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Investigating the World of Colors

What humans normally notice most about light is color, a phenomenon that originates from the visible spectrum. The color of an object is directly related to the amount, and type, of light that it reflects or absorbs. If an object appears to be red, for instance, it is because the object absorbs all of the colors in the light spectrum with the exception of red, which is instead reflected back to our eyes. If an object absorbs all of the colors found in white light, then it appears black. Conversely, if all of the colors are reflected, an object appears white.

The color and intensity of light is absorbed and parsed in the human eye by the retina, which composes the inner lining. The retina contains two types of cells, called rods and cones. The rods allow our eyes to pick up small bits of light and are the type of cells that are the most numerous on the retina. The cones are responsible for the color and clarity of an object, and are found in heavy concentration at the center part of the retina. Consequently, the best color and clarity of an object can be seen when the object is directly in front of the eye. As an object moves more to the side of our eyes, into our peripheral vision, the clarity and the amount of color we can see is diminished. However, because of its lack of specific concentration, peripheral vision allows us to see even the smallest amount of light and motion.

In any system of colors, those that cannot be mixed from any of the others are called primary colors. The primary colors of light are red, green, and blue. From these three colors, every other color of light can be made. Because this is true, televisions, movies, and computer screens all project red, green, and blue dots called pixels; these pixels create the variation in shades and images that are formed on the screen. Paint pigments, however, do not mix in the same way as light. Each color of paint can be thought of as a filter that removes all of the light frequencies except the one meeting the eye. For example, a red paint reflects only the wavelengths that create a sensation of red; the rest are absorbed. Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors of paint. Mixing these primary pigments with other colors results in darker colors since more of the light energy is absorbed. The absorbed energy becomes heat and that is why, for instance, white cars are cooler to the touch than black ones.

Required Materials

  • 3 markers of the same size but different colors
  • White unlined paper
  • Science notebooks
  • Water
  • Watercolor paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Containers for holding water
  • Blank color wheels

What will the students do?

Part 1

Working in pairs, students test their ability to see color peripherally. They will take turns testing one another by using different color markers. Each student will view 3 different objects and record what they experience in their science notebooks. The room needs to be fairly dark and the students need to stand close to a wall or white paper in order to see this phenomenon.

Part 2

In the second investigation, students will be mixing watercolors. They will learn that in regard to paint pigments, the three colors that combine in various proportions to give all of the other colors of the spectrum are red, yellow, and blue. Since this phenomenon depends on the ability of the pigments to absorb the various wavelengths of white light, red, yellow, and blue are called the subtractive primary colors.

Activity Extensions

Art/Nature - Another way of introducing students to the art of color mixing and pigments is to have them produce certain colors by using materials that are found in nature. Students could bring in materials they think will produce a color when rubbed on paper; for example seeds, fruit peels, leaves, berries, soil, and rocks. Students can then use these materials to produce paintings or other art.

History - Have students utilize the natural materials gathered in the previous activity extension to create cave drawings. With a little research, students should be able to discuss reasons that prehistoric man created art, ways the art was created, and the difference between pictographs and petroglyphs. Students could also create their own "caves" complete with artwork. Further research can be done on dating techniques used in the caves of Lascaux, France, or on the rock paintings in Australia and India.

Reading - Read aloud The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie de Paola (ISBN 0698113608). The book is a wonderful accompaniment to the Art/Nature extension above since it deals with a Plains Indian boy who creates beautiful paintings on animal hide. While he creates colors from natural materials such as berries and flowers, he is unable to mimic the bright and vibrant colors of the sunset.

Mathematics - Depending on the experience of your students, it would be an excellent math extension to have them construct their own blank color wheel by drawing a line across the diameter of the circle, identifying the radii, measuring the angles, and then comparing their color wheels to pie graphs. Materials needed are white paper, a drawing compass, and a protractor.

Narrative Writing - Use the following as a writing prompt: Each of us has seen how grass can leave a green stain on clothes. Before you begin writing, think about some materials found in nature that could produce other colors. Now tell a story about how you would go about finding materials to make paint and create some artwork to produce a record of your trip through the forest.

