“He who knows how to appreciate colour relationships, the influence of one colour on another, their contrasts and dissonances, is promised an infinitely diverse imagery.”
~ Sonia Delaunay
Recently the children in my class enjoyed an art activity where they made hand prints in the style of Andy Warhol’s art, using primary (i.e., red, yellow and blue) and secondary (i.e., green, purple and orange) colours. They painted the four sections of their paper different colours, and then made a hand print in the middle of each square, the idea being to ensure that each square used one primary and one secondary colour. This was a wonderful sensory activity and gave children the opportunity to make decisions about which colours they wanted to place together. However, many of them seemed to find the terms primary and secondary a bit mysterious, so we decided to make our own colour wheel in order to get a better understanding of what these terms mean. It was interesting to find a way to give them information that they needed, and to find out what they know already about colours and colour mixing.
I decided to read the book Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh. This story is wonderful because it allows children to easily name the colours they know, and to make predictions about what will happen when two colours are mixed together. And it provides a bit of clarity about what we mean when we talk about primary and secondary colours. As an extension to the reading activity, we did a number of things. We made lists of familiar things that were red, yellow, blue etc. For yellow, the children contributed words like the sun, bananas, lemons, dandelions and these were written on yellow paper. Making such lists for each colour allowed children to see their ideas written down, and to connect the new information to what they knew already. Some children drew pictures of things that represented each colour. Others painted paper plates using the colours that represented different parts of the colour wheel. When all of these things were accomplished, we assembled them into their own unique colour wheel, and created a display that the children can look at as needed.
Why teach young children about the colour wheel? I looked at the book Children and Painting by Cathy Weisman Topol. She writes that when we place the colours we see in the rainbow (the visible spectrum) in a circle, it is easier to see the relationships between them, and to establish basic rules about using and combining colours (p. 43). We can learn about the primary colours – those that cannot be made by combining other colours (e.g., red, blue, yellow); secondary colours – those that are created by combining primary colours (e.g., orange, green, purple); tertiary colours – those created by combining a primary colour with a secondary colour (e.g., yellow-orange or blue-green); warm and cool colours – the degree of warmth or coolness depends upon how much red or blue is in the colour; harmonious colours (those related to each other or close together on the colour wheel) and contrasting colours (those that are opposite to each other on the colour wheel). Being introduced to these concepts broadens children’s understanding of the colours they are learning to recognize and to create through active exploration. It gives them the language they need to describe what they are expressing through their art while building their colour vocabulary. The simple activity of making hand prints, using primary and secondary colours revealed significant information about what children knew about colours and what I could do as an educator to add to their understanding.
Here are some additional resources that childen might enjoy!