When Things Look Simple… Look Deeper

By Holly Dykes, Art Specialist

When your child brings home a piece of art, you might look and think what you see on paper is all there is. However, as with most things in art, the process behind those seemingly simple things is not so simple.

Take, for example, something we do in January called tempera mixing. You would look at this and see a paper with 12, 15, or 24 squares and within each square a different color. Oh, a paper with squares of color, you’d think. How about some real art? Let me explain what’s behind those squares. You will see that there’s much more to these papers (and other pieces of art) which will allow you to look more deeply at your children’s art.

To start, students use paper filled with blank squares so they will be able to concentrate solely on the color and nothing else. 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 (an art school for adults) in 1917, so it is a project not just for young children. 

With only two primary colors (so they don’t get brown) plus white and black in their palettes, students fill each square with a different color. 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. 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 shades of 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 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. After many, many years, I still see students approaching this project in new ways. I have done this lesson five times a year for more years than I want to count, and I still love the anticipation of seeing what each color will look like.

It’s learning by doing. 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. Listening to the children, one would think major discoveries are being made. Actually, I suppose they are.