At the start of a new year, I often like to return to basics in my early years art sessions – and what better way to brighten up the cold winter months than by exploring colour. An important building block of art making, colour is a great topic for ongoing investigation over a few weeks as there is so much to discover.

Key lessons young children can learn when investigating colours include:

  • When you mix colours together they change.
  • Different combinations make different new colours:
    • red + yellow = orange
    • blue + yellow = green
    • blue + red = purple
  • When you mix white paint with another colour, that colour gets lighter
    • white + black = grey
    • white + red = pink
  • Red + yellow + blue = brown
  • If you need a particular colour, you can often make it by mixing other colours together.
  • You can’t make red, yellow or blue by mixing other colours together.100_0719

Children begin to experiment with colour from the age of two, as an initial interest in mixing paints develops into the realisation that new colours are created when two or more are mixed. As this cause and effect relationship is engaged with further, children begin to recognise patterns (blue and yellow always makes green) and start to predict what colours they will end up with, later choosing the right combination to make particular colours.

Some guiding principles that I try to follow when planning learning experiences to help children get the most out of this process are:

  • Work on white paper for free drawing and painting sessions as well as colour focused activities. Vividly coloured papers can make the colours painted on them less distinct, hampering children’s ability to learn about colour as they play.
  • When beginning a focused exploration of colour, using two primary colours at a time allows children to recognise the effect of mixing them together more readily. Provide too many colours and the children will end up with
    brown pictures!


Paying attention to colours in the environment, particularly where colour is used in design to communicate things – for instance the red and green characters at a pelican crossing or the red and blue details on taps – can also help to develop an understanding of colour’s emotional and symbolic value.



Some artists to engage with when experimenting with colours in the early years could be:

  • Marc Rothko – spread your paints with rollers and big brushes to make big paintings composed of large blocks of colour reminiscent of Rothko’s colour fields.
  • Anish Kapoor is a sculptor who covers large 3D forms with fine powder pigment. Children can use water and sponges to make lumps of clay wet and malleable. After rubbing the clay lumps with sponges and fingers, dip the wet sponges into bowls of undissolved powder paint and apply it to the clay to make colourful sculptures.

    About the author

    Matthew Kay is an artist educator specialising in Early Years. Alongside making his own art he facilitates contemporary art inspired learning experiences for nurseries and pre-schools in South West London as Eyes Pie Arts (eyespiearts.com).

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