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I am looking to help our boys (5 and 7 years old) make their mother something like this for her birthday, but I have zero experience with painting beyond whatever I did in elementary school!

I'm looking to (likely) put this on a canvas and need the paint to be safe for them to make their handprints out of.

What types of paint could I use that would be safe for them to dip their hands in for the handprint part, safe to work with (I'll make sure the space is well ventilated) and that is compatible with canvas or a similar material?

Unless its the only option, I'm not interested in using washable/temporary paints, or using paper as the medium, because I would like this to look nice-ish and be something she could frame and put on the wall for a long time.

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For this particular project the consistency of the paint is the most important. It must be a soft paste that sticks to the hand and to the canvas. If the paint is too thick, just add a drop of water at a time. If the paint is too liquid, you'll end up with splashes and incomplete handprints.

With children that age you can use almost any type of paint, like:

  • Acryllic paint from a craft store
  • Watercolors in tubs (the ones intended for primary school students)
  • Wall paint
  • Finger paints inteded for very young children (not recommended because of low quality)

In the linked pictures they used semi transparent paint for the handprints which beautifully highlights all the lines and details of a hand. Your best bet to get such a semi transparent paint is an actual art store or a well-equiped craft store. All of the big paint manufacturers have a code for the properties of their paints. This is just an example from Schmiencke:

Schmienke College Acryllic Colourchart

Semi transparent paints are marked with either a white square with a diagonal line or a square with one white and one black part. Other manufacturers may use a different code, so look for the color chart of the respective manufacturer. Some paints in the linked chart like orange, bordeaux, ultramarine blue, may green and ocre highlight differences in thickness of paint very nicely.

Paints that are not suited are:

  • Watercolors in hard blocks to be dissolved with water (you'll have a hard time getting them to the right consistency)
  • Oil paints because they need extrelely long to dry and you need chemicals to clean them that are harsh to the skin and airways

A word concerning the execution of the project:

The handprints in the linked picture are too perfect. Natural handprints almost always have a gap in the middle of the palm because that's where the hand curves inwards. If you put your hand flat on a surface, the center of the palm won't actually touch the surface.

This part of the palm will not touch the canvas unless you gently press the canvas from behind. Since the canvas is suspended from the top of the wooden frame, you shouldn't let your children press too hard on it anyways. Either support the canvas (not the frame, but the fabric) from the backside or work together so that one child presses their paint covered hand on the front and you press the same area from behind.

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    The problem with many ready-mixed kids paints is that they're not designed to be stable - not against moisture (less of an issue here), contact (they can rub off easily) or even light. Light-fastness is the hardest to test, and these paints use cheap pigments. I'd go with craft store acrylics.
    – Chris H
    Nov 17 '20 at 9:29
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If they wear clothes you don't mind ruining (good quality acrylic paint will not wash out of cloth completely, ever) and you supervise and help them wash off the paint afterward and put down a large drop cloth to protect carpet/wooden floors (tile is cleanable), or do it outside, student grade acrylics should be fine.

At those ages they are unlikely to try eating the paint.

I did something similar with my daughter and nephews as a gift for their grandparents when the youngest was only three (granted a reasonably intelligent 3) only with many different prints in various colours.

Make sure the canvas is primed for acrylic. You can just buy a pre-stretched primed student canvas at an art/craft store or order online in the size you want. That way you don't have to have it framed.

enter image description here

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  • Not an answer, just an aside: the type of print you originally showed is not much fun for the kids, so consider getting more than one canvas and letting them use the extras to do spatter painting or lots of overlapping handprints in different colours or other fun and messy stuff afterwards.
    – Gwyn
    Nov 17 '20 at 9:13

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