Art Lesson on Harmony and Perception Using a Color Wheel

Art Lesson on Harmony and Perception Using a Color Wheel
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Creating Beauty With Order

Maurice Denis, an Impressionistic painter who lived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, said, “Remember that before a painting is a horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, it is essentially a surface that is covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

The joy of painting for students usually comes from mixing colors. It’s almost like a laboratory experiment and for the scientifically minded, mixing colors is appealing. However, as the saying goes, the more you know, the more you grow and understanding color facts is an important first step.

Grade Level:

Middle School


The students will be able to construct a six- and a twelve-color wheel.

The students will be able to explain why color is an important element in a painting.

Shop Talk

Before beginning the activities, it would be beneficial to review a few historical facts and some pertinent vocabulary as added background knowledge.

Color theory defined simply is a set of principles used to create harmonious color combinations. This includes how colors mix and their visual impact. Since the fifteenth century, several artists have been associated with the study of color. Most notable among these names was Leonardo da Vinci.

However, credit is given to Isaac Newton who detailed the nature of primary colors and created an artistic tradition. He used a simple prism and placed it in front of the sunlight and discovered colors from that light. For example, each time we have a sun shower, each raindrop acts like Newton’s prism, and these millions of prisms produce a rainbow. The colors of the spectrum are dark blue, light blue, green, yellow, red and purple. These are all colors of nature. These colors are not artist’s colors. Artists paint with pigment colors, not light colors.

Until about 1850, artists imagined and created landscapes for the backgrounds of their paintings. Then, artists decided to leave their studios and paint in the open air. They were not aware that nature was light and color, and that blue was present in all shadows. This major contribution in the art world was made by a group of French painters who were called Impressionists.


  • Impressionism - A theory of practice among French painters circa 1870 of depicting the natural appearances of objects by means of dabs or strokes of primary, unmixed colors in order to simulate actual reflected light.
  • plein air painting - painting in outdoor daylight
  • primary colors - red, blue and yellow
  • secondary colors - green, orange and violet
  • tertiary colors - yellow-orange, red-violet and blue-green
  • warm colors - yellow to red-violet
  • cool colors - yellow-green to violet
  • harmonious colors -red, orange and yellow (related to one another)
  • contrasting colors - red-green, orange-blue and yellow-violet (opposite one another on the color wheel)
  • neutral colors - neutral grays or browns
  • value - lightness or darkness of gray or a color


  • Drawing paper
  • Construction paper (red, blue, yellow, green, orange and purple)
  • Tissue paper (red, blue and yellow)*
  • Large paper plates
  • Pencils
  • Lids (assorted shapes made of plastic or metal for tracing around)
  • Paint (red, yellow, blue, black and white -tempera, acrylic, oil* and watercolor)
  • Brushes
  • Containers for water
  • Paper towels
  • Cotton tip swabs



  • Computer
  • An assortment of fine art prints, including samples of Impressionist paintings
  • Color circle (wheel) poster

Color Circles

In the seventeenth century, the artist’s reference sheet was the color circle. Isaac Newton devised the first of all color circles in 1660. Later, in 1731, the red, yellow and blue theory was discovered and it remains today. Color circles are what we know today as color wheels.


Pass out paper plates, brushes, containers of red, blue and yellow tempera paint, and containers of water. Instruct the students to place a small dab of yellow paint at the top of the paper plate, a dab of red further down on the left hand side and a dab of blue directly across from the red dab on the right. This will resemble a triangle. Instruct them to leave sufficient space between these three dabs to allow for three more dabs.

The next step is to create the secondary colors. The secondary color dab will go in the middle of each primary color. For example, the student will mix yellow and blue to create green and put that green in between the yellow and the blue. Next, they will mix blue and red and place that purple dab in between the red and the blue. Finally, they will mix red and yellow together and place the orange dab between the red and the yellow.

Warm and Cool Colors

Warm and cool colors can generate certain feelings. Warm colors tend to advance toward the viewer. Cool colors tend to recede or fall back.


Using the plastic lids, instruct the students to compose two designs. One design should use only warm colors and the other design should utilize only cool colors. The students may use one shape of lid or an assortment. For added interest, have the students overlap the lids and push the lids toward the edge of the paper so that one half bleeds off. Remind them that the colors should balance. Have them stand back and look at their design so that they can see if they have used two much of the same color in one spot.

Value Chart

Many shades of a color or gray can convey different feelings. For example, sometimes we can become depressed when we look at gray clouds. Other times we can feel happy when we notice different shades of color in the sky. (e.g. shades of red or blue, etc.)


Have the students turn a sheet of paper horizontally. Place a dab of white on the right hand side of the paper. Next to it on the left place a dab of black or any color that he/she wishes. Using the cotton tip swabs, create a value chart moving toward the left hand side of the paper. Create at least six values of the gray or other chosen color.

Putting it all Together

The color circles, the warm and cool designs and the value chart that the students created should be used as a handy reference.


Display and discuss some of the fine art materials. Discuss the color used by the artist. Georgia O’Keeffe is a good one for vibrant color.

Instruct the students to create a picture of their own using the information that they have. Have the students display and discuss their work. Allow them to do abstract designs, landscapes, animals, or anything of their choosing. However, it must be a finished picture showing some color plan.

Extend Your Talent

Tattoos are very popular. Many of these designs are very intricate, but the same rules of color theory apply.


Using the computer, have the students go to the standard Windows application, Paint . Instruct them to use the principles that they have studied and create a design for a tattoo. Print their finished products and display on a bulletin board.


Color theory evaluation is ongoing. Students should keep their color circles handy for color reference each time they have a project. They can be tested by providing only primary colors, periodically, when asked to create a picture. Following are additional suggestions for evaluating your students' progress.

1. Students have learned that green is one of the light colors in the spectrum. One way to test their skill in mixing is by having them do the following:


  • Drawing paper
  • White paint
  • Primary colors (Do not give them green. Instruct them to make their own.)


Collect a leaf from outside.Tape it to a sheet of paper or hold it down and trace around it. Make several copies of the tracing. (Allow room for error.)

Using their knowledge about the color circle, have them try to duplicate the color. You will be able to tell which students understand the process of blending by noticing how they make their green and gradually add the white as needed to match the leaf.

Tape the leaf next to the drawing and display on a board so that the students can stand back and critique their work.

2. Display a series of Impressionistic art pictures. (Seurat, Cezanne, Van Gogh, etc.) Ask the students a series of questions, e.g.,Identify the color scheme in this picture. How did the artist achieve color harmony in this picture?

These color theory lessons are the basis for many other painting and art lessons. Once students have these concepts down, they will be able to understand and implement new art elements in all they create.


  • Topal, Cathy Weisman. Children and Painting. Davis Publications, Inc.: Worcester, Massachusetts, 1992.
  • Parramon, Jose M.. The Book of Color. Watson-Guptill Publications: New York, 1993.
  • Image: Crayons, bluesky121/Photobucket
  • Birren, Faber. Principles of Color. Schiffer Publishing Company: West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1987.