Epsom salt crystal painting

Paint with an epsom salt solution on black paper. As it dries, long crystals of epsom salt form.
Science content
Chemistry: States of Matter, Properties of Materials (K-7)
Chemistry: Atoms, Molecules (3-7)
Chemistry: Physical Changes, Solutions, Mixtures and Separating (2, 4, 5, 6)
Chemistry: Crystals (7)
  • epsom salts (available at a pharmacy)
  • kettle and water
  • heat proof jar
  • microwave
  • shallow tubs for epsom salt solution on each table
  • paintbrushes, one per student
  • black heavyweight cardstock (~110lb), half sheet per student (construction paper is too rough). Alternatively, white paper and watercolour paints, with a longer drying time
  • flashlight per student, LED works well, or use sunlight from a window
  • optional: small heat proof jar for demonstrating how the salts dissolve in class

Just before the class, make a solution of 1:1 epsom salts:boiling water in a heat proof jar (using half a cup of each per table group). It will take a little while to dissolve all the crystals - heat in a microwave and shake alternately to make a clear solution.

Show the students how you make an epsom salt solution. Add a teaspoon of epsom salt crysals ito a jar of just-boiled water, and swirl until they dissolve. The salts seem to disappear, but the molecules of the epsom salts are in fact mixing completely in with the water molecules, to form a solution. Salt or sugar in water does the same thing.
Tell students they will be making a painting with a solution of epsom salts, but their solution is more concentrated (more epsom salts).

Distribute 1:1 epsom salt solution to shallow tubs on each table and give each student a piece of smooth black paper, a paintbrush and a flashlight.
Ask students to paint the epsom salt solution onto the paper, in any design they like. Emphasize to students that to get the best effect, do not repaint over a wet area, and make some deep puddles of solution. After a while, hand out flashlights for students to see better any changes on their paper.
Allow students to discover the formation of sparkly crystals, before discussion on what is happening.
As the water evaporates from the solution, the epsom salts will be left behind, and will organize themselves into crystals. Small crystals will form rapidly where the epsom salt solution is thin and water evaporates from it fast. In the deeper puddles, the water takes longer to evaporate and longer, spiky crystals have more time to form. Emphasize to students that to make the largest crystals, do not repaint over a wet area, as this will disrupt crystal formation that has already started.
Show students how the flashlights can be used to watch the crystallization process: shine a flashlight sideways onto the paper to see the sparkly crystals, and even see some of them growing as the water evaporates at the edge of a puddle.

Epsom salt crystals can also be seen growing on a knife, after dipping it in the epsom salt solution.

Students can fill out a worksheet to summarize and reinforce what the molecules are doing during dissolving and crystallization (see attachment).

Students can act out what the molecules are doing as the crystals form: some of them are water molecules and leave the group, while the others line up to form the remaining epsom salt crystals. Best in groups of 6.

If discussing crystal shapes:
The epsom salt crystal shape is technically a monoclinic prism - long with a lopsided, pointy tip. Whatever size the crystals are they will be this shape, but it is only really visible in the larger crystals grown in class or found in purchased epsom salts.

To make coloured crystals:
Mix watercolour paints with the epsom salt solution then layer thickly onto heavy white paper (e.g. watercolour paper). Overlapping colours will make nice effects.
It will take some time to dry, but is worth the wait.

Jar of epsom salts:
Epsom salts can also be grown in a cup or jar - simply dissolve the epsom salts in the water, and leave in an undisturbed place. A 3-D mass of crystals will form quite quickly. If there are no crystals once the liquid has cooled, tap the jar on a surface to initialize crystallization, and crystals will form very quickly - good to observe. Occasionally, crystal growth will be so slow that one or two giant crystals form.


Students can use dried beans of different colours to represent water and epsom salt molecules.
Don't like that there is one right answer to the worksheet - how to fix, while getting across what is happening with the molecules??

Grades taught
Gr K
Gr 1
Gr 2
Gr 3
Gr 4
Gr 5
Gr 6
Gr 7