ashley englishsmall measures

Small Measures: Homemade Watercolors

by Ashley

I share my home, and my life, with an MFA-toting husband (whose concentration was in painting and color theory), and an active, inquisitive, art-loving 2 year-old. Between the two of them and my own ongoing craft projects and homemade gift-making endeavors, suffice to say, there is a good deal of paint in our lives.

Over the winter, I committed myself to organizing our craft/guest/office room. Going through a box of art supplies, I found a very old set of watercolors-as in, freshman-year-of-college-in-’94 old. I figured it was time to get a new set. Wanting to keep our art supplies as non-toxic possible, it occurred to me that I could make my own watercolors instead of buying them.

For today’s Small Measures, in celebration of the Color theme on Design Sponge this month, I’m offering you an incredibly easy and affordable recipe for creating watercolors at home. In very little time, you and the creatives you share your own home and life with will be dipping paint brushes and creating colorful works to treasure. Have fun coloring your world, naturally! –Ashley English

I really love this watercolor recipe, for so many reasons, but primarily for two. Firstly, it’s highly likely that all of the equipment and supplies needed to make the watercolors are already in your pantry and kitchen. This then indicates that the paints, if ingested (and if you live in a house with a wee one you know this is entirely a possibility), are completely safe.

Secondly, since you’re the one mixing the colors, you’re the one creating the palette. If you’re more of a bright, bold color sort of person, you get to whip that up. If you tend a bit more towards the earthy, muted side, as I do, you get to craft that palette. You’re the captain of this colorful ship, and you get to steer it wherever you’d like it to go. What’s not to love about that?

Homemade Watercolors

The Goods:
-1/2 cup baking soda
-1/4 cup cornstarch
-1/4 cup white vinegar
-1 teaspoon corn syrup
-Food coloring

The Deal:
1) Combine all of the ingredients in a pourable container (I used a Pyrex measuring cup).
2) It will immediately begin to foam and froth and bubble. Using a fork, quickly whisk it until everything is fully combined. If you don’t do this quickly enough, the mixture will thicken and harden before you’re able to beat all of the ingredients together. Owing to this fact, be sure to have everything ready to go when you begin.
3) Pour the mixture into an ice cube tray, individual containers (such as small yogurt cups), or a plastic painter’s palette (available at art and craft supply stores), portioning it out evenly amongst however many containers you opt to use.
4) Add drops of food coloring to each individual portion of mixture. The number of drops used and the colors you select is entirely at your discretion here. Just continue adding drops and stirring (use a wooden stirrer, such as craft sticks, toothpicks, or chopsticks) until you achieve your desired colors. When you’ve finished creating all of your colors, go back one more time and give each individual color a last stir, to fully incorporate the color into the base.
5) The watercolors need around two-three days to fully dry and set. You can certainly use them as soon as you’ve made them, but be aware that they’ll slosh around if you attempt to transport them.
6) When ready, dip a wet paintbrush into your watercolors and paint away!

What about you? Have you ever made your own watercolors, or any other type of homemade paint? I’d love to hear about them. When you can turn to your pantry or cupboard for paint-making (or even your refrigerator, if what you’re after is DIY milk paint!), the possibilities for handcrafted, custom paints seem endless.

-Images and styling by Jen Altman.

Suggested For You


  • What is the archival quality of watercolors made with this formula? For example, will the color fade in a couple of years?

    • I would also like to know the lightfastness of these colors. How are they holding up? Thank you for all the great posts.

      • Well, it is food coloring, so it isn’t designed to be lightfast for terribly long. If you’re looking to make lasting works or are looking to really learn watercolor, you’ll want to get the real thing. This would be fun for little projects, fun cards, and kids’ projects.

  • This is awesome! I’ve been meaning to get back into watercolors and this is the perfect excuse to get started. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Thank you so much for this recipe. We do a lot of art projects at home with the kids and my 8 year old daughter loves to use watercolors. Can’t wait to make some.

  • Any idea of the paint washability? Is that a word? I’m wondering if we will have pretty colored clothing too.

  • This great I work for a non prfit and we’ll be opening summer camp and I run the art program all natural is the simpliest and easy way for the kids to have and I can make bulk amounts. Love your idea. Keep them coming!!

  • Loved this! I’m in Argentina and watercolors are getting really expensive! Is there anything I can replace the corn syrup with? Since they don’t sell it here in Buenos Aires. Thanks!! :)

    • Veronica, im from Argentina. You can find corn syrup as “Kero” in supermarkets, or another products with the name of “jarabe de maiz” or “glucosa de maiz”. It’s a bit late for you to read it I guess, but I hope this helps someone else haha.