Careers - Have students research careers that involve the use of color. For example, interior designers carry color samples with them as they investigate new and creative ways to combine colors for their clients. Artists combine colors to create certain effects to fool the eye or to represent things in a realistic way. Men and women in the textile industry combine colors in special ways so that certain fabrics reflect light to enhance the color combinations. Students could choose a career or a technique used in one of the careers, investigate how colors are used, and present their findings to the class.

Historical Vignette: The History of Tempera Painting

Painting as an art medium has a tradition that extends far back into prehistory. It has been used for thousands of years to show images, religious symbols, and to record events about every day life. Many of the works of art that still survive from the Stone Age were painted on the walls of caves in Spain and France. Most of these paintings were animal forms with bold lines and colors. The colors of the paintings were limited to red, red-brown, and black pigments.

When man eventually turned to settled communities, the practice of wall painting continued and was used for decorating the interiors of houses and shrines. For painters of ancient Egypt and the Near East, the paintings were devoted mainly to the decoration of ceilings and the walls of royal tombs, temples, and palaces. Non-religious paintings centered on the events surrounding the life of the Pharaoh while others had themes of religious significance.

The most common painting medium used throughout the ancient world was tempera, a mixture composed of water, egg yolks, and color pigments extracted from minerals. The surface that was to be painted upon was often prepared with a thin coating of plaster. The easiest method of working with tempera was to apply the paints to the dry surface. As use of the medium progressed, tempera was applied to the plaster while the surface was still wet. This method was known as true fresco. Decorating wall surfaces with fresco paintings became more prominent throughout the Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance periods. One of the most famous frescoes ever made can be found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where it was painted by Michelangelo during the Renaissance.

Research - Ask students to research the use of tempera painting and frescoes by various artists during different periods of art history. Information that could be discovered during their investigations might include how these artists prepared their paints and the type and sources of pigments used in their paintings.

Activity - Have students create their own "cave paintings." In this way, students would be using tempera (albeit a modern version), while at the same time depicting life of cave dwellers. The activity requires some research into how cave dwellers survived and what they ate. Encourage students to discuss whether the light in the cave, the availability of light, or a combination of both would make a difference in the amount of paint used.

Artist Vignette: Romare Bearden

Romare Bearden (1914-1988) is considered to be America's premier collagist and has often been referred to as one of the most notable African American artists of the twentieth century. Bearden's career began in the early 1940's, but he did not turn to collage as his primary art medium until 1963. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, much of Bearden's childhood was spent in Harlem, New York. While in New York, he was exposed to many artists and jazz musicians by his father. Due to this early exposure, Bearden constantly incorporated his love of music into his art.

Bearden received his formal education at Columbia University in New York, where he earned his degree in mathematics. Although he later studied philosophy and art history in Paris, he never had formal training in producing art. This did not stop him, however, from following his heart and pursuing something that he truly loved to do.

Activity - A photomontage is a type of art that can be used by students to produce a group project with a theme. For example students could create a photomontage with the theme "The Impact of Color." Students can look through old magazines and newspapers to find pictures of colorful objects that may attract a person's attention and or persuade them to buy an object. Members of the group would then cut out the objects and paste them onto a piece of poster board or some other type of backing. They should also give a descriptive or creative title to their artwork.

Grades 3-5 Standards

Science: SC.A.1.2.4, SC.D.1.2.1, SC.H.1.2.2, SC.H.1.2.3, SC.H.1.2.3
Social Studies: SS.A.1.2.1, SS.A.2.3.7
Language Arts: LA.A.1.2.4, LA.A.2.2.5, LA.B.1.2.1, LA.B.1.2.2, LA.B.2.2.3, LA.B.2.2.5, LA.C.3.2.3, LA.C.3.2.5
Visual Arts: VA.A.1.2.1, VA.A.1.2.2, VA.B.1.2.1, VA.C.1.2.1, VA.D.1.2.3, VA.E.1.2.1

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