Tempera paint is my favorite medium for teaching color mixing to kids. The color concepts kids learn with tempera paint will apply to other mediums, too. Here are 5 ways you can help your students experience success in mixing colors with tempera paint.
Kids can enjoy color mixing success when they…
1. Use a quality tempera paint.
Student grade tempera paints tend to be inexpensive, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. The quality can vary widely.
When shopping for tempera paint, buy a small amount to test it before purchasing anything in quantity for your students. Price does not necessarily determine the best paint to use for teaching color mixing.
I like to paint a simple color wheel using only red, yellow, and blue to see how well the colors mix. I’ve found the best “mixing test” is to see if you can get a good purple when mixing the red and blue.
Another important feature of quality paint is that it won’t crack or flake off the paper when it dries. Just make sure you’re not applying it too thickly. Even the best tempera paints can crack when too much is used.
2. Limit the colors they start with.
For K-5 students, all you need are the 3 primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) plus black and white. By limiting students’ options to just these colors, they will learn how to mix the other colors they want.
This is called working with a “limited palette“. A limited palette ensures that the colors they mix will work well together since they contain the same base colors.
3. Incorporate a range of values.
Value is the lightness or darkness of a color. Beginner paintings often have too many middle-range values, and not enough lights and darks. The most successful paintings will have a range of light to dark.
Making a black and white value scale is a helpful way for kids to gain a basic understanding of value. But while it’s easy to see values in a monochromatic value scale, it’s more difficult when you’re looking at colors.
Artists will often squint when looking at something to eliminate details so they can focus on seeing the lights and darks. This technique can also help students recognize values in their subject and assess their use of values in their painting.
4. Include neutrals, or tertiary colors.
A painting with only bright colors can feel like those colors are competing with each other for attention. Adding some neutrals can create a more pleasing and harmonious composition. This is because these neutral browns and grays are made by mixing various amounts of all three primary colors together.
Colors made by mixing the three primary colors are also called tertiary colors. (The word “tertiary” comes from the Latin root for “third”.)
5. Choose colorful subjects.
The best motivation for kids to mix a variety of colors is to offer fun, colorful subjects to paint. Some examples that my students have enjoyed are tropical birds, fish, flowers, butterflies, bugs, and rainforest frogs.
I’ve always encouraged kids to use artistic license rather than focusing on the realism of “scientific illustration”. I prefer to have elementary students use photos for inspiration and then go with their imagination from there.
an inspiring quote…
“I try to apply colors like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.” – Joan Miro
Colors are to painters what words are to poets and notes are to musicians. They are building blocks used to create art, but they’re also much more than that.
A poet’s words are often chosen for the feelings they hope to inspire. And a musician’s notes can be played with a passion that fills the listener with emotion.
Similarly, a painter’s use of color can convey far more than just the local color of the subject being painted. Skillfully used color can capture a mood and stimulate the senses. Color offers the artist a powerful opportunity for self-expression.