Learning Resource Type

Learning Activity

Oil Spill Artistry

Subject Area

Arts Education




This is an art activity adding oil to watercolor paint to reinforce the concept that oil and water don't mix. Students will be shown that no matter how hard they try these two liquids will avoid each other at all costs. The oil will either float on top or through the watercolors or, if applied to the paper first, prevent the watercolors from absorbing into the paper. Students will be able to make real-world connections between this art activity and what happens during a real oil spill. 

This activity was created as a result of the Arts COS Resource Development Summit.

    Science (2015) Grade(s): 5


    Construct explanations from observations to determine how the density of an object affects whether the object sinks or floats when placed in a liquid.

    Unpacked Content



    • density
    • volume
    • buoyancy
    • data
    • observe
    • explain
    • sink
    • float
    • mass


    Students know:
    • Objects are made of many tiny particles to small to be seen.
    • Some objects have many tiny particles compacted close together that causes the object to sink while other objects the same size may float because their tiny particles are less compact.
    • Some objects of the same size sink when others float.
    • Buoyancy is the ability of an object to float.


    Students are able to:
    • Predict the results of different types of objects being placed in water. Test the objects and communicate the results.
    • Use appropriate tools (Scale, balance, ruler, or graduated cylinder) to measure the weight, mass, and/volume of an object.
    • Construct an explanation to describe the observed relationship between density and the ability of an object to sink or float.
    • Identify the evidence that supports the explanation that density affects the ability of an object to sink or float.


    Students understand that:
    • Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified and used to explain phenomenon like sinking and floating.

    Scientific and Engineering Practices

    Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

    Crosscutting Concepts

    Cause and Effect
    Arts Education (2017) Grade(s): 5 - Visual Arts


    Communicate personal ideas, images, and themes through artistic choices of media, technique, and subject matter.

    Unpacked Content



    • Cultural context
    • Formal & conceptual vocabulary
    • Genre
    • Linear perspective
    • Preserve
    • Principles of design
      • Movement
      • Emphasis
    • Relief
    • Vanishing point

    Essential Questions

    EU: Artists and designers experiment with forms, structures, materials, concepts, media, and artmaking approaches.
    EQ: How do artists work? How do artists and designers determine whether a particular direction in their work is effective? How do artists and designers learn from trial and error?

    Skills Examples

    • Use a variety of materials (wood, found objects, wire, paper, clay, etc.) to construct a three-dimensional work of art.
    • Have students keep journals to reflect on and combine ideas for their works of art.
    • Draw a still life of students' favorite objects, while adding color with a variety of media (paint, pastels, collage, etc.).
    • Draw an object or other images (landscapes, hallways, etc.) in linear one-point perspective.
    • Create tessellations in connection with interdisciplinary subjects such as mathematics.
    • Write a short story and illustrate the story with original drawings.
    • Draw and transform two-dimensional shapes into three-dimensional forms.
    • (squares to cubes, circles to spheres, triangles to pyramids and cones)
    • Write a personal artist statement to accompany an original work of art.
    • Draw a landscape including foreground, middle ground, and background.
    • Create an artwork integrating observational and technical skills to solve a problem or address contemporary social issues.
    • Create a bas-relief by carving into a clay slab.

    Anchor Standards

    Anchor Standard 2: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.


    Learning Objectives

    Learning Objectives

    The students will communicate personal ideas and images about oil spills through watercolor paintings. 

    Students will observe the effects of mixing oil and water by adding a drop of oil to watercolor paint. 

    Students will use the results from their artwork to explain how the density of oil affects whether oil sinks or floats when placed in water.


    Activity Details

    As a class, brainstorm ideas and create a concept map on the board for effects of an oil spill. Discuss the relationships or connections between the items listed in the concept map (examples may include loss of jobs, dead animals, increase in oil prices, water pollution, loss of food supply). All of these things are the effects of an oil spill. Lead a discussion about the cost of clean-up and how many volunteer hours it takes to clean up an oil spill. 

    Show students the picture of the oil slick water from Google images and explain that students will create a watercolor painting to communicate through art their feelings about oil spills. 

    Briefly explain to students that watercolor painting is the process of painting with pigments mixed with water. In this activity, students will also mix a drop of oil with paint to observe what happens when oil mixes with water simulating a real oil spill in their paintings. 

    Distribute materials to students. Each student will need one sheet of watercolor paper. Mix each watercolor and water in individual paint containers; these may be shared by several students. Pour cooking oil into one separate container which can also be shared by several students.  Students should put their watercolor paper on a tray and use an eyedropper to drop watercolors on their paper. Tell students to be sure to use a different eyedropper for each watercolor and for the oil. Be sure to emphasize that students should choose colors that depict their feelings and have personal imagery to them about oil spills. When the student is finished, place another sheet of watercolor paper over the painting to remove excess paint and create the "marbling" effect.  Hang students' artwork up to dry and let dry for several hours or overnight.

    After their artwork completely dries, students should be able to see swirls of empty space in their artwork representing the separation of the oil and watercolor paints.

    Lead a discussion that oil is less dense than water which means the molecules that make-up water are packed more tightly than those in the same amount of oil, so water will always sink below the oil. Oil floats on water because it is less dense, which allows cleanup crews to contain a spill with booms and collect it from the water surface using skimmer equipment. Detergents like both water and oil, which is why they are so great at cleaning. When there are oil spills in the ocean, detergents are used to wash the oil from seabirds caught in the oil spill, saving their lives. 

    Students will complete the reflection about their watercolor painting in their science journals.

    Assessment Strategies

    Assessment Strategies

    This activity should be assessed using a student reflection in their science journal.

    Students should be able to answer the following questions about their watercolor: 

    I chose the patterns, colors, and shapes in my watercolor painting to emphasize _____________________________ about oil spills. The challenge(s) in working with watercolors for this project was/were ___________________________.  I understand oil is _________ dense than water which allows it to float on top of water and create the empty spaces in my artwork.  This is also the reason oil floats on water during a real oil spill.

    Variation Tips

    For a bit of a variation, students can dip their watercolor paper in water first, then follow the directions above.  The extra water will cause the watercolors to flow more easily over the surface of the paper.

    Background and Preparation

    Background / Preparation


    liquid watercolors (several students may share watercolors)

    watercolor paper (one piece of paper per student)

    eye droppers (one for each watercolor and one for cooking oil)

    cooking oil (one small drop per student)

    disposable aluminum trays (each student will need a tray)

    paint containers (one container to mix each watercolor with water)

    picture of Oil Slick Water from Google Images (included)

    Digital Tools / Resources