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Swirl Painting with Enamel Paints

A few months back I fell in love with this piece of art I saw in a model home. 
{Actually it’s a reproduction on canvas, not the original artwork.} 
I can’t draw a face or a still life to save my life but thought I might be able to paint something like this for my living room. My online search for a method to my madness led me to watching youtube videos with Seanie snuggled on the couch next to me, and we became completely enchanted by a painting method we’d never seen before:  swirl painting in water.
This weekend the kiddos and I gave it a try, and it turned out to be nothing short of magical for children and mother alike:

Apparently this method of painting is very popular for customizing guitars. After watching videos of guitars being swirl-painted in a water bath (like this one), we decided to try the same method on paper and canvas.

It was so much fun! Give it a try! Affiliate links are included in this post for your convenience. Read more about affiliate links here.



Bucket (large enough to lay canvas or paper across or deep enough to submerge)
Kitchen string
Paint stick
Heavy paper like card stock,
Canvas (we used 8×10 canvases which fit in our bucket well)
Enamel paints*

*IMPORTANT UPDATE:  after some readers had failed attempts with various kinds of paints, I am linking directly to the kind of enamel paints we used – Testors Enamel Paint – commonly used on models and crafts. If you don’t buy this particular kind, make sure you do not get water-based paint – it doesn’t work for this application.

Fill a bucket with water and drip enamel paint onto the surface of the water (1)

 Gently swirl the paint (2 & 3), and then dip a canvas or paper into the bucket.

• The swirled paint sticks to the canvas or paper, creating a unique piece of art (4).


We started swirling with a stick, but found that a piece of kitchen string pulled the paint without combining the colors too much. We held each canvas by a corner, dipping it slowly into the water and moving towards the paint on the surface of the water. Before pulling the canvas out of the water, we used a paint stick to “pull” the remaining paint in the water to the side so the canvas wouldn’t get double dipped when it was removed from the bucket.



In between batches of different paint colors, we used a paper towel, laid on top of the water, to absorb any leftover bits of paint and clean up the water surface.

Do you see the fishy about to gobble up a bubble?

This was my favorite one – too bad the design is on the back of the canvas!

We also used cardstock that we laid on top of the paint instead of submerging. Once the entire piece of paper is touching the water, slowly lift up a corner of the paper, pull up the piece and a beautiful design will emerge.



Sean also dipped the corners of his ripstick.
This came out kind of bubbly and funky. The guitar artists (some of them truly are works of art!) from youtube primed the guitar first, so if you are using this method to swirl paint objects (a jewelry box perhaps?) you may want to prime first, so your paint job comes out nice and clean.
Swirl painting is messy, but truly so engaging!! Each design is different and the enamel paints adhere to the surfaces in such interesting ways. The red you see here is also the background pink – in some areas it spread out in a thin film and in others, the paint sat on top of the water in a solid mass. Your final design depends on how you manipulate the paint.
Word to the wise:  figure out where you are going to put your wet art. The canvases had paint on both sides so they needed to be hung, but if you paint just one surface you can lay it out on a dropcloth. I completely forgot to prepare a spot for the artwork to dry, so I scrambled and used Peter’s pull-up bar in our garage to hang clothespins from kitchen string – along with leftover curtain rings with clips! – hung over a dropcloth.

Swirl painting might be our favorite craft ever!

I recommend these swirl painting supplies:
Testors Enamel Paint
8×10 canvas sheets 

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Monday 15th of August 2016

Just a word of caution about disposing of paint water etc down the drain. You expressed using the technique in the bathtub considerations would be the pipes and contaminating our already contaminated water systems. I'm trying to come up with a way to filter off the paint then put the grey water outside somewhere. Just a thought


Tuesday 23rd of August 2016

Yes that's a great point Olivia. Like disposing of oil based wall or trim paint down the drain - terrible for plumbing and the environment. Maybe a large plastic storage bin from which the water and enamel paint could be disposed from safely would do the trick for larger pieces.


Tuesday 12th of July 2016

Wow! I saw this done years ago, but could never figure out which paints to use. Thank you so much for sharing this cool technique. I think I'll experiment and see if I can incorporate it into my paintings. I also might share it with my students. They love to fins new fun ways to get messy and create abstract paintings.


Wednesday 27th of July 2016

Hi Andy, I'm an artist wannabe, I love trying anything and everything. This is really so much fun, I want to do it again in a bathtub so I can create a big piece!!


Tuesday 10th of May 2016

Anyone try oil paints?


Monday 16th of May 2016

The Testors paint that I recommend is an oil based enamel paint.

Elaine Holmquist

Sunday 31st of January 2016

The last and most work intensive type of marbling (weather and humidity actually works into all this) is a 15th century(?) recipe. Each pattern actually has a name and in the old days, sample books were made. You had to use the right kind of comb, exactly placed dots of paint and the right progress of the comb. The clarity of each swirl and color is much more fine than other methods. On another type of painting involving kids is to get an old sheet and lay it out on your lawn. Choose interior house paints in your color choices, and let the kids go at it with drip bottles or sponge brushes. When paint is dry, cut large square or rectangle pieces out and stretch/staple them on stretcher bars. Frame or not, they'll be beautiful modern art pieces to hang in your living room, bedroom or bathroom. The clothes they are wearing at the time they are creating could also be recycled/embellished for something else, too.

Elaine Holmquist

Sunday 31st of January 2016

Suminagashi is the least messy of all the types of marbling. If you are lucky to find the right kind of paper envelopes, you can continue dipping into the rest of the marble until it is gone. It keeps getting fainter and fainter, so the surface is very, very pale and handwriting will show up. It is water based ink on water. When dropping the ink into the water just breathing will knock it into a fractured marble. You can get kits with everything you need except the tray (I used a clear shoe box) Next try those water based paints on a tray filled with gelatin (plain) dissolved in water. Use newspapers to clean up residue paint. Some will sink to bottom, so don't disturb it until you are ready to throw the whole thing out. Use kitty litter boxes or disposable aluminum cake pans instead of a bucket. You can dip your canvas flat and won't get the other side marbled. Just float paper on top and lift by a corner. The ultimate marbling is the old book binders recipe. You should be able to get the ingredients at a bookbinder's supply store, the local artist's supply store or online. Lot's of prep work and because one of the ingredients is ox bile, you'll want to pick a clear sunny day to do it outside. Ox bile stinks. Fabric, properly coated with alum does not wash out. The medium you use to float your paper or fabric is carrageenan, the same stuff they put in ice cream as a thickener. When you use a traditional marbleizing comb, you get gorgeous designs. As with all of these types of marbling, there are books devoted to the art.

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Sunday 31st of January 2016

Elaine, thank you for all this information! Marbling truly IS such an art form and I love how no two pieces are exactly the same. I can't wait to look into the other techniques you mentioned and also to try marbling in a disposable cake pan. Such a great idea. Your expertise is much appreciated!!