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 their picture, helping them construct rich works of art.
What Is Color Theory?
The color wheel and color theory can be challenging for kids. But basically, color theory is mixing colors and color creation. It starts with the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.
- The primary colors are the three colors you can't create by mixing colors. They include blue, red, and yellow.
- The secondary colors are those you create by mixing the primary colors. Purple, green, and orange are the secondary colors.
- Tertiary colors are those colors you get from mixing primary and secondary colors together. The tertiary colors include blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, and blue-green.
Now that you know the primary and secondary colors, it's time to talk about complementary colors. These colors cancel each other out and sit opposite each other on the color wheel. The basic complementary colors are:
- Red and green
- Yellow and purple
- Orange and blue
In color theory, you can also find warm and cool colors. When you think of yellow, you think of the warm sun, right? Red, orange, and yellow are the warm colors and are found together on the wheel. Purple, blue, and green are the cool colors. These also sit together on the color wheel. Think of blue as cold.
Printable Color Wheel
At the root of color theory is a wheel. 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. Use Adobe to download the printables in this article.
Directions for the Worksheet
Use the info below under "Teaching Basics of Color" to explain color theory to kids. Then, direct them 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
- Paint brushes
- 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 Color Theory to Elementary Students
Color theory can be a pretty advanced concept used by artists and graphic designers. Still, it can also be broken down into simple terms that even the youngest child can easily understand.
Children who are four or five years-old 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.
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 primary colors and mixing, 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 paint brush and have them mix each of the combinations above to see how it works.
Children 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 printable color wheel include:
- Dark green
- 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)
Elementary School Art Projects
Art projects offer a great way to reinforce the concept of color theory for little kids. Since kids ages four to ten are still working to understand the basics, you'll want to keep the projects relatively simple.
Allow kids ages four to six to experiment with primary colors. You will need paper with flowers drawn or printed on them, watercolor paints and brushes.
- Give kids watercolors in yellow, red, and blue.
- Have kids paint rainbow flowers using these colors. They should experiment with mixing the different colors.
- Point out different combinations like using yellow and blue to make green, etc.
This project is best for kids ages seven to ten and requires at least three 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 (i.e., red in one, blue in another, etc.)
- Give each child a sock.
- Allow them to use a black marker to decorate their sock 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.
This project works great for younger kids. You will need different colors of 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.
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 The 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.
Rubber bands, gloves, buckets, fabric dye, white shirts, and creativity are needed to create color wheel tie-dye shirts. Best for tweens, this project can get a little messy.
- Discuss 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. They should attempt to mix the colors while following the color wheel.
High School Art Projects
High schoolers have an advanced understanding of color theory. They should understand the different shades and how they are created.
High School Color Wheel Project
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:
Also, ask that they complete activities such as:
- Choose a shade from the wheel and mix paint to match it as closely 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 the original painting to compare)
- 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 and achieve that color.
Monochromatic Comic Book
Provide students with paint and blank white sheets folded or stapled into a book. They will 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.
- Students should plan out their story.
- Have them draw their images using a pencil.
- Using paint, they should color each different picture. The goal is to create interest and depth with only one color by experimenting with the different light and dark versions of that color.
Working together is always fun and a challenge for older kids ages 13-18. You will need groups of at least three people 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 work together to recreate the piece. (The point is to work together to create different colors within their groups).
- Not only will this take some planning, but they really have to think about different color combinations and how to work together to create those colors.
Help Students Experiment With Color Theory
As with most things, kids learn about color theory and color definition best when they practice the concepts. Each of the different levels of color theory (from the simplest idea of primary colors to more advanced tertiary colors and color tints) allows students to mix the colors and come up with different shades. By allowing students to get hands on with color, the concept of the color wheel will stick.