Art with Toddlers, Color Play, Organization and Resources, Paint Play

Focusing Color Choices with Little Artists

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Do you focus color choices with your kids or students? I do, and I think it’s a fantastic tool both at home and in a classroom setting, especially for 1-4 year olds.

A little artist selecting color for taste safe watercolor painting.

Before starting a project, my little artists and I will talk about color choices and choose 3-5 colors to work from. The younger the artist, the fewer the color choices should be.

Three warm colored paints for two children ages 1-4 to work from.

For some littles, ending an art session with a brown paper after all the colors have mixed together is frustrating and disheartening, especially for our budding perfectionists. Focusing color choices can remedy that so your children or students can walk away feeling good about how their colors cooperate on the page.

Wet on wet watercolor painting with “Spring” colors.

Focusing color groups can be a trick to help your little artist create a more “finished” looking work, which is sometimes challenging with process artwork. But that’s not all it’s good for. Focusing color choices creates opportunities for conversation about how colors work together, and promotes better understanding of color theory. This will enable your little artists to make more informed color choices later on.

Monochromatic Valentine’s Day postcards made by 1.5 and 4.5 yr olds.
Mother’s Day cards in warm colors
Printmaking with nature loose parts in autumn colors

Now that my little artist is five, he rarely wants to work with a limited palette. But he is confident in his color choices after years of exploration and understanding how colors work together.

Wet on wet painting with cool colors.

Warm color groups, cool color groups and monochromatic color schemes (one hue accompanied by black and white) are all good places to start when focusing color groups.

This is a basic color wheel. The primary colors are red, blue and yellow. The secondary colors are green, purple and orange. The tertiary colors are between the primary and secondary colors (red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, and red-orange).

Complimentary colors are across from each other on the color wheel: red and green, blue and orange, purple and yellow. When complimentary colors are mixed, they create a neutral. This is why it may look “muddy” when very young children go wild with lots of complimentary colors on their palettes. Although there are some exceptions, as a general rule you should avoid pairing complimentary colors in color groups for young children if you want to help them create a work with harmonious colors.

Neutrals made with complimentary colors are richer than using a flat black, brown, or grey. This is a little beyond basic color theory for little artists, but you can explore using complimentary neutrals with them when they’re ready.

Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel (primary+secondary+tertiary), and make harmonious compositions when paired together. Analogous colors make good color groups for young children to work from.

Analogous colors

You can get creative and make your own color groups inspired by your environment and world in collaboration with your little artists. These are some of our favorites:

If your child is not interested in working within focused color groups, listen to them! Remember, process art is child led, not adult led. We are here to guide and facilitate, not to hijack the art experience for our inherently wise and artistic children. Some children need aaaaaall the colors to have the experience they crave, and we should celebrate their process and intuition as it is.

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