Media & Techniques

How To Teach Color Theory and Keep Students Engaged (Ep. 005)

This episode is a great discussion on color theory, as well as the “hows” and “whys” of teaching it. Andrea Slusarski, aka The Nerdy Art Teacher, joins Tim to talk about using color theory to develop student engagement and a better classroom experience for her students. Listen for a discussion on the exciting parts of science and color theory (5:00), why we need to ditch our color wheel projects (9:30), and the perfect project to inspire students’ confidence (15:00). Tim closes the show talking about student engagement and the benefits of engaging instruction. Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links:

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. Today’s episode is called “How to teach color theory and keep students engaged.” I’m one of those people who can talk about color theory for days. I love the intricacies, the science behind color, and just the endless possibilities that come with mixing color. More importantly, I love teaching my kids about all these things as well. Today though I’m going to talk to someone who loves to nerd out about color even more than I do.

Andrea: I’m Andrea Slusarski. I’m an art teacher from Gateway High School in Metro Denver, Colorado.

Tim: Slu is the author of the Nerdy Art Teacher blog, and one of the things she does best is color theory, in her painting classes, in her own art work, and in her incredibly well received presentation at the Colorado Art Educators Association Conference last year.

Andrea: Color is an experience and that’s how we should be teaching it. By incorporating the science behind it and the motions associated with it you’re giving your students multiple routes to connecting with color in your classroom.

Tim: We’ll try today to figure out exactly how we can translate the appeal of color theory to the students in our classroom. Hey, how do we pass along that excitement to our students? How do we engage them? It all comes back to my favorite mantra when it comes to teaching, don’t be boring.

Before we talk student engagement let’s talk about the idea of color theory and how we teach it. I’m not on social media all that often but it seems like every time I’m on the Art Teachers Facebook group someone feels the need to bring up the idea of us needing to get away from the idea of red, yellow, blue as the primaries, move toward cyan, magenta, yellow. You see these articles, “Red is no longer a primary color,” somebody start up a discussion, “Our primary colors are completely irrelevant,” and then we go back and forth for dozens if not hundreds of comments talking about whether you have the wrong color wheel in your classroom or talking about the “right way” to do color theory.

First of all, let’s calm down. There’s not a right way to do anything in the art room. Secondly, if you teach the science behind color and the visible light spectrum, the framework of seeing wavelengths from red to purple, it’s a necessary bit of information. Third, it’s going to be different for everyone because your teaching needs to be responsive to the needs of your students. Let me tell you a little bit about I guess what I do with color theory, what’s worked for me and for my students. It’s not necessarily the right way or the wrong way, but just the way I’ve done it before and the way I found success.

When I taught elementary we always did red, yellow, blue as the primaries. For the little kids who were learning how rainbows work the names of their colors and how to spell them, that’s perfect. It’s a basic building block of knowledge. Then we move on to complements and color schemes and the effects of color. There’s a lot to work with there. My high school intro class it’s very similar. Some of my kids haven’t had art in years, sometimes ever, and we need to start with those building blocks. That’s fine. That’s a good place to begin. But when we get to the second, third, or fourth year of kids being in the art room, you better believe we are far beyond red, yellow, and blue.

Before my advance students leave my classroom they’ve seen and mixed just about every color imaginable. They know about reflection, absorption, and wavelengths. They know about perception and emotional effects, and psychological and physiological reactions to color. More important than anything though, they know how to use color, how to affect their artwork and the viewer through the ways they select and utilize color. Really, isn’t that what’s it’s all about? We need to be giving kids the tools and the knowledge they need to create successful artwork. My kids love all that knowledge. Even if you don’t know about all of those things yourself, you can explore it with your students.

There’s so many great resources out there. We’re going to share some of our favorites in the show notes and the types of information that you can share with your students and you can find with your students is almost never ending. All you need to do is to decide on what your students need and how to bring that knowledge into your classroom. To help us figure out some of the best ways to do that we’re going to bring Slu on the show right now.

Slu, how are you tonight?

Andrea: I am doing great. I’m feeling really excited to talk about color.

Tim: Awesome, awesome. I’m excited about it too, because I think you and I are the two people who nerd out more than anybody about color theory, so I thought it’d be perfect to have you on for this show.

Andrea: Yeah, I feel that way too.

Tim: I know you talk a lot with your kids about the science of color theory. Let’s start with that. What do you do with the very basics, with reflection and absorption?