  • Food coloring is typically pretty fugitive and will fade when exposed to sunlight, some more than others. If you would like to make your own watercolors for fine art purposes, I would recommend sourcing some artist’s pigments and using a more traditional recipe with gum arabic.

  • Emily & Natalie-Charissa’s reply is spot on. I can’t personally speak to the long-term durability of these watercolors, as I’ve only begun using them relatively recently. That said, their use in simple craft projects (note cards, children’s artwork, hand-decorated gift wrap, gift tags, etc.) is a more appropriate means of employing them than for fine art purposes. As Charissa mentioned, food coloring fades over time, so if your intention is to create heirloom quality works of art, your better to go with artists pigments.

    Sarah-Food coloring definitely stains, but washes out in several washings.

    Veronica-Golden syrup might be a good option, if you can find it.

    Content In A Cottage-That’s a great question! Perhaps, but since I’ve not used it in this recipe, I couldn’t definitely say yes or no. Might be a good experiment!

  • I am going to pass this on to my niece for use with her 1year old. In answer to your question about making my own paints., not paint but stains. When i am looking for a way to add a colorful stain to wood projects I look to the vegetable bin. Beets cooked ina small amount of water ake a nice red hue to apply to wood. Onions skins can be used to make a gold/yellow and you can ask your grocer for the scraps. Any dark green veggie will produce a green water. I am sure that you could eggplant skin for a purple but I have never tried. Boil the veggie or their skins in water strain and apply to wood. the longer you leave on the wood before wiping off the darker the result. I suppose you could boil the veggie tomush and run through striner for darker colors. I bet you could use any plant to create color.

  • Wow! I had no idea you could make your own paint…fabulous! And with easily accessible ingredients. If my sister, i.e., had told me this, I would never have believed her. Thanks for teaching me something new today! :-)

  • I would be careful with this mixture around animal fibers like wool because food coloring and vinegar (as an acid) are often combined to make a dye for wool. However, to get that effect you have generally with heat. I’m not sure what the other ingredients do to the acidity of the mixture, but I would recommend being careful, and if you have to wash it out of something that is made of wool, use cold water.

    Food coloring, even with acid AND heat, does not have much effect on plant-based and synthetic fibers. (If the dye residue is sitting on the fabric it will obviously look like it’s tinted in that color. But it won’t bond with the fiber like it will with wool.)

    From lots and lots of experience I can also tell you that food coloring will stain your skin a bit–but it comes off eventually. It is only a slight risk on counter-tops and other non-animal-fiber surfaces so long as you do not leave it sitting there in large concentrations.

    If you have leftover egg dye from Easter, you could dissolve it in the vinegar and use it for this project.

  • Regarding the toxicity of your 1994 watercolor pans, I’m 99.99% sure they are non-toxic, or AP. Art materials are a regulated product, and painting pigments and mediums are required to have safety labeling. It’s likely that the pigments/dyes used in food coloring are about as safe as pigments used in a typical watercolor set. But, if you aren’t sure, look for the label reading “conforms to ASTM D 4236. One will read AP, which indicates all over safe, and the other CL indicates Caution Label, meaning use caution. Most “scholastic” watercolor pans are labels AP. Labels also often read a pigment’s lightfast rating as well.

    If you don’t want to use what you have, and you want to have fun with a new project, have at it, and have fun! But please donate your unwanted art supplies to a school or re-use thrift store so someone else can enjoy them, rather than discard into the waste system, which is the most toxic of all.

    And, if you are concerned about toxicity in art supplies, the big overlooked area is chalk and chalk pastels, that when ground into a drawing create a fine dust which is then inhaled. If your kid likes chalk pastels, you might want to read the safety label and then put a dust mask on first!

  • fun but I don’t see a possible need. You can purchase a tube set of real archival and non-toxic watercolor for a small cost. the little 12 ml tubes realistically lasting you decades. This recipe isn’t real paint, it uses dyes, not pigments.

    • Because it is FUN and its time to bond with your children in a fun safe way, instead of playing video games and watching tv.

      Children who are interested in art are less likely to be troubled adults and less likely to abuse drugs as teenagers. So if there is a fun INEXPENSIVE way to inspire your children’s creativity then do so, also it teaches children the value of a dollar, and how to be resourceful. Can buy it -Make it.

  • As a former childcare professional, I can appreciate this recipe for what it is, an inexpensive child’s paint, clearly not intended to be an artist medium. I use to make paint out of liquid starch and tissue paper. The kids love to do their own mixing, so we’d rip up the paper and put it into baby food jars with a little liquid starch. Then they’d shake them up until they had the colors they wanted. This paint dries shiny too. A little ivory liquid soap in it makes it easier to clean and keeps the dried paint from cracking.

