Whether you're making fluffy, lamb-like clouds for a preschooler's craft project, creating clouds for a nursery mobile or assembling menacing thunderclouds to loom over a middle-schooler's Gothic diorama, basic cotton balls are the most versatile material available. Make sure you're using all-cotton cotton balls; synthetic balls or synthetic/cotton blends don't work as well.
Things You'll Need
Spray adhesive or white glue
Zip-close plastic bags
Shred cotton balls by hand to create realistic, wispy-looking clouds. Tug the balls gently until they tear into wispy strips of fiber, then use spray-on adhesive or white glue to fix those wisps to the background or to the roof of a shoe box diorama.
Create blanket-like stratus clouds by shredding cotton balls into wisps and then adding several layers of wisps together with spray adhesive to create a dense, blanket-like look. Spray adhesive works best for attaching these clouds to a background or to the roof of a shoe box diorama.
Shred cotton balls very lightly so they retain their general shape and then glue them in place to create towering, puffy cumulus clouds with flat bottoms. If this is for a diorama that's not in a shoe box, bend several pieces of floral wire at right angles to create a framework for the three-dimensional clouds. Tape or glue the wires in place on the diorama background, thread cotton balls onto the wires to hide them and then use spray adhesive to glue more cotton balls in place to create the clouds.
Glue a cluster of cotton balls that have not been shredded in place, crowded side-by-side, to create a fluffy cloudscape on a nursery mobile. If you want a more realistic look, use a fork or your fingers to lightly shred the surface of the balls once the glue has dried. Work delicately so you don't create any loose shreds of fiber that might drop on your little one.
Coloring the Clouds
Mix a few drops of food coloring and some rubbing alcohol in a small zip-close plastic bag. Place cotton balls inside the bag, close the bag, and shake vigorously to mix. Remove the cotton balls and let them dry -- the rubbing alcohol helps them dry quickly -- then shred and glue them in place to create fantastical, candy-colored clouds.
Mix food coloring and rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle and then apply to the cotton-ball "clouds" that you've already glued in place. Cover any parts of the project that you don't want to be colored with a few layers of paper towel or sturdy paper. Alternatively, you can place the clouds over a few layers of paper towels, spray them, then remove the paper towels and glue them in place once the cotton balls are dry.
Mix acrylic paints with water to achieve more realistic-looking hues for your clouds. Paint highlights carefully on by hand, or apply with a spray bottle. For the latter option, you'll get better performance if you add a touch of airbrush medium to the water/paint mixture or use rubbing alcohol instead of water.
Color the clouds with markers. This option is best for young children.
If you have something to attach them to, you can also hang shredded cotton-ball clouds from string. Use a needle to thread the string through fluffy, cumulus-style clouds, leaving both ends of the thread free for tying the cloud up.