Teach Density to Elementary Students With This Paper Marbling Science and Art Project

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Paper marbling is an old craft that has been used by bookbinders for centuries. It relies on the scientific fact that oil is less dense than water, and therefore oil floats. Introduce your elementary science students to the concept of liquid density with this wonderful, hands-on project.

Materials Needed

  • Shallow trays,
  • Water,
  • Smocks for the children to wear,
  • Oil paints, three colors,
  • Plastic spoons,
  • Combs, plastic forks, and long picks,
  • Clothespins and a clothesline or clothes horse,
  • Natural solvent such as Turpenoid Natural for clean up.

The Method

Do this project outside and in the sun, this will make clean up much easier. Allow students to do this one at a time, so have as many shallow trays on hand as is feasible. Remember, you need to supervise, so three to five students making marbled paper at a time will be easiest.

1. Pour water into shallow trays;

2. With plastic spoons, let a student drop one to three colors of oil paint onto the surface of the water;

3. Using plastic forks, combs, sticks, or other objects that you think of, the student creates a design in the oil paint thatis floating on the water;

4. When the desired design is complete, she carefully lays her piece of paper on top in the shallow tray. Wait just a moment, then have her lift the paper;

5. The oil paint design has been transferred onto the paper!

6. Hang the papers to dry on a clothesline or clothes horse with clips;

7. Pour excess oil paint into a bucket, replace any water in the tray, and start again with the next student.


In addition to being a very fun art project that results in beautiful papers to bring home, this lesson plan cements in students' minds the reality that oil is less dense than water, and therefore it floats. This science project is a creative way to begin a series of lessons on density.

Students can bring their beautiful creations home to use as gift wrap, or cut the paper to make bookmarks. Laminating bookmarks will make them last a long time.

Good Resources for Paper Marbling

Wonderful book: The Ultimate Marbling Handbook: A Guide to Basic and Advanced Techniques for Marbling Paper and Fabric (Watson-Guptill Crafts)

Specific to this project and a recommended read: Marbling on Paper Using Oil Paints

Here is a kit: Paper Marbling

Safe ways to clean up oil paint

Turpenoid Natural is an alternative to harsh solvents. Have some on hand when you marble paper with your students to wipe up any accidental spills.

Left over paint can be scooped up and saved in a paint container.