Teaching Color Theory

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

The color wheel is the launching point of many interesting lessons in color theory. From early childhood finger painting to secondary collages, there are many methods of teaching color theory. The following lesson presents a few ideas.

Color Wheel Overview

Isaac Newton created the color wheel in 1666. The three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue, can't be created from mixing other colors. The secondary colors, purple, green, and orange, are created by mixing the primary colors. Tertiary colors are created by mixing the primary and secondary colors. The warm colors are red, yellow, and orange. The cool colors are blue, green, and purple. The neutral colors, black, white, and gray, while not on the color wheel, are used to tint and shade the colors of the color wheel. Tinting means to add white to a color, while shading means to add black to a color. These terms are included in what is called color theory.

Lesson Ideas and Challenges

Color Wheel

A color wheel is an easy lesson for all grades. Students can create their own color wheel or use a worksheet the teacher provides. Watercolor paints are ideal in creating a color wheel on paper. Cover tables in newspaper or tablecloths and make students wear aprons, smocks, or old shirts. If making their own color wheels, students should be shown how to draw six circles. Older students can draw twelve or fifteen circles or shapes of their own choosing. Beginning with the three primary colors, show students where on the color wheel these go. Then show them how to mix the primary colors to make the secondary colors. Older students can be shown how to make the tertiary colors.

Watercolor Color Wheel

Early Childhood (Birth- 5 years)

This age range is when children learn many things, from walking and talking to identifying objects and their colors. Apples are red, bananas are yellow, carrots are orange; and so on. They also learn different ways to create art and how to use different materials.

Finger Painting

One lesson to introduce younger students to color theory is finger painting. Tempera or special finger paints are easy to use because of their easy cleanup and non-toxic ingredients. Cover work areas with plastic or tablecloths for cleanup. Children should wear smocks or aprons to help keep paint off of clothes, and help children roll up any long sleeves.

Squirt small amounts of the three primary colors onto a large piece of paper and allow the children mix the three colors with their hands. Some students might over mix and create a mess, however, so watch this lesson carefully.


Mixing colors with play-doh is another way to introduce color mixing. If teachers have the budget, each student can be given containers of the primary colors.

Some websites, such as Pinterest, offer homemade play-doh recipes, which are more budget-friendly. Teachers control the amount given to each student this way.

Students should be given two portions of each color, but not all at once, so they can see how the colors change before the dough is inevitably mixed all together in one big ball.

Color Matching

A lesson with easier cleanup is a matching game. Colored dominoes work well for this, as students can match up the ends of the pieces. Blue ends match with blue ends, reds with reds, and so on.

Primary to Teen (6-13 years)

This age range sees many developments in student skills. Lessons can be simplified for younger students or made more technical for older students. Elementary students can be introduced to the basic six colors, while the older students can learn about the tertiary colors.


Collages are a fun way to teach color theory. All ages can use paper to create collages. All that's needed for a simple color wheel collage is paper, glue, and scissors. Students should be given papers of the six colors in the color wheel, and one large paper to glue everything on. Show the students an example and tell them to cut their papers into any shapes they want and then glue on pieces of paper. Tell them not to cut the shapes too small since they're more difficult to glue.

Older students can use pictures from magazines or catalogs to make a color wheel.

Collages can also be used when teaching warm and cool colors. One idea is to make a tree collage and use torn pieces of yellow, orange, and red paper as leaves.

Color Wheel Collage
color wheel

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