3 Fresh New Ways to Teach About Color

Hands down, color theory is my favorite thing to teach. I do a color unit every year with each grade level not only because I enjoy teaching it, but because I believe that color theory is central to understanding and creating art. Over the years, I have tried many different ways to get students excited about color.

Here are 3 of my most successful techniques.



1. Dazzle them with an optical illusion!

This trick is a great “hook” for the beginning of the lesson. All you need is a simple shape cut out of bold, red constructions paper. I use a red circle about 6 inches in diameter.

At the beginning of class, I stick this red circle on the board. I have my students stare at the red circle. They are to look at nothing else, just the red circle. After about 30 seconds, I let them know I am going to remove the red circle, but they should keep looking at the whiteboard. I whip the circle away and at that moment you can hear a pin drop.

There is a little pause and then the class responds. It usually sounds like “Whoa! Wow! Do it again!” If done correctly, students should see a mint green circle appear where the red circle used to be. I use this trick to jump into a discussion of complimentary colors and rods and cones with older students. This trick is so wildly popular that students beg to see it again. If class goes smoothly, I will test out another complimentary color combo at the end of the class using an orange triangle or a purple square.

Have I piqued your interest? Try out one of my favorites included in the image below. Start at it for about 30 seconds, then re-focus your eyes on something white. What do you see?

Optical Illusion Flag

These out-of-the-box activities are the kind that your students won’t soon forget. If you’re someone who likes bringing new ideas to your classroom, you might be interested in the Diving Deep into Color Theory PRO Learning Pack. Johanna shares so many different creative ways to teach your students about color.

2. Incorporate music.

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head? Music is a wonderful teaching tool, proven to help students process information and make connections. There are several songs on the market about color, but this one by OK GO! is my favorite. It is visually fun to watch and allows for students to predict the answer during the 2nd verse. Warning, it is catchy!

3. Let students explore.

Make learning about color mixing like an experiment. Don’t tell students what will happen, let them find out! I suggest using non-traditional materials or techniques.

One of my favorites is bubble printing. I set up 4-6 stations around my room and the have students take turns. Each station consists of 3 paint colors (red, yellow and blue) thinned with water and a touch of dish soap in a sturdy container (I use recycled frosting cups). Each student also has his or her own straw.

Students begin with yellow paint and blow bubbles just like they would in milk (when no adult is watching of course). They use their paper to press down and pop the bubbles, leaving light yellow circles on the page. Next, they move on to red and finally blue, making sure to overlap colors and see what happens. I set a limit depending on the paper size. Usually 3-4 prints for each color. For a detailed description of bubble printing, check out this blog.

bubble paint copy

bubble print copy

This project is all about the process, but the product is quite unique and beautiful. I use it for future book covers. It is messy, but fun and when an activity is this much fun, students do not want to misbehave and potentially miss out.

There are an unlimited number of ways to get students excited about color theory. What techniques do you prefer?

Heather is AOE’s Project Manager and an expert in differentiation, curriculum development, and assessment. She is a veteran teacher in the art room and at the graduate level.


  • emily valenza

    i love to introduce synesthesia after my basic color theory lesson, and invite students create pieces based on Wassily Kandinsky’s written theories about sound and color while listening to Arnold Shoenberg (http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/339/4331)
    (here’s a tiny sample of Kandinsky’s thoughts: http://www.nga.gov/education/classroom/elements/color/kandinsky.shtm or http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3653012/The-man-who-heard-his-paintbox-hiss.html)

    Another fun lesson is to cover the symbolism of color around the world and how certain colors have very different meanings in different cultures- then use this study to create emotive abstract works.


    • I am a sucker for anything that integrates music and or cultural studies! Good stuff!

      • Allison Waters

        Have you heard of the game “One Hand Clapping”? Its a game where the player draws platforms literally by singing notes into the mic!

    • Allison Waters

      I like to mix a little history into color symbolism. The meaning of colors correlates heavily with the history of color language and to culture (check out the Himba tribe, a tribe with no word for blue). For example, purple is considered a “royal” color because purple dye had was not easy to make (it took about 250,000 of a certain kind of mollusks, called “porphrya” from which the word “purple” is derived, that produced purple mucus to make 1 ounce) and so purple clothing could only be bought by royals. It wasn’t until the 15th century that a synthetic version was invented that allowed others to buy it (although it was still pricey and so reserved for the rich).

  • I love that OK Go video. Just used it with my kinders this week. They begged to watch it again and again and again!

  • Tery Castrogiovanni

    I love the optical illusion with complementary colors!

  • Mrs.C

    I love the optical illusion with the complementary colors! :)

  • The OK GO! video is awesome. Used it last year and the students enjoyed it so much that we kept hitting replay and sang along the whole class period as they painted.

  • Lisa H

    I LOVE those three ideas! That video and the optical illusion are perfect!

    There’s a fun activity I learned during college that the kids LOVE. They also learn VALUE with this too. I grab a bunch of paint swatches from Home Depot and make black and white copies of them. Then I put the b&w versions in an envelope (sometimes I have to write the name of the color on it because it’s hard to see). The students grab a b&w swatch, read its name, then based on its name and its value, try to guess what the color is by mixing (I use watercolors). Then, once they have a guess, they grab the corresponding envelope and see the real color. If their guess was incorrect, they have to try to match the color. It really gets them thinking about saturated colors, tints, shades, color theory, and even literacy when reading the weird name of the color that the paint companies come up with. The best thing is that this works with ALL ages and allows them experiment without fear of failure. There is no end product for them to worry about – just a piece of paper with a bunch of colored blobs.

    • Lisa,
      I like how open ended this is. It gets kids to really see how they can try something, and keep tweaking to make it correct. It’s an exercise in flexibility and accuracy! Wonderful!

  • Sara H

    Too funny that I use the video with my 7th graders and they too love it! Such a great and catchy way to teach about color!

  • Kristina Brown

    Hah! It’s been over a year since I’ve used that video with my first graders, and I’m able to sing the song just being reminded of it!

  • Dawn McKay

    What perfect timing as I am starting color with Kindergarten this week. They will love the OK GO! video! Thanks!

  • Holden

    “Piqued” interest…
    You seem to have a great deal of little literary mistakes throughout your site and PDFs: do you need someone on your team to edit your publications and pages? Give me an email if so,

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  • Shannon Marie

    Why do our eyes replace the red dot with a mint green dot?

  • Allison Waters

    If you use PowerPoint, the optical illusion one is really easy. You can tweak the slide to automatically change after a certain amount of time. You can also easily repeat illusions by just moving back and forth with the sides. I like to start simple (red dot) and show more and more complicated ones!