I just started leading some art activities at a local senior care center. The class meets once a month, for one hour, so it presents some challenges: What can a group of seniors, who may never have painted before, complete in a single 1-hour class?

I set two initial goals:

  1. Get people to dip paint brushes in paint and put it on the canvas.
  2. Have them leave with a sense of accomplishment.

I thought for the first class it would be a good idea to give them something to start with, so there wouldn’t be anxiety about a blank canvas. Since tulips have been going wild this spring, I chose tulips as the subject. I prepped the canvases with a neutral background to ensure that the result look would look complete (this is a step the participants could have done themselves, but there wasn’t enough time for a multi-step process).

What I did for prep ahead of time:

  1. Buy cheap canvases and acrylic paints (red, yellow, blue, white) using half-price coupons at a craft store. (Cost of materials for 16 was about $50.)
  2. Download and print a good (not over-complicated) stock photo of tulips.
  3. Quickly sponge a neutral ground onto the canvases using a thin wash of acrylic paint and let it dry. (Blow dryers work great if you’re in a hurry.)
  4. Quickly carbon transfer the lines to the canvas, using a dull pencil or similar dull pointed implement. (I made carbon paper by rubbing powdered graphite on the back of a tulip print-out. You could use carbon paper.)
  5. Darken the lines on the canvas with a black sharpie.

With help from rest home activities staff, I gathered

  • portable table easels (They cost about $8 ea. on line)
  • smocks
  • water cups (We used urine sample cups! –Unused– ha ha)
  • paper towels
  • paper plates as palettes
  • 1/4″ size acrylic brushes.

(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.)

You could do without easels, but I think they help to prevent people from dragging their arm across the wet painting.


Getting started:

We set up each painter with a canvas and easel. I offered blank canvas, or just a neutral ground as another option to start with, but everyone chose the ones with lines.

Helpers passed out brushes, towels and water cups. Each artist got a color copy of the tulip photo for reference.


I gave each painter a palette with a dot of red, yellow and white paints, explaining that I’d give them blue later. (If people requested to blue, we gave them blue, too! But I thought people would feel more successful in general if they began with colors that all mix together without making mud.)

  • I demonstrated on a palette how you can mix the color with your brush.
  • I explained as needed that dipping your brush in the water occasionally makes the paint flow better.

This was plenty of activity for one hour. Painters enjoyed the process of choosing, mixing and applying colors. Some needed encouragement that it was OK to go ahead and paint. (Yes, dip the brush in the paint, and then put it wherever you want! Yes, mix any colors that you like! No, you don’t have to stay inside the lines, but you can if you like!)

I did a lot of encouraging and remarking on color choices, “I see you mixed some white in the red to get that pink,” etc.

Since it wasn’t very opaque, the black lines showed through, which gave a nice effect.

After completing her painting, one woman said, “I’m proud of myself!” which absolutely melted my heart. A few others said, “I messed mine up” which is harder to respond to. My responses were things like, “You tried something new,” “You mixed some really nice subtle colors,” “Wow, look at that bold red!” “You took on quite an adventure!” etc.

Overall, as a first experience it went well. The lines may have resulted in some people feeling frustrated with their dexterity, but I think that some are always going to be a little timid, and it’s OK to just say, “You did it!” …as cause enough for celebration.

People seemed to enjoy their own works more once they saw how interesting the whole group was, with everyone’s individual choices and experiments. The activities staff hung them on wide ribbons in sets of three to display them.

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