Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

Horse of a Different Color: An Introduction to Color in the Visual Arts (2 Lessons)



The Unit


The names of the primary and secondary colors are often among the first words we learn to speak and write. Even very young children can identify the red object in a painting, or the blue object in a photograph, but there is a lot more to color than initially meets the eye.

In this curriculum unit students will be introduced to the importance and effect of color in the visual arts. Why do artists use particular colors in their compositions? The activities in this lesson will guide students towards a greater understanding of the ways in which color can focus the viewer's attention, give the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional medium, and affect the tone and mood of an artwork.

Guiding Questions

How do artists use color to create effects of perception and to set the tone of an artwork?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the ways in which color is used to create a sense of depth in a two dimensional space
  • Identify the ways in which the artist uses color to draw the viewer's attention to points within the composition
  • Discuss the effect of color on the tone and mood of an artwork

Preparation Instructions

This unit is one of a series of EDSITEment lessons designed to help students gain the skills to better understand the visual arts. You may wish to teach this unit alone or as part of the series of EDSITEment lessons that includes the curriculum unit Everything in its Right Place: An Introduction to Composition in the Visual Arts and Portraits, Pears, and Perfect Landscapes: Investigating Genre in the Visual Arts.

There are a number of definitions that will be helpful for teaching this lesson:

  • Primary colors include red, blue, and yellow. They are considered primary because they cannot be created by mixing other colors. In this sense they are like prime numbers, which cannot be divided into smaller numbers, such as the number three.
  • Secondary colors include orange, green, and purple or violet and are created by mixing the primary colors in specific combinations. For example, green is a mix of yellow and blue; orange a mix of red and yellow; and violet a mix of blue and red.
  • Hue: the visual property that gives a color its name by distinguishing that color from others on the color spectrum. For example, the property of having a blue-green hue distinguishes that color from another, red-orange color. Black and white do not have hue, although they can have value—darkness or lightness.
  • Complementary colors are the colors that sit on the opposite sides of the color spectrum when the spectrum is shown as a circle. Thus, green and red are complementary colors, as are orange and blue, and yellow and violet. When complementary colors are mixed they create a neutral tone; when they are next to each other, they highlight each other.
  • Color Schemes are harmonious combinations of colors within a work of art. These vary and may include monochromatic (lighter and darker variations of the same color); analogous (small range of colors next to each other on the color wheel, such as variations of blue and violet); or complimentary (colors across from each other on the color wheel such as red and green); among others.

Additional color definitions include:

  • Key or Value: lightness or darkness of a color relative to one another. White is the highest key or value, while black is the lowest.
  • Saturation: purity of hues when compared to the way the hue appears on the color spectrum.

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Visual art analysis