Color Theory for Kids

Lori Soard
Contributor: Jennifer Betts
Child with paint on her hands

Understanding how colors work together and how hues and shades are formed can help with basic art theory for students. Color theory can aid in understanding what colors of paint to mix together to get the tint the student wants for his picture, helping students construct rich works of art. Use Adobe to download the printables in this article.

Printable Color Wheel

At the root of color theory is a wheel, such as the one in the printable to the right. The colors at the center are lighter and grow darker at the edges of the circle. Where blue and yellow come together is green, where blue and red come together is purple, and where red and yellow come together is orange. Use the printable to show your student the concept of mixing colors to create new colors, and how white plays a role in the shade of the color.

Directions for the Worksheet

Use the info below under "Teaching Basics of Color" to explain color theory to the child. Then, direct him to use the color wheel and create the colors listed above the blank boxes at the bottom of the page.

You'll also need:

  • Paint in red, yellow, blue, white and black
  • Paintbrush
  • Small jar of water (empty baby food jars work well)
  • A towel or sturdy paper towel to dry the brush off between mixings
  • A paper plate or wooden palette to mix colors on
  • Apron for the child to wear

Once each color is mixed, the child should dab a circle into the blank box under that color before moving on to the next color.

Allow the worksheet to dry completely.

Teaching Basics of Color

Color theory can be a pretty advanced concept used by artists and graphic designers, but it can also be broken down into simple terms that even the youngest child can easily understand.

Preschool Age

Children who are four or five usually know their basic colors. This is a great age to teach them that red, yellow and blue are primary colors.

Provide the child with construction paper and the primary colors and ask them to first paint circles of each color and then try mixing the colors in different combinations to see what happens.

This will introduce the concept that colors can be mixed. Don't try to explain shades or even specific color combinations at this point.

Primary

Once children reach kindergarten and up, they are ready to delve a little deeper into color theory. If the child has already been introduced to the concept of primary colors and mixing, then you can jump right into harder concepts. If not, you'll want to explain the concept of primary colors and that they can be mixed to form other colors in the following combinations:

  • Red + Blue = Purple
  • Blue + Yellow = Green
  • Red + Yellow = Orange

Provide the child with primary color paints and a paintbrush and have him mix each of the combinations above to see how it works.

Elementary School

Children who are in third or fourth grade can begin to understand that there are different tints within a color family. Explain that adding white helps lighten a color, for example.

Introduce the color wheel printable and have students mix colors such as pink by looking at the wheel and figuring out what colors should be mixed together to create that color.

The colors on the worksheet include:

  • Dark green
  • Lilac
  • Tan
  • Dark red
  • Sky blue

Next, explain that secondary colors are the colors created when two primary colors are mixed together. Secondary colors include:

  • Purple (blue and red)
  • Green (blue and yellow)
  • Orange (red and yellow)

High School

Advanced art students can benefit from the color wheel as well. Print out the worksheet, but instead of having students mix colors like pink, discuss the tertiary colors. These are colors that mix a primary color with a secondary color next to it on the wheel. Some examples of tertiary colors are:

  • Blue-violet
  • Yellow-orange
  • Red-orange

Also, ask that they complete activities such as:

  • Choose a shade from the wheel and mix paint to match it as close as possible
  • Pick a famous portrait and come up with their own interpretation of it with matching colors (they can hold the color wheel to original painting)
  • Play a game such as "Name Those Pigments." Print the color wheel part of the worksheet onto a transparency. Point to a color on the wheel and have students compete to see who can figure out what amount of white and different colors would be used to mix that color.

Elementary School Art Projects

If you are looking for other different projects, projects can be a great way to reinforce the concept of color theory for little kids. Since 4-10-year-olds are still working to understand the basics, you'll want to keep the projects rather simple.

Rainbow Flowers

Allow kids from 4-6 to experiment with primary colors. You will need paper with flowers drawn or printed on them, watercolor paints and brushes.

  1. Give kids watercolors in yellow, red and blue.
  2. Using the colors have kids paint rainbow flowers. They should experiment with mixing the different colors.
  3. Point out different combinations like using yellow and blue to make green, etc.

Rainbow Monsters

This project is best for kids from 7-10 and requires at least 3 children. Materials include white socks, red, yellow and blue food coloring, containers and markers.

  • Fill the containers (Tupperware containers work great) with water and each food coloring (ie red in one, blue in another, etc.)
  • Give each child a sock.
  • Allow them to decorate their sock with a black marker like a monster.
  • Dip one section of the sock in their color.
  • Pass their sock to another child.
  • Repeat the steps until they have rainbow socks.
  • Note the different colors they make with their three containers.

Sand Art

This project works great for younger kids from 4-10. You will need different color sand and a container (clear plastic cup).

  • Using one color at a time, allow kids to experiment with mixing the sand.
  • They should be trying to make a rainbow design.
Sand Art

Middle School Art Projects

Middle schoolers have a greater understanding of different colors and shades of colors. Not only do they know the basic mixes of red, yellow and blue combinations, but they can use white and black to make different shades.

Color Wheel Starry Night

With paint (acrylic or watercolor) and poster board or canvas, have students recreate a Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh using all the different colors on the color wheel. They can do this in a line across the board or in a circular pattern. But, the image should resemble a rainbow starry night.

  • Draw the image first.
  • Plan out the different sections and the colors they should be.
  • Allow kids to paint their starry night.
Color Wheel Starry Night

Tie Dye Shirt

Rubber bands, gloves, buckets, fabric dye, white shirts, and creativity are needed to create color wheel tie-dye shirts. Best for kids 11-13, this project can get a little messy.

  • Go over the color wheel.
  • Tell students they are going to try to create color wheel tie-dye shirts.
  • Allow them to use the rubber bands and folding techniques to create patterns.
  • Have them carefully dip the shirts into the different dyes. Trying to not only mix the colors but follow the color wheel.
Tie Dye Shirt

High School Art Projects

High schoolers have an advanced understanding of color theory. They should understand the different shades and how they are created.

Monochromatic Comic Book

Provide kids from 14 and up crayons/markers and blank white sheets folded or stapled into a book. They are going to use one color, say orange, to create their entire comic book. They should use different versions of orange, adding white and black as needed, to create variety and depth in their comic book images.

  • Kids should plan out their story.
  • Using pencil have them draw their images.
  • Using their crayons, they should color each different picture. The goal is to create interest and depth with only one color by experimenting with the different versions of light and dark of that color.

Crayons might work better because there are more color varieties.

Group Painting

Working together is always fun and a challenge for older kids ages 13-18. You will need groups of at least 3-4 for this project.

  • Provide each group with a different impressionist painter like Claude Monet.
  • Each person in the group can only paint with one color (red, blue, yellow). All students can use white and black as needed.
  • All the group members should use their colors and working together to recreate the piece. (The point is to work together within their groups to create different colors.)
  • Not only will this take some planning, but they really have to think about different color combinations how to work together to create those colors.

Let Students Experiment

As with most things, students learn about color theory best when they practice the concepts. As each of the different levels of color theory (from the simplest idea of primary colors to more advanced tertiary colors and color tints), allow students to mix the colors and come up with different shades. By allowing the student to get hands-on with color, the concept of the color wheel will stick.

Color Theory for Kids