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Teaching Kids the Magic of Color

The long cold days of winter are the perfect time to delve a little deeper into a few things I’ve been meaning to teach the girls. One such topic is color theory, and while the girls have known how to mix and make various colors since they were tiny, there’s always room for practice. We also explored beyond primary and secondary colors, into tertiary colors and complimentary colors.

You want a big surface with enough space to mix lots of colors. I used baking sheets for this, and if you’re using tempera or acrylic paints, it will wash right off with water. We started with only the three primary colors, along with one paintbrush and a palette knife. If you don’t have a palette knife, you can substitute a butter knife or use clay tools, like we did.

Make a simple color wheel with blank spaces, and have the kids fill in the primary colors, and then have them mix the secondary colors. Encourage them to mix the colors thoroughly with the knife before painting.

From there move into tertiary colors, demonstrating how red mixed with orange makes red-orange, how blue mixed with green makes blue-green, etc…

After doing this exercise, my small girl exclaimed that there was no color she couldn’t make. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her about tone yet. YET.)

Next we talked about complementary colors, and how they relate to each other. We noted that they are opposite from each other on the color wheel, and that these colors tend to make the each other look brighter. Red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple—all common color combinations that look good together

I encouraged them to mix the complimentary colors together, and the girls were surprised to see that they all made brown. We compared the difference between the rich browns we had just made and the brown straight out of the tube. It was clear to the girls the difference in richness of a color made “from scratch.” We talked about how, really, we only needed the three primary colors, plus black and white in order to make any color they wanted.

In college, my professors were always telling us to make the color, not buy the color, and that a mixed color would have richness, depth, and interest that a factory color would be lacking.

Like a good recipe, it’s the quality of each part that goes into the whole that’s the difference between a ho-hum finished product, and an amazing one. Keep this in mind as you encourage your kids to make their own colors, using their knowledge of the color wheel as a guide. Their finished paintings will have a new level of interest to them, as well as an added level of involvement. And having kids push paint around with palette knives is a fine way to spend a long, cold day.

For more tips on teaching your kids to use color in their art, read my Beginner Drawing Lesson for Kids post on color.

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15 responses to “Teaching Kids the Magic of Color”

  1. Valarie

    What a lovely way to spend a winter afternoon. I learned so much from this post. We'll be working on this over here too. Thanks for another great art lesson. Have you thought of opening an art school for families? I just love these posts. I can hardly wait for the lesson on tone. Until then we'll work on making our lovely colors over here. Be well Amy.

  2. Carrie

    I want to go back in time and mess about with biology and the cosmos and have you as my mum – what a fab way to spend time with your kids :)

  3. Earth Mama

    My only quam in college was having to "make the color" more then once. I never could quite get the same EXACT hue twice. drats. and I always ran out. This was one of the lessons I loved doing though. Your girls are so lucky to have a mama like you.

    :)Lisa

  4. mandy

    Very cool project idea.

    I think if the color wheel would have been introduced to me this way I may have actually listened; instead now I automatically glaze over and tune out when I see a color wheel (similar reaction to Flash Cards!).

    Love this series Amy.

  5. Angela

    How much do I love it when you have art lessons?! Lots and lots. You always inspire me to teach my children, and your tutorials are a wonderful guide. We will definitely be making homemade color wheels here thanks to you!
    xo, Ang

  6. Dasken Designs

    love this! and the pics of the girls with the cookie sheet palette are priceless!

  7. erin

    This is so awesome Amy. I can't wait until Cami and Noah get a bit older and I can explain to them even more about color combinations. I've been giving Camille only red & blue or yellow & red recently when she does watercolors. She'll start separately and then blend them together and squeal with such excitement "mama, come here… I made purple." I really like your beginner drawing lesson too, great ideas!

  8. Francesca

    We will be "making colors" from now on too! Tone can wait :)

  9. jacqueline

    Dearest sweet amy, such a lovely way to spend the day with your little ones! I am also learning so much from you! Very inspiring and thanks so much for sharing. SO happy that i took a break from packing madness and came to visit you here. Have a lovely merry happy weekend and love to yoU!

  10. Nicola (Which Name?)

    What a fabulous lesson and such a fun way to teach and learn it. Thank you for sharing this, Amy!
    Nicola

  11. Concetta

    This is lovely…reminded me of a similar idea I had (that I still haven't done) involving paper plates and the garden on a warm day!! Soon… And thanks so much for your comment on my blog, it made me laugh, smile and feel warm inside! Look forward to sharing a glass of something one day xxx

  12. Mousy Brown

    I just had to sit through colour wheels with the kids at school – if only they had you instead of the least inspirational art teacher in the world! She makes me hate art lessons, thank goodness I already know how much I love it really! LOL

  13. agirlandherbrush

    how fun amy! i love the pie illustration with the color wheel. i have never seen it done that way and it make so much sense. you can actually see the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary colors! i am going to have to do this with my five year old!

  14. Kate England

    Such a great project and this fits right in with the first parts of your Beginner Drawing Classes. If it wasn't too much work (I don't know how much is involved) I think it would make a truly fabulous download! An e-book or a pdf! x

  15. kendra

    i read this post a while back but never had the chance to comment. i love it (only three colors = depth)!