Andrea: In my painting classes before we even begin with color theory or emotions I focus on why color happens, simply the reflection and absorption of light around us and how our brain is perceiving it. Here is the hook for some students because they’ve never thought about color differently until now, so now I got them. We discuss what reflection and absorption mean, and then I show this simple little diagram that breaks down this process. White light is all the colors. It’s hitting this apple. All the colors we that don’t perceive as red are absorbed into this apple. The light that we do in fact perceive is red is reflected off of its surface. That is what our eyes pick up and send to our brain which now tells us that we’re seeing red.

Tim: I guess my question to follow up with that though, you say you have that hook and then kids are in with that. For me and for a lot of teachers I think that’s kind of difficult. One of my favorite mantras of teaching is always don’t be boring. I guess the important question here is when you’re bringing in that science aspect to what you’re doing with color, how do you make that interesting and exciting for those kids who maybe just don’t care?

Andrea: Well, I tap into their curiosity here and I challenge those students. How do you really know that you’re seeing red?

Tim: Right.

Andrea: Then I usually drop my joke here about wanting to play wrong with my potential future children and teaching them to say red when they’re actually looking at a green object. So they go to kindergarten, everyone is looking them funny, being like, “Isn’t your mom an art teacher, you know,” and this gets kids be like, “You would really do that?” I’m like, “Maybe.”

So when you admit to a high schooler that color is all in their heads and they’ve just been told about colors their entire life, that curiosity and sometimes shock will lead them into wanting to understand more of what they can know about color, and that’s where we go into the science. Plus, seriously what is that cool about science? It’s all in your delivery.

I show students the picture of a mantis shrimp, this dinky little shrimp and then explain to them how they have the most complex visual systems every discovered, and that they see colors that we can’t even fathom that we don’t even know exist. That’s cool. Just like right now, I’m sitting at my desk and I’m super pumped about color and I’ve been talking about color for a long time. You take that excitement, you take that nerding out, and you feed that, you make your energy of your classroom that. That’s where I hope to get my students.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s a good one, because I don’t know, I guess I’ve always found in my experience and with elementary school especially but with high school even like, the things that you’re excited about, that’s what your students are going to be excited about as well. I think if you can pass that excitement on then you’re really going to have success. Have you found that to be the same way?

Andrea: Absolutely. One of my response questions was that I had changed their entire viewpoint on their world from one student. This is a student who’s-

Tim: That’s awesome.

Andrea: Yeah, who’s never really spoken up or was just kind of a quiet kid. He was like, “You just like turned my world upside down Slu.” I was like, “Excellent. That’s what I was trying to do.”

Tim: Nice.

Andrea: That’s where you feed off that excitement. Then what’s exciting is you plant that seed, and especially for high schoolers that color is so accessible, they can go home and Google or look up a YouTube video on color and they come back to class and we start to have those conversations more around just what is color and why is it happening instead of here’s a color assignment, mix these colors, we’re done.

Tim: I guess, yeah, that’s kind of the perfect transition into what I wanted to talk about next. With all of the possibilities that are out there for color and all the different things that kids can do, like do you see any reason that we still need to be making color wheels? Like do you think that kids need to do a color wheel, or can you get all of those concepts across with experimentation and exploration, everything else that you offer?

Andrea: Well, I might make a few people angry with this answer but no, I do not think students should be creating a color wheel, especially at the high school level. It’s elementary. It’s not … They feel repetitive. When I teach the color wheel I take away the pressure and explain to my students what it really is, and that is the color wheel is a diagram to help them. They see and use diagrams in all of their classes. The color wheel just happens to be the big one for art. You use the color wheel to help you make these choices and solve problems with your painting, just like you would use a map diagram to answer a question. What is the complementary of blue? I don’t know. Look at your color wheel. That’s what it’s there for.

However, if you’re feeling that need to create a color wheel, I use this exercise in color mixing at the beginning of my painting one unit, and students are required to make a chart. It needs to be in order of the color wheel. I show a very simple square chart that they can do. Some kids go a little bit above and beyond. I don’t care. That’s your choice. The colors need to be in order of the color wheel with the primaries, with the correct secondaries in between them, and they practice their color mixing.

I don’t grade in creativity or how well they’ve “created” a color wheel. Instead that pushes away and I let my students mix their secondaries, then add white, then black to their primaries and secondaries they’ve created. You’re using this as more of an exercise. I don’t spend more than a week on this. I just want kids to be mixing colors. I’m also that mean art teacher who starts off the year with only red, yellow, blue, white, and black.

Tim: Yes.

Andrea: You know, like, “Well, why can’t I use the green bottle I see over there that you haven’t opened up Miss Slu?” “Because you need to prove to me that you know how to make green. That’s why.” Then I gradually introduce colors into their paint rotation which has kind of become more of a experience in my classroom. For instance today I introduced raw sienna. You’re creating a hype around a color. I don’t just provide it. I start Monday with like, “Today we’re using raw sienna,” and then you see kids be like, “Oh, thank God, I’ve been trying to mix that color forever.” It’s creating that culture around color in your classroom and letting students feel like they’re working for it.

