|Primary, secondary and tertiary colored water. (The blues and violets look black due to lighting.)|
With Kindergarten, I simply mix the primaries (red, yellow, blue) to create the secondary colors (orange, green, purple). With first and second grades, I go through the same steps, but then we talk about warm and cool colors and complimentary colors. I let them help add drops of color to the water, as well. There's a lot of discussion and hypothesis building involved in our experiments. Once a color is mixed everyone decides together if it's acceptable or if it needs to be adjusted. If a color needs to be adjusted students offer suggestions, so everyone is involved in the problem-solving process. At the end of the lesson, I open up for questions, and it never fails that someone wants to know what happens when you mix all of the colors (or a warm and a cool or two complimentaries). So before emptying our jars, we find out! Students are amazed to discover that compliments mix to create varying shades of brown, and they soon realize that no matter how we mix the primaries and secondaries, all we're really doing is combining the primaries in varying quantities.
With third through fifth grades, we take color mixing to the next level and mix tertiary colors. I go through basically the same steps as with younger classes and add review of the basics. Some of my 3rd-5th students have never had an art class, so this is the first time they've considered how we achieve a wide range of colors in art. Older students then create tertiary color wheels, using colored pencils to mix their secondary and tertiary colors.
It took me a try or two to figure out the best way to move from secondaries to tertiaries, so here's my trick:
- Start with six jars of water (red, clear, yellow, clear, blue, clear).
- After mixing the secondaries, place a jar of clear water between each of the six colors, with one at the end (red, clear, orange, clear, yellow, clear, green, clear, blue, clear, purple/violet, clear) for a total of 12 jars.
- I show students a color wheel and explain that the last jar is really between red and violet, but for the purposes of our demonstration, so they can see all of the colors, our jars are arranged in a line.
- Next, mix secondaries in the clear jars (the two jars on either side of orange should be orange, on either side of green should be green, on either side of violet should be violet).
- The color line should now be: red, orange, orange, orange, yellow, green, green, green, blue, violet, violet, violet.
- I explain to students that tertiaries are made when we mix secondaries and primaries, so by beginning with secondary colors all we have to do is add the appropriate primary to achieve the tertiary color.
- I draw students' attention to the first clear jar of water, between red and orange, and ask students if they can hypothesize what this color will be. (red-orange) I then ask how we will create this color. (by adding red - I have a student add one drop of red, then we assess our result and add more if needed). Tip: Keep a cup of clear water handy to "water down" the yellow colors if needed...yellow is easily overpowered by the other colors, so starting with a diluted orange and green is helpful in achieving yellow-orange and yellow-green.
- I continue to do this down the line, letting students give me the name of the color before we mix it. They soon realize that each tertiary name is comprised of the primary and secondary color that are used to make it, with the primary name coming first. (blue + green = blue-green, yellow + orange = yellow-orange, etc.).
- Allowing students to make hypotheses during the experiment and letting them make the adjustments to the colors is key to helping them understand how each color is achieved (and how they can, then, achieve even more color variations by altering the amount of the primary/secondary in each color).