The Colorful Sky

Art NASA Science
Time 1-2 hours
Age 6 and up
Group Size Any
Tags Art, Astronomy, NASA,   more...
Observation Paint Paper Salt Science

Get inspired by the sky!

How can art help kids engage with science? The natural world is the source of so much inspiration in art, literature, invention and much more, and the images produced by NASA and others’ space telescopes is some of the most breathtaking and inspiring imagery imaginable. Associating science with art presents the world as a place filled with connections, and helps children to practice two often overlooked STEM skills – creativity and imagination. And by asking children to use astronomical images as inspiration for their artwork, you are also asking them to closely observe – and therefore learn more about – these astronomical objects and phenomena.


This activity has a good deal of materials, and requires some work to set up – but it is worth it in order to give kids a chance to explore a few different methods of painting, all at once. Print the NASA Inspirations images from this curriculum (click here), or show them on a computer, or even projected on a wall. If this is your first time printing these images, keep them – they can be used for a few other activities in this curriculum. You may want to laminate them to keep them in good shape. You may want to print out instructions for each of the painting techniques as well – one copy of each technique, for placing at each painting station should do.

Read the instructions below – this activity describes four different painting techniques, all of which are simple, but all of which produce different results. These instructions are for quick experiments to see what results these different techniques produce. Try all four of these techniques with your children as described below, if you can. You can simplify the activity by choosing one, two or three of the techniques to use.

Note the instructions for “Rubbing alcohol and Watercolor Paint” – if you are working with younger children, you might choose to drip the alcohol for them.

Gather all materials, and set up stations for each of the watercolor exploration techniques that you will be using.

The Colorful Sky

Suggested Materials

  • White watercolor paper or cardstock
  • Watercolor sets or/and liquid watercolor
  • Rock Salt
  • Rubbing alcohol / isopropyl alcohol
  • Crayons
  • Tissue paper (the type that bleeds color)
  • Paper towels
  • Paint brushes – a few different sizes (larger brushes are particularly helpful for these techniques)
  • Cups / yogurt containers for water
  • Q-tips
  • Pipettes for alcohol or dropper bottle
  • NASA Inspirations Images, particularly the Nebula, galaxy and supernova images, printed out or on screen

Make it Matter

Opening Discussion

Ask your students if they have ever looked up at the sky and seen different colors. What colors have they seen? Have they ever seen any images of object in space that have interesting colors? Show them the printed or on-screen NASA images. What kinds of colors do they see?

The Challenge

Experiment with different watercolor techniques, then see which astronomy image it most looks like!


Make it Happen

Doing the Activity

  1.  There are four different painting techniques to try in this activity – have your children try all four if you can, but you can try fewer if you need to. Set up four stations and have groups of children rotate between them. Alternatively, you can choose one technique to try one day, another on another day, until you have tried all four.
  2. Divide your class into four groups, and send each group to a different station. Tell them that you would like them to experiment with four different ways of painting, and then share their results with each other. Ask them to also think about the NASA images they saw, and see if they observe any similar patterns and colors in their painting experiments.
  3. Give a quick overview to the whole class of the instructions for each station. Each child should try each technique, so make sure you have enough paper. The four techniques include mixing watercolor paint with salt, rubbing alcohol, or wax; and experimenting with tissue paper and water. These techniques are described here:

Watercolor and Salt

What do you do? 

  1. Paint a layer of watercolor paint on your paper.
  2. While the paint is still wet, sprinkle salt on the paper.
  3. Let your creation dry completely.
  4. Once dry, brush off the salt.
  5. Label your experiment “Watercolor and Salt”.

Rubbing Alcohol and Watercolor Paint

Important notes about using alcohol with paint:

What do you do? 

  1. Paint a thin layer of watercolor paint on your paper. It is very important that the paint is not too watery.
  2. While the paint is still slightly wet, use an eyedropper to drop tiny drops of alcohol on to the paint. Alternatively, the teacher can drip the alcohol on the paintings using a dropper bottle.
  3. Let the whole piece dry, and then label this paper “Watercolor and Alcohol”.

Watercolor and Wax Resist

What do you do?

  1. Draw a design or picture on your paper using crayons or oil pastels. Do not color it in – the outlines and some shading is all you need.
  2. Paint on top of your drawing. The wax crayons and pastels will resist the paint and your lines will show through.
  3. Pay attention to your colors – what happens, for example, if you paint green watercolor on top of green crayon? The result may not be the same as when you use different colors.
  4. Let the whole piece dry, and then label this paper “Watercolor and Wax”.

Tissue Paper and Water

What do you do? 

  1. Paint your piece of watercolor paper or cardstock with water.
  2. Tear pieces of tissue paper, and place these torn tissue pieces on top of the watercolor paper. Place pieces in any direction or pattern. Try overlapping the edges of the colors. Try to cover the entire blank white sheet.
  3. When you are done placing the tissue paper, paint over all of this with more water.
  4. When your creation is dry, peel up the tissue paper pieces. Label this paper “Tissue Paper and Water”.

Make it Click

Let’s Talk About It

After your children have tried each of these techniques, bring them together to share the results. Have them show their labeled papers to the larger group. What do they notice about the results from each technique? What do they like? What do the images that are created remind them of?


Make it Better

Build On What They Talked About

Go back to the NASA images, and look through them with your students. Do they see any images that remind them of the results of any of the painting techniques they tried above? Tell them that you would now like them to choose a NASA image, and create a painting using one of the techniques they tried. They can either try to create a painting similar to their chosen NASA image, or simply create a painting that is inspired by it. For example, a picture of the Cat’s Eye Nebula ( could result in a child trying to paint a picture of the Cat’s Eye Nebula; or they could create a more free-form painting just using the same colors; or they might even paint a cat with the same colors and patterns seen in the photo of the Cat’s Eye Nebula. Once children have created their paintings, have them share with the class. Then, maybe you could have a gallery show – group paintings next to printouts of the NASA images that inspired the paintings, and invite parents to come see the show.


  • Check out some of these amazing online NASA images using the links below, particularly the first link which is a set of Lithographs from the Hubble Space Telescope’s Amazing Space website. This collection has a wide variety of images of the solar system, stars and nebula, and galaxies that show lots of different visual textures that kids might be able to simulate with these watercolor techniques. All the Lithographs are downloadable PDFs (many of the images are already included in this curriculum), and have a similar graphic treatment that might be useful for the suggested gallery show featuring NASA and student artwork:

Other great NASA image sites include:

Earth and Space science activities were developed with the support of NASA. This material is based upon work supported by NASA under grant award number NNX14AQ83G. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

  • Try this activity multiple times – no two paintings will ever look the same!
  • Background Info on the Painting Techniques:

What happens when salt is added to watercolor? 

Salt sprinkled on damp watercolor paint creates a delicate flower-like spot. Each crystal of salt chases away the pigment to make a lighter area beneath it. Salt is what is called a “desiccant”, meaning it sucks up liquid (in this case, water).

What happens when alcohol is added to watercolor? 

Alcohol repels water, pushing the paint away and creating interesting white circular shapes when spattered or dripped. Spraying alcohol will have the same effect but the texture will be thinner. This technique works better when the wash is still wet but has lost some of its shine.

Why do these everyday substances like salt and alcohol react the way they do to watercolors? 

The alcohol in the technique above behaves much like soap would, weakening the surface tension of the water. Water molecules are very strongly attracted to other water molecules. Think of two magnets connected to each other. When the alcohol enters the equation, it weakens those connections, causing the water molecules to separate away from each other.

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