How to Make Painted Stones and Rocks

Orange painted stone with smiling face sitting on rock surrounded by leaves.
Photo by Lisa Marder

People and communities all over the country are discovering the beauty and power of the humble painted stone. As a gift, found treasure, and community practice painted stones create joy and promote generosity and kindness. The movement of painting rocks with inspirational quotes or beautiful, joyful images and placing them for the random passerby to find is growing. The common beach, field, or woodland stone or rock, painted with an image or inscribed with inspirational words or symbols, can be both emotionally and spiritually uplifting while also serving a utilitarian purpose if desired. 

From representational to abstract, elegant to whimsical, simple to intricate, and everything in between, the possibilities for what you can paint on rocks and stones are endless. A common beach stone can be turned into a beautiful and unique work of art and passed down for generations to come. It can be used as a paperweight, carried in a pocket to offer inspiration as needed, or placed in a spot to be seen and appreciated easily. What you can paint on a rock is only limited by your skill, creativity, and own imagination.

Rock painting is a great way to to get started painting and can be the perfect hand-made gift for someone you care about. All ages, from toddlers on up, can participate in this activity, and it can be as basic or as complex as you want to make it - either way there is something about a hand-picked and hand-painted rock that touches the heart.

You might start enjoying painting rocks so much and creating so many that you may want to start leaving them anonymously around your own community, too. Just remember, if you are lucky enough to find one of these stones left by someone else, you may take it, but you should put it back later, or someplace else, or replace it with another one that you have made. You can also leave it where you find it and just take a picture of it, collecting your stones that way. 

Be careful to leave your stones where they can be seen and discovered without being tripped over and causing anyone harm. Also be sure to only leave stones out to be found that don't have anything attached to them; you don't want parts to fall off or be ingested by wild animals. Also be respectful of places that ask you to carry out what you bring in. 

Here are steps to help you get started and some websites that are sure to inspire you and ignite your own passion for painting rocks. 

What to Look for in a Stone and Where to Find Rocks for Painting

You can find rocks everywhere of course, but don't take any rocks from protected land, beaches, or private property. 

When out looking for rocks, keep in mind that different shapes lend themselves to different designs. As you get more involved in painting rocks you will find that all different sizes of stones are useful, from small pebbles to larger rocks - whatever you can easily carry. You might use smaller rocks by themselves, or glue them on as appendages to larger rocks.

Also look for some rocks that have a flatter side that you might be able to stand on end more vertically rather than horizontally for designs such as people, birds or sitting cats or dogs - anything taller than it is wide.

Look for stones that are smoother in texture. They are easier to paint on than are stones that are pitted or rough. You want to avoid shiny or polished stones, though. If the stone is polished the paint won't adhere as well to it. And shiny stones are so pretty, anyway, would you want to paint it? But if you do, you should sand it to create some texture and then apply a coat of primer before painting. 

Rocks can be curved or angular. Think about what you might like to paint as you are collecting, or collect all different shapes so that you have some of each on hand for your projects. You can even use bricks and pavers, and other landscaping hardscape materials.

You can buy rocks at landscaping supply companies and garden centers as well as stores like Home Depot, Michael's, and Walmart. Ask for river rocks or stones, or landscaping rocks. You can also buy them online such as these large white decorative landscape rocks (Buy from Amazon) or these small gray landscape beach pebbles (Buy from Amazon).

Materials and Tools Needed

Preparation of Rocks and Steps for Painting

  1. Wash stones with soap and water in a bucket. Bleach will clean them thoroughly. Scrub with an old toothbrush or scrub brush to get the dirt off. Dry stones with towel or paper towel and let air dry completely.
  2. Sand off any gritty parts with sandpaper if necessary
  3. Prime stones with one or two coats of acrylic gesso or primer. This will help subsequent layers of paint adhere to the surface and will make the colors appear brighter if the rock is dark. 
  4. You can smooth Elmer’s wood filler over a rock’s holes, dimples, or cracks to even it out before priming. Wood filler is also useful if you want to add to the base of a stone to help it stand up. Read Cindy Thomas's blog, How to Make Stones Stand Upright and Expand Your Rock Painting Possibilities to find out more.
  5. Once your stone is dry and clean, apply a coat of primer.
  6. When the primer is dry you are ready to paint on and decorate your rock.
  7. Finally, when all done and the paint is dry, apply sealer to the finished rock painting. 
  8. Clean up, wash your brushes well with soap and water, put the tops back on the acrylic paints so they don't dry out and you are ready for next time!
  9. Tip: If you leave your brush out too long or forget to clean it you can dissolve the dried acrylic paint in your brush with rubbing alcohol or by soaking the brush hairs in Murphy's Oil for one or two days. 

Ideas for What to Paint on Your Rock

  • Holiday and Seasonal Stone Art - snowman, Nativity set, Christmas tree, snowflakes, reindeer, penguins, winter scenes, holiday scenes, Santa, elves, words, etc. 
  • Inspirational words: Words from the heart work best, but here are a few suggestions. You rock, You're beautiful, Joy, You can do it, Keep going, Smile, Enjoy, Live fully, Live your dreams.
  • Mandala designs, abstract geometric patterns, Mondrian stones, abstract paintings
  • Animals: cute penguins, curled up realistic animals, bird chicks, owls
  • Miniature landscape or miniature abstract urban scene
  • Flowers, plants, leaves
  • Famous paintings in miniature
  • Plants, insects, ladybugs, fish, frogs, coiled snakes, snails, etc.
  • Gratitude stones
  • Poured paint stones
  • Garden markers 

How You Can Participate in Spreading Kindness Through Painting Rocks

The painted rock movement has taken off around the country.Whole neighborhoods or communities can participate in a treasure hunt-style search for painted rocks, much like searching for Easter Eggs. It is a fun, family-oriented activity that gets people out of doors, interacting with their neighbors, and can be used to raise money for worthy causes, as Sara Lindberg describes in her article, How About Painted Rocks Instead of Pokemon Go? 

There are many Facebook pages dedicated to communities of rock painters. You can start your own local group and public Facebook page, inviting friends to create painted rocks, hide them, and post pictures of the rocks they find, or join The Kindness Rocks Project initiated by Megan Murphy. Be sure to use the hashtag #The Kindness RocksProject on the back of the rock you paint to be part of this project and share your work, helping to spread kindness and create community through art.

Further Reading and More Ideas