Color Exploration

By Melissa Purtee, posted on Jan 1, 2019

Color theory is a foundational skill for art students and teaching it is important, but it can also be fun. When painting with acrylics, the key idea for students to learn is that just about any color can be created by an artist who has white and both warm and cool primaries.

In my color mixing challenge, I give teams of students exactly those supplies and have them pick a page from a magazine. Next, I challenge them to mix colors to match as many of the colors from the magazine page as possible in a half-hour.

Prepare and Review
The day before this activity, I briefly introduce procedures for using acrylic paint, as well as the concept of tints and shades. When students participate in the challenge, this new knowledge is reviewed and applied as groups set up for painting and start mixing their paint. “This is a tint,” I hear as I walk around the room, then “Try the cool blue!” These conversations help students acquire knowledge quickly and remember it.

Layers of Learning
Of course, there is some productive struggle—especially when students realize that they don’t have black. “How can I mix gray without black, Ms. Purtee?!” This is good to hear— a sign that they are analyzing color, but I’m not going to give them the answers. “How could you research to find out?” I ask, and they dive for their phones, pulling up color wheels and disseminating the information they find, then immediately applying it. This is a thick activity, meaning it has layers of learning potential. It’s fun as well, because of the competitive element, with groups racing to mix the most colors, and dabbing them right on the magazine page for immediate feedback.

Power in Numbers
Group learning is a powerful force, and this color-mixing challenge wouldn’t be possible without it. A big thing is being asked of students who are mixing very complex colors with limited instruction. However, the combination of the group members’ knowledge, access to technology, and ready support by the teacher for those who get stuck supports this open-ended experience. The benefit of letting the group(s) struggle a bit as they search to figure out how to mix the colors on their magazine pages is the deep understanding that comes from knowing how a thing works; this does not come from simply following steps.

Respond and Discuss
Conversation is a key element in the learning that happens in groups. Students should discuss how to mix colors by asking each other questions and talking about possible solutions. Teachers can facilitate quality group conversations by holding back on the answers. When a group asks for a solution, encourage independence by asking members what they think. By harnessing group work, competition, and the concept of productive struggle, teachers can create a color theory exercise that will result in lasting knowledge.

Melissa Purtee is an art teacher at Apex High School in Apex, North Carolina, and co-author of The Open Art Room, available now from Davis Publications.

View this article in the digital edition.