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This was my second 1-hour painting activity at a senior care facility.

Last time we used medium-sized brushes and acrylic paint to color pre-prepped tulip drawings on canvases, so this time I wanted to try something more free, with bigger brushes. I wanted to encourage the painters to really go wild with their brush strokes so I modified a project I’d found that uses adhesive vinyl letters to spell words, which you paint over, then peel off, so that the letter remains white.

Supplies: (Cost for 12-16 participants was ~$25, but I already had paint and boards)

  • 1 50-sheet pad of 11×14″ acrylic paper (doesn’t warp or wrinkle when you paint on it.)
  • 3 packs of cheap adhesive vinyl letters (I got 3″ vinyl letters at Walmart near the mailboxes. Make sure they’re die-cut in the shapes of the letters, not just printed on square sheets.)
  • A roll of painter tape.
  • A tube each of red, yellow, blue and white acrylic paint.
  • Art boards (to tape the paper sheets on. I re-used 12×18″ plasti-core sheets, but cardboard or any conveniently sized stiff material would work)

Faced with a short class time, here’s the prep I did:

  • Cut the 11×14″ paper sheets in half to 5.5″ x 14″ sheets
  • Tape the four edges of the paper down to art boards, overlapping the tape about 1/4″ onto the paper along each edge.
  • Create an example
  • Sort through the letters before class and put letters for words (we did LIVE, LOVE and LAUGH) on wax paper to temporarily hold them.
    (I got more mileage out of my letter sets by using an Exacto knife to make extra As into Vs, which we needed more of.)

With help from rest home activities staff, I gathered

  • portable table easels ($8 ea. online)*
  • smocks
  • water cups (We used urine sample cups! ha ha)
  • paper towels
  • paper plates as palettes
  • 1/2″ to 1″ size acrylic brushes.**
  • A blow dryer to speed drying time

*You could do without easels, but I think they help to prevent people from dragging their arm across the wet painting. **Acrylic brushes have stiffer bristles than watercolor brushes, making it easier to control acrylic paint, which is thicker than watercolor. It can be frustrating to paint with brushes that are too floppy, too ragged, too big, or too small for a particular project.)

How it went:

  • Helpers handed out easels, brushes, water cups, paper towels and art boards.
  • We asked painters to select a word, and they placed the letters according to their taste.
  • I showed my example and explained that we would 1) use big brush strokes of different colors. 2) fill in the whole area with paint. 3) paint right over the black letters 4) later we’d peel the letters off.
  • We passed out palettes and painters picked 2 primaries of their choice and white.
    (i.e. either red and yellow, red and blue, or blue and yellow, plus white)
  • I demonstrated how loosely you can paint, and how it was fine if wet colors mixed.

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It took the group the full hour to get their whole 5.5 x 14″ sheet painted. I encouraged painters to mix any colors they liked and to keep going until they covered all the white within the blue tape. I also reminded them to dip their brush in water to make the paint spread easier. (“Yes! You’re doing it right!” “Yup! Paint right over the letters.” “Would you like to add another color?” etc.)

After the first person’s painting was complete, I dried it a bit with the blow dryer and returned the painting so the painter could pull off the vinyl letters. For some painters, I started the corners of the adhesive. Everyone was surprised and delighted with the effect.

All of the painters really enjoyed removing the adhesive letters and masking tape to reveal their finished work. Nobody complained that theirs turned out badly! It was a lot of fun. You could modify this project to ask people to think of inspiring words ahead of time and use their own words. You could also do a short phrase on a canvas, as shown in blog posts that inspired me to try this activity. Sponge painting, spatter painting, spray painting, cotton ball painting, etc. would work just as well.

Their finished works can be displayed individually or in groups.

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