Sometime in January, elder through 6th-grade students began to use tempera paint. As opposed to watercolor, tempera is not mixed with water and is not transparent. It is a thick, intensely colored paint, perfect for painting at the easel and for using to experiment and study color.
 
In order to be able to concentrate solely on color and nothing else, students use, at the beginning of the unit, a paper filled with anywhere from 12 to 24 blank squares. This paper is purposely devoid of any objects or painting subjects. When creating a painting, students will often focus on the subject matter rather than the color. But with the squares, they are free from thinking about form. This idea was first created and used by Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus in 1917 so it is not just for young children.
 
With only 2 primary colors plus white and black in their palettes, students have to fill each square with a different color, a color that actually looks different. They may only add one addition each time so the change will be gradual. It may sound simple, but the amount of learning that goes on in doing these seemingly simple papers is great—and they also look cool. For younger students, they are learning to mix colors on a palette with a brush; learning that white makes a color lighter or black darker; learning how to get green from blue and yellow, or just learning that they can mix some really ugly or beautiful colors. For older students, they are planning a strategy to be able to fill 24 squares with different colors; seeing how light a color can get or how dark; finding out which colors are stronger (when you only need a tiny bit to get a change) and which are weaker; trying to go from really dark and back to light again or seeing how many shades of green can be made. There are infinite ways to approach this task and after many, many years, I still see students approaching this project in new ways.
 
It’s learning by doing for every student and the beautiful part is that there is no special color anyone is trying to create. It’s just an answer to the question each time—I wonder what will happen if… (I add white to this) (I add just a tiny bit of black or a lot of it). It’s science, it’s art, it’s perception, it’s fine motor practice. Whatever the lesson, everyone discovers that they are able to mix a color they always wondered how to make or mix a color that they had never seen before. It’s very exciting and listening to the children, one would think major discoveries are being made.
 
Actually, I suppose they are.