Back to that color mixing guide, once they’ve created that, and that’s what I usually call this little diagram, I have them keep them as references for the rest of the semester. When I get a student come up like how do I make turquoise, I tell them to look at that guide that they did the first week of painting, figure out where did that, where is the color you’re aiming for, where does it fit, and then start with those colors.

Then lastly on color mixing I do have one rule in my classroom and that is I better not see the color directly out of the bottle. That’s basic and we don’t have time for that. When you talk to them, they’re like, “I don’t want to be like that.”

Tim: I know, right.

Andrea: So it works.

Tim: If you’re in high school right now basic is the worst thing that you can possibly be.

Andrea: They go, “I hear you.”

Tim: That is honestly the first rule in my painting class as well, is like I don’t care what you do with color, but nothing comes straight out of the bottle. Even black, even black, we’ve got to mix something, so black is not flat and boring.

Andrea: Exactly.

Tim: Going back to this color wheel thing, I don’t want to beat it to death, but there are teachers that insist on teaching the color wheel. If you’re doing that, like what do you do to I guess differentiate instruction? Because you have kids in your classroom that have done eight different color wheels in the past eight years with every teacher they have, but yet you also have kids who have never done one in their entire life. I guess with those kids who are a little more experienced, can you still get across the information you need while keeping them engaged? Like what would you say for teachers that are in that situation?

Andrea: Well, start, just read your audience. That’s just teaching in general. Give some sort of pre-assessment to see where your class is at, because what you ask in that question is exactly what happens over and over. When students feel like they’re repeating the same project every year, and unfortunately for the color wheel it gets slotted into that, it has now officially become boring. Even thought they might not still understand the color wheel, they recognize that they’ve done it before and they tune out.

My biggest advice is I would just urge you to break away from that mundane color wheel project and think of how you can incorporate those skills and terms into your projects or painting ideas. Like I said earlier, the color wheel is a diagram. Teach your students how to use it, not just copy it down.

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s rally really good. I like that.

Andrea: Thanks.

Tim: Then I also wanted to ask you, you gave a really, really good presentation at the Colorado Art Educators Association Conference about color and all of this great stuff. I was looking at something with your aboriginal dot paintings that you did and I ran across your quote that said, “Realism can come later, build confidence now.” Can you kind of explain what’s your thinking behind that statement and sort of what is your thinking behind the way you order your lessons as far as letting realism wait?

Andrea: You’re going to like this one. I relate painting a ton to playing basketball.

Tim: Oh I like that. For those of you listeners that don’t know, I coach a lot of basketball all year long. Slu knows where I am with this. Anyway, go on.

Andrea: Yeah, so dribbling, shooting, passing, these are all skills that you need to know before jumping right into a full five on five game. That’s just simple if whether you played basketball your entire life or you know just the basics of basketball, you understand that. The same goes for painting. I have students focused on their color mixing, on their layering, on their compositions first, and I tell them, “These are your dribbling, these are your shooting, these are your passing.” This way these are all easily achieved when the pressure of realism isn’t on the table.

For the first few projects I’m really honing in on students’ skills but also giving them that opportunity to make a painting they’re proud of. Kind of finding that balance with my aboriginal dots. We focus on the colors and the composition. Students aren’t painting realistically. They’re using dots, they’re using lines, they’re using very simple painting skills that they can attain so then once they feel that it’s much easier to start to introduce the more difficult skills or difficult projects like portraits or realism or still lifes. But I need them to feel confident in their painting first.

Tim: I think that’s important because that’s something I do too for kids who are struggling, whether it is drawing, painting, you really want to celebrate every little success. I think if you can build up that confidence with some more simple projects that, like you said, let them know that they can accomplish these things, then it really does set them up for better things down the road. I like that a lot.

Then I guess, yeah, last question here for you. My favorite thing that you do, and in fact, this was the first idea that I ever stole from you, the layered tape paintings that you do. Can you give us kind of a rundown of how that project works, where you came up with the idea, what things look like, and the results that you get from that?

Andrea: Yeah. I actually saw an artist creating tape layer paintings and thought to myself, “We can do these. We can make these even better.” Basically what a tape layer painting is it’s multiple layers of paint followed by multiple layers of tape. This is a great one to talk about, symmetry and pattern, because your tape layer is going to create that pattern of the paint that you just created below it.