  • This is awesome for my little ones!! I’ve made & used puffy paint (1 cup water, 1 cup flour, 2-3 drops food coloring) in the past but I don’t really like it too much. As a stay at home mom on a tight budget, this is great since I already have the stuff in my kitchen. Thanks!

    • Try using white glue and food coloring for puffy paint. Add food coloring to the white glue, put in squeezy bottles, and have fun. Paint will dry shinny and puffy. Also if stored properly (capped and sealed) it will last forever. Also white glue is non-toxic and pre-schoolers eat it all the time. I have not had great luck with flour and art supplies unless it was in play-dough (add a TBL cream of tater for better consistency and more like brand play-dough).

      I am a mom on a budget as well and crafting supplies are expensive over time.

  • I agree with MFA and hope you didn’t throw out your old watercolours just because they were old! Watercolour paints last basically for ever. This does sound like a fun idea to try especially for little kids to paint with :-)

    • Question, I had tubes of watercolors that were very old and “crusty”. The paint when it came out was grainy and didn’t mix well with glycerin or rubbing alcohol. Even the new un-used colors were separated and grainy, leaving spots all over my canvas.

      I hate throwing out art supplies, is really hard to do, but if you can’t use them for their intended purpose what else could we do with old tubed watercolors. The brand I had were not the best but they were a better brand.. I threw them out not thinking about toxicity and landfills. I didn’t know you could donate them either – I figured who would want them if they didn’t work. I even tried using the tubed colors to make new paint and stamp pads without luck.

      Curious to know if there is another use for tubed watercolors, I use multiple mediums in my art and crafts. Any response would be wonderful.

  • I used gel food coloring for cakes and such…..LOVE LOVE LOVE these paints! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • i made some last night and it was kind thick but still runny. it had sort of an “ooblek” consistency. im not sure if thats normal or not. also half the dye settled at the top so im just hoping that it drys out right

  • I just made some for preschool yesterday. I am looking forward to giving it a try as the watercolor paints you buy for children don’t work very well. Plus loved how inexpensive this was.

  • I like the idea, but cannot assume that Food Dyes are safer or less toxic than
    AP certified non-toxic watercolors. May be trading one evil for another. I just don’t trust the certifications of anything anymore. Have you done the research?

  • I know this was a while ago and commenting on here is a long shot but I figured I could at least try.

    I have chalk pastels that I’d like to make into paint. Do you think this would work if I ground them up and used the pigments instead of food dye? Also, do you know if there is anything I can do to make the paint a little thicker?

    Thanks so much!

  • I made these paints last week but found them a little dry for my taste. A few years ago my daughter gave me a set of Russian dolls to paint with “water color looking paints” in the set. They were moist and brilliant. A joy to work with. Could I add glycerine to this recipe? Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas.

  • This is great and I can’t wait to try! Off topic, I keep seeing a wooden ring you wear in some photos, Ashley. I really love it! Any tips on where I can find something similar?

  • One could use the food coloring pastes that are used to color frosting and fondant. They’re edible and there is a huge range of colors available. To have a darker shade, you just use more color paste in the mix.

  • Thank you, this is awesome. Thank you for taking the time to show all of us a fun safe way to play and bond with our children.

    With the budget cuts at schools and the absence of art, music, shop, home-ec classes this is a great way for teachers to stretch their school supplies budget. Even parents can save on school supplies. Water color paints are inexpensive but if you have multiple children or students $1.99 adds up fast.

    Thank you again for your time.

  • If you want to keep them you could always use the individual Blue Bell Ice Cream Cups they have lids so you get 2 treats. lol. Get to eat the ice cream then wash the cups out and use them to hold your watercolors.

  • Can i use sugar syrup instead of conr syrup?
    Will food coloring gel, works? Or the food coloring powder?
    This is Awesome! :)

  • How would one go about storing the watercolors? Do you just leave them out when they’re setting without any covering? When you’re done with one project, can you stick some covering on top and it’ll be okay?

  • I haven’t been through all the comments but for anyone looking for alternatives to syrup I will be trying to make these with food-grade Gum-arabic (which is popular in gluten free baking and comes in a powdered form) I think this will work as it is used in traditional watercolours. However, there is also a brand of professional watercolours which boasts honey as it’s glossing agent, so I am thinking that even honey might work for these too, in place of the syrup. Looking forward to trying these as my baba wants to paint every day but I’m finding the liquid paints far, far too messy, and my own artists paints have some very dangerous pigments in them.

    For the person asking about storage. As long as they are dry and kept in a dry place they will be fine. If you cover them before they dry or they’re left somewhere damp they may provide a nice spot for mold to grow. This also happens with real watercolours because of the gum arabic.