Exploring Color

Imagine for a moment, a world without color.  If you awakened in the morning to discover that you had lost your ability to see in color, how would it affect you?  There are practical things, like not being able to see traffic lights and signs as well or matching your clothes.  There are also emotional things, like the sadness that would likely come.  You would know you would never see a rainbow again.  The sky would not look blue.  Tulips would lose their bright cheeriness.

By Jeff Dahl (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Color is one of the basic elements of art.  Sometimes we become almost immune to it.  We are so used to it being all around us that we fail to recognize what an important part of our lives it is.  It is everywhere!  We have reactions to it, both positive and negative.  It affects our moods and can even cause us to act in certain ways.  Color is both simple and complex at the same time.

When it comes to art, the youngest child and the wisest art expert can both evaluate and discuss color.  We’ll take a look at what color is, its three characteristics, how colors are mixed, and some ways we can use all of this great stuff in art.

 What is color?

Simply put, color is light reflected off of objects.  The sun sends down a spectrum of light.  We can see this spectrum when we break apart white light using a prism.

By Spigget (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Certain objects absorb some of the parts of that light spectrum while reflecting others.  The reflected light is what we see, because it is reflected back into our eyes.  That means if I see a red shirt, that shirt absorbed all of the others colors and reflected the red.  The red enters my eyes and that is the color I perceive the shirt to be.  White is pure light.  Black is the absence of light.

The Three Characteristics of Color

When it comes to art, we talk about color in its characteristics.  There are three main characteristics:

1.  Hue

The hue is the name of the color – red, green, yellow, blue – all the named colors you learned as a preschooler.

2.  Value

The value is how light or dark it is.

3.  Intensity

The intensity is how bright or dull it is.

Compare the Mona Lisa with the color blocking of Mondrian.  They differ in hue, value, and intensity.  Think about your response to each if you were to reverse them.  Imagine the Mona Lisa painted in vivid primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) while the color blocking was done in various dull shades of browns and grays.  How would your reaction immediately change?

Would you have the same reaction to this computer colorized version of the Mona Lisa as you would the original?
Would you have the same reaction to this computer colorized version of the Mona Lisa as you would the original?

You can look at lots of different famous artwork and compare colors while discussing the three characteristics.  See if you can find 3 paintings that have red in them, but have different values or intensities of red.  Try to spot two paintings with different values – one very light and one very dark.  Find a painting with brightly intense colors and compare it with a dull colored painting.  How do these three characteristics of color play into the overall feel and tone of the painting?  Spend some time perusing an art book while just talking about color.

Mixing Colors

Primary colors are sometimes called TRUE colors.  All the others are just the primary colors mixed together is different ways.  Secondary colors are the mixtures of two primary colors.  Combine blue and red, for example, and you get purple.  Blue and red are both primary.  Purple is secondary.  Tertiary colors are the combinations of a primary and a secondary color together.  Blue + Green = Turquoise (or blue-green).


You can make your own color wheel while experimenting with mixing colors.  Begin with only the primary colors or red, yellow, and blue paints, and see if you can make all the other hues by mixing what you’ve got.  You can just sketch one out or you can use this printable Color Wheel.


You can also play with tints and shades.  Tints are colors mixed with white.  Shades are colors mixed with black.  In your art sketchbook, write some “equations” and see what happens when you mix various paints with black or white.  Start by doing your mixing on paper plates, putting the black at the center for the shades.


and the white at the center for the tints.


Then show the equations in your sketchbook:


More From Layers of Learning

Color is fun!  There are so many fun art projects you can explore with this one principle of art.  It spans all ages and levels of understanding.  For lots of really cool art projects and to learn more about it, color schemes, and how artists use them to evoke emotional responses, check out Layers of Learning Unit 1-12.  I love these explorations because besides being really fun art, they help teach the nitty gritty of how artists use and manipulate the element of color.

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