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In this color wheel lesson, students learn about art history and color moods




3, 4, 5, 6  

Title – Getting to know the Color Wheel
By – Randi Lynn Mrvos
Primary Subject – Art
Secondary Subjects –
Grade Level – 3-6

Objective: To learn about and make a color wheel
Time: Approximately 1-2 hours.
Vocabulary: Primary, secondary, tertiary, spectrum

white paper plates (about 9″ in diameter), spools of thread (1″ in diameter), black fine tip marker, 12-set oil pastels (Junior Artist Set by Cray-Pas, about $2.00), 9″ x 12″ white drawing paper.

Anticipatory Set: Show children a picture of a color wheel.


The color wheel is a chart of colors of the visible spectrum that is used to show how colors relate to each other. It is made up of three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors or intermediate colors. Primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) are colors that can not be mixed by any other colors. Secondary colors (purple, green, and orange) are formed by mixing two primary colors together. Tertiary colors (red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, and red-orange) are formed by combining a primary color with an adjacent secondary color.
Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with light helped him invent the first color wheel. In 1666, Newton passed a beam of sunlight through a prism, which produced red, blue, yellow, green, and cyan beams of the visible spectrum. He was able to show the natural sequence of color by joining the two ends of the color spectrum together. One hundred years later, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (1749-1832) a German writer and scientist, studied how colors made us feel. He noted that blue evoked quiet moods and red evoked cheerfulness. He divided colors into two groups: minus side (green to violet to blue) and a plus side (red to orange to yellow). By the mid 1900’s Johannes Itten, a German theorist who worked in an art and design school, developed the color wheel as we know it today. Like Goethe, Itten considered the emotional values of color. Blue is associated with coolness and red is associated with warmth. His color wheel is based on the primary colors and contains a total of twelve colors.


1. Have students make a color wheel by tracing twelve small circles evenly spaced around the edge of a paper plate with a fine tip black marker, using a spool as a guide.

2. Ask students to use a red, blue, and yellow oil pastel to fill in the primary colors. Have them think of the color wheel as the face of a clock. Position 12 is red, position 4 is blue, and position 8 is yellow.

3. Ask students to use a purple, green, and orange oil pastel to fill in the secondary colors. Again, have them think of a clock. Position 2 is purple, which is between red and blue, position 6 is green, which is between blue and yellow, and position 10 is orange, which is between red and yellow.

4. Ask students to blend a primary color with its adjacent secondary color to make a tertiary color. Blend red oil pastel with a purple oil pastel to make red-violet for
position 1. Blend a blue oil pastel with a purple oil pastel to make blue-violet in position 3. Do the same for the remaining tertiary colors. Position 5 is blue-green, position 7 is yellow-green, position 9 is yellow-orange, and position 11 is red-orange.

5. Students will practice using the color wheel. Have the students compose a picture using either primary, secondary, or tertiary colors.


Discuss the mood of color. What colors are cool, hot, peaceful, or angry? Use Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Café” to show hot colors and Claude Monet’s “Palazzo da Mula” to show cool colors.


“Color Theory-Color”, < >, (1/5/03).

“Color Wheel Pro: See Color Theory in Action!”,
< >, (1/3/03).

“Goethes Triangle Explanation”,
< >, (1/5/03).

E-Mail Randi Lynn Mrvos !

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