At the end no one knows what your project is going to look like, you peel off all the tape and you’re left with this really vibrant kind of mind blowing looking painting that kids feel like, there are some that I’ve gone around and told kids like, “People would probably pay a lot of money for this painting,” like, “You could definitely like pull this off. You do realize that, right?”

It goes with that confidence piece. I love using it as a jumpstart to my second semester. It’s fun, it’s explorative, and I’ve literally never seen a bad looking tape layer painting. I tell kids, I’m like, “These are the hardest things for me to grade. Like basically if you do all the steps you’re done,” like you got it. With that confidence, we’re painters, we’re creating works of art. The teacher piece that comes into the tape they’re painting is I started to incorporate color theory and relationships into this project. It’s just a good vocab review.

I break down each layer, like the first layer is monochromatic pattern or cool colors or complementary color design. I leave them broad because I want students to really get into this painting, this project. I set up painting two, so my classes are year-long but semester, the kind of painting one painting two. I tell them, “Painting two, you know, we’re going to step it up. It’s going to be more your choice. It’s going to be more, you know, I’ve taught you all those skills, the dribbling, and passing, and shooting. Now we’re going to start using them how you want to use them.” But the simple guidelines in that vocab review it never hurt anyone so it’s good to throw in there.

Tim: That’s awesome. The thing I love we always do with this lesson what we call the peal and reveal where last day when everybody is finished before we do our critique everybody takes turns pulling up their paint or pulling up their tape to reveal the different layers of paint and get some really good results and getting a lot of excitement with all of that. It’s a very, very cool lesson.

Andrea: It’s fun.

Tim: We’ll make sure we share that. But go ahead.

Andrea: Painting is fun. Don’t be afraid to have a project that is fun because you can still incorporate vocab or color theory in there.

Tim: Yeah, exactly. It’s just a matter of picking your spots with that. Like you said, we need to make this enjoyable. Whether it is color theory or the painting themselves like we need to find a way to get kids hooked. That’s, yeah, a good thing. All right, well, Slu thank you very much for joining us. I appreciate your time. One last quick question. You’ve put together a bunch of awesome resources on color. Are you okay if we share those with all of our listeners?

Andrea: Absolutely. I share that with my CA EA presentation. I kind of went a little over nerdy on it. I like finished it and realized it was all color coordinated, and was like, “Am I psycho?”

Tim: Yes, that’s fantastic.

Andrea: It’s like a borderline I feel like I’m constantly on. But I really wanted to get those resources out there. There are some great videos, there’s handouts, there’s articles you can read yourself or share with your students.

Tim: All right, that’s awesome. Well, we will put that in our show notes so everybody can go in the AOE website, the podcast tab and with this episode you can check out all of those resources. Slu, thank you very much for joining us and hopefully we can have you on again some time.

Andrea: Yeah, sounds great. Thank you.

Tim: Like I said, a big thank you to Andrea Slusarski for coming on the show and diving into color theory with me. Now this the time to tell you that this episode is brought to you by The Art of Eds online course, Managing the Art Room. If you’re in need of grad credits or professional development and you want to learn management strategies that actually work, I consider taking this class. There are topics with managing behaviors, creating a positive classroom climate and environment, and important things like how to manage your own time and how to manage space in your classroom. There’s so much more in that. It’s a quick class, two credits. It only runs four weeks but you get so much out of it. Classes start on the first of each month. You can learn more by going to and clicking on the classes tab.

Now to close out the show I want to say that color theory is interesting in and unto itself. But the idea of how we teach it also speaks to the larger issue of how we engage students. We can debate red, yellow, or blue versus CMYK, and we can analyze the science, we can talk about reflection and absorption. But you know what? None of it, the debates or the research or the knowledge, none of it even matters if kids aren’t engaged. Who cares what you know about color if you can’t teach it.

We need to translate that fascination and that excitement that we have with color into something that’s worthwhile for our kids. Sometimes the exploration of paint and how it makes us is going to be enough. Sometimes we have to dig deeper and enrich our lessons with more knowledge for those advanced kids who need that. Sometimes, like Slu talked about, it’s just about building skills and building confidence. But whatever the case, we need to ensure that meaningful learning is taking place, and whatever you decide to do and however you decide to do it, please, please, please, don’t be boring.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. If you want to support the show and enjoy what we’re doing please subscribe on iTunes, rate our show, and leave a comment. You can find additional content under the podcast tab on where we’ll have all of those resources that we talked about. We’ll have the write up of the episode with all the links, the quotes, the resources you need. New episodes are released every Tuesday and I will be back next week with Andrew McCormick for a pretty exciting show called “The Things Students Love but Teachers Hate.” We’ll see you then.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.