Activities that explain and define the elements of art


Mixing colors seems magical to children. They even voice the word “magic” when observing a simple mixing demonstration. The color mixing exercises were always in use. The following color activities are based on the work of the Swiss artist and art educator, Johannes Itten. His book, The Art of Color, is a classic color theory curriculum. His background and teaching history are interesting.

Color has five qualities. Books may only tell you there are three. The first quality is hue. Hue is another name for color. The second quality is value. Value is the lightness or the darkness of a color. The third quality is intensity. Intensity is the brightness or dullness of a color. The fourth quality of color is interaction. Colors influence each other. The fifth quality is weight. Each color by its natural lightness or darkness has a feeling of weight. Yellow is at the top of the traditional color chart while purple is at the bottom. Red and blue are closer in lightness and darkness and are on either side of purple, which is the darkest. Orange and green are darker than yellow, yet lighter than red and blue. The lightness and darkness of a color is important when mixing hues. The traditional color wheels are weighted. The lightest color is at the top and the darkest is at the bottom, and the rest of the colors follow in order of descending darkness.

The Montessori color boxes, while important, do not address all the qualities of color. There is a wealth of exciting information to be found in the study of four color groups and four color wheels. Once each of them is learned, have the children record their work. Suggestions are given, but structure the recording of the information as you like.

The primary colors red, yellow, and blue are not mixed colors but they can be combined to create three other groups of colors. The Secondary Colors are orange, purple, and green. Each secondary color is visually midway between the two primaries that produce it. The Intermediate Colors are yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green, and yellow-green. They are not visually balanced colors. There is only one orange but many yellow-oranges and red-oranges, etc. They appear to have more of one primary than the other. The neutral colors are brown, gray, black, and white. They are made using all the primary colors except one of them that cannot be mixed. The four color wheels reveal relationships that exist between these color groups.

Color paddles and spinning tops – like the ones pictured here – are dry color mixing activities. Wet activities are done with transparent watercolor paint mixed in white containers. Mixing color is a sensorial activity, not mathematical. Allow the children the freedom to see when they have arrived at the color they want.

Note: The first and second color boxes start the study of color. The traditional lessons are important to give.


I taught five year olds, so their first discovery activities took place at home or at school before they came to me. I started color mixing while introducing water control activities at the beginning of the school year. I introduced at least 30 color theory exercises for children 5-9 and still selectively reviewed some of them for the 9-12 students before going on to more complex color work.