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Leaving no stone unturned in quest for painted rocks

CONCORD, N.H. – A little more than a year ago, my twin sister and I celebrated our birthday with a hike, and it was so much fun we vowed to spend time outdoors together every month for the following year. We failed miserably, but when we recently squeezed in what ended up being our second-annual birthday hike, I snagged some river rocks to bring home, hoping they’d serve as a reminder to get out more.

I decided to adorn the rocks with a mandala pattern. Sanskrit for “circle,” mandalas are spiritual symbols that encompass intricate, abstract designs that typically start with a central point and emanate from there in a circular pattern.

I found dozens of online tutorials for such painting, and narrowed my choices down to three methods. All used inexpensive acrylic paint, but employed different tools used to make the dotted designs. One version used a paintbrush, one used a cotton swab and pencil, and the third used tools specifically designed for painting dots. Note: While craft stores sell smooth river stones, some may come coated with wax or varnish, so make sure you remove that before painting if possible.

Here’s what I found, with each method rated from 1 to 10, with 10 indicating the least expensive, easiest and best results:


The website Colorful Crafts features a straightforward, photo-based tutorial on painting a mandala design on a stone with just paintbrushes. The design consists of increasingly larger dots, starting with a pale color and getting darker with each successive ring.

I purchased the pointed-tip, synthetic brushes recommended in the tutorial for about $8. I had trouble, however, achieving symmetrical circles, and many of my dots resembled wavy-edged ovals (picture a fried egg). I should have paid more attention to the directions, which caution that paint consistency is key. You don’t want the paint to be runny, but it should be fluid enough so that it sort of drops onto the stone and forms a circle on its own. In hindsight, I should have used larger brushes for the larger dots instead of trying to paint them with the fine-point brushes in the set I purchased.

While close scrutiny of my finished project reveals far from uniform dots, this method was the fastest version, perhaps because the design is a bit simpler than the others or perhaps because it didn’t involve switching among multiple tools.

Cost: 6 Ease: 5 Results: 4


I admit, I was skeptical that using a cotton swab and pencil would produce good results, but I was pleasantly surprised by this video tutorial by YouTube user Lydia May. Dipping the eraser end of the pencil produces the largest size dots, while the point creates the smallest. Removing a bit of cotton from the swab and smoothing out the end allows for medium-sized dots, while removing all the cotton allows the end of the cardboard stick to be used to create smaller circles.

The design featured in this tutorial was also fairly simple because it starts with just eight small dots around a central point, instead of 16 like some other versions I tried. It also lacks the “top dots” – smaller dots on top of larger dots – that other designs include, though I added some later to give the design a bit more depth and color.

This was the most affordable project given that it uses items you likely have around the house already, making it a better choice to try with children or a larger group.

Cost: 9 Ease: 7 Results: 7


For my third attempt, I went all out and purchased a set of tools designed specifically for such painting. For about $12, I got a set of acrylic rods of various diameters, a set of rounded-tip dotting tools, a paint palette and a set of stencils. I didn’t use the stencils, but rather followed a video tutorial by Kristin Uhrig.

This was the most intricate design of the three, and took about an hour and a half to complete. The acrylic rods did produce uniform dots, though I found their length a bit cumbersome; it felt harder to ensure I was placing the dots exactly where I wanted them. I’m sure that would get easier with practice, however, and the final result was impressive.

Cost: 5 Ease: 7 Results: 8

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