Learn an easy way to make colourful shadow puppets with kids! Making a set of vibrant butterfly shadow puppets and playing with light and shadows will be a great summer STEM project.
At first, it may come as a surprise – colourful shadow puppets! Built on the stark contrast between light and darkness, shadow puppets are often just silhouettes. But in reality, there is a long tradition of colourful shadow puppets in Asia.
Chinese shadow puppets were often made with bits of paper and fabric. When illuminated from behind, they came alive with colour. Considering that Chinese shadow puppets were also articulated, they were quite something!
Today, I’d like to offer you a simpler version of a colourful shadow puppet. In fact, they will be so simple that kindergarten-aged children will be able to make them!
Easy Way to Make Colourful Shadow Puppets
Most of my shadow puppets require some precision cutting. While I love to inspire parents, teachers and librarians to create one of those shadow puppet sets for their classroom or playroom, I understand that children will not be able to help in the process. And children do love to make things and play with them later…
That’s why, these very simple shadow puppets require a minimal amount of cutting! Instead of cutting, this craft relies on painting skills. These shadow puppets are actually painted on a piece of clear plastic! For that purpose, you can either use an empty single-use plastic container (the kind of clam shell package they sell fruits and pastries in), a plastic folder with clear sheets, or an empty laminating pouch that has been run through a laminator.
You will also need a design. You can find free printable designs of three butterflies at the end of the post!
So, what medium can you use for painting on clear plastic? I recommend black glue.
Black Glue for Creating Shadow Puppet Silhouettes
What is black glue and how to make it at home? The idea is to mix black acrylic paint with white glue, and then use the bottle with a nozzle that the glue comes in.
The combination of acrylic paint and glue results in a mix that flows smoothly (more so than if you used straight acrylic paint!) and dries into slightly raised lines (which are easy to colour inside). Still, it’s a valid option if you’d rather buy a dedicated stained glass lead.
My recipe for black glue:
- Pour the excess glue into an empty yogourt (or similar) container. The glue can be used later for a different art project or simply applied with a brush when you need to glue something.
- My proportions are approximately 1:1 – one part glue to one part paint. I pour half a bottle of glue out and substitute it with black acrylic paint by squeezing it right into the bottle.
- After that, I shake the bottle of glue for about one minute, then squeeze a little bit on a scrap piece of paper to get rid of the white glue that could have accumulated in the nozzle.
Now the black glue is ready to use.
Slip the printed design underneath the clear plastic and draw the outlines with black glue. You can influence the boldness of lines by how hard you squeeze the bottle. And sometimes you don’t need to squeeze at all, but just guide where the line goes.
Let the finished piece dry overnight or for about eight hours.
Sharpie Markers for Colour in Shadow Puppets
How to colour the clear plastic? The easiest and cheapest way we have found is to use Sharpies. Any other kind of alcohol-based marker should work as well. Both my five-year-old son and my two-year-old daughter can do the colouring, using Sharpies.
Note: In the direct sunlight, Sharpie-coloured plastic will fade in about 30 days. That may be a problem when making suncatchers, based on the same technique, but as long as you keep your shadow puppets out of direct light, they can be preserved for years. The rainbow butterfly in this post is two years old!
Cut the design out. Since the surface is translucent, there is no need to cut very close to the lines, and that’s why children can do the cutting in this project as well.
Now, just attach a bamboo skewer or a Popsicle stick to the back of the puppet!
Ways to Play with Colourful Shadow Puppets
If you let a beam of sunlight or a flashligh shine through the shadow puppets, they will cast a colourful shadow on the wall.
Or you can make a simple shadow puppet theatre from cardboard and have a colourful shadow puppet play! We used the silhouettes from our fairy shadow puppet set to create a flower playground for butterflies to flutter around.
My son loved going behind the screen and having butterflies flutter “around him”.
You can also print this card for a short tutorial.
- Make black glue by mixing white glue and black acrylic paint together (1:1 – one part glue to one part paint). Pour half a bottle of glue out into a different container and substitute it with black acrylic paint by squeezed right into the bottle. Shake for a minute. Now, it's ready to use! Practice a little on a piece of paper before making the shadow puppet.
- Print the designs and slip them under the piece of plastic. You can tape the designs to the plastic piece to temporarily hold them in place, which is particularly useful if a kid is doing this part.
- Draw the outlines with black glue. You can influence the boldness of lines by how hard you squeeze the bottle.
- Let the finished piece dry overnight or for about eight hours. The raised outlines created by black glue present compelling borders, making it very easy to colour.
- Colour the clear plastic with sharpies or any other alcohol-based markers!
- Cut the shape out. Cutting doesn't have to be very precise since the clear plastic will not show very much when casting shadows.
- Attach a bamboo skewer to the back of the puppet with a piece of tape.
Play with colourful shadow puppets by shining a flashlight through them and letting them cast a colourful shadow on the wall. Alternatively, make a simple shadow puppet theatre from cardboard and have a colourful shadow puppet play!
More Shadow Puppets
Thanks for reading!