Coffee for a rich brown. The dregs of a strong cup of coffee – instant is fine – will work great. You could also re-steep used grounds and strain. 


Woodash from a campfire or woodburner makes a soft grey. 


Paprika makes an orangey-red. Mix it up just like the turmeric. 


Spinach or dandelion leaves for a yellowish-green. Green is the hardest colour to make! You could experiment with lots of different leaves from the garden to see what works best, but if you find you’ve got some soggy dregs of a bag of spinach or salad greens then that will work great. Simmer them for half an hour then leave to cool, preferably overnight. 

A few tips…
  • If you’d like to thicken your paint you can add a very little cornflour, icing sugar, or yoghurt.
  • The paper or card you’re painting onto can make a surprising difference to how the colour of your paint appears so experiment with different kinds and see what happens.
  • Adding a little vinegar can also sometimes change the colours in surprising ways.
  • If your colour isn’t very bright, let it dry and add more layers.
  • Some colours will fade or change as they dry – try taking a picture before and after drying to compare.
Get painting! 


Once your paints are all mixed and ready then it’s time to see how they look and feel to use. 


Use your nature brushes to explore the textures created by the different natural bristles you chose. 


Add one of your paints to a spray bottle to create some wonderful effects – try placing your hand, a leaf, or an object onto the paper then spraying to create a negative shape. 


Brush your paints onto leaves to make prints – brushing them onto the more textured side will give a stronger effect. 


Use some charcoal or chalk to add details and textures to your paintings. 

A top-down view of a child painting with natural paints
A painting of animals and hands made with mud, clay and white paint on brown paper.

We’d love to know if you decide to give this activity a try – comment below or tag us on social @bemoresquirrel. If you’d like to receive all our summer resources in your inbox each week then you can sign up here. 

Would you like us to come and run an eco make and do activity with your group? Alternatively we can provide your team with training – online or in person – to run your own activities. Get in touch using the form below. 

Tell us a bit about who you work with, what kind of activities you're looking for, and what format would work best for you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *