Sunday, April 7, 2013

10,000 Shades of Green


Chihuly installation. Museum of Glass, Tacoma

In landscape, fabrics, food, wood, and gems, color is tremendously varied, subtle, and surprising. In children's toy boxes, bedrooms, classrooms, camp activities and in children’s museums and young children’s areas of science centers it is not. With few exceptions, color in those contexts is predictably bright red, blue, and yellow.  

When there is a world of pearl pink-blue opalescent skies and 10,000 shades of green in the tree canopy, why do we limit the color world for children to 3 primary colors? We should be opening up children to noticing the in-between shades of every hue; thinking about and mixing the colors in their imaginations; and describing the colors of rust, river stones, and weathered wood.

Colors, Not Knowing Your Colors
Not long ago I was in Target and overheard a mother asking her 3-year old son to name the colors of the shirts of the action figures he was playing with in the shopping cart she was pushing. “What color is that shirt?” the mother asked. “Green,” answered the boy. “And what color is that shirt?” the mother asked pointing to the other figure. “Red,” answered the boy. “Good!” the mom said and went on. At that moment, I desperately wished for a deep authoritative voice to come over the store speaker to remind the mother that her son was only 3 years old, they were just shopping, and that playing with toys is not a quiz.

A three-year old’s being able to recognize the primary colors may not sound problematic. After all, we want children to know colors before going to kindergarten. But, in terms of encouraging children’s noticing, investigating, describing, and thinking across a range of possibilities, being drilled on colors in a shopping cart, or anywhere, is limiting. Giving children three colors to work with is a good idea for an activity now and then but not exclusively, not all the time.

The rich chromatic life of the child
Children lead much richer chromatic lives than adults are inclined to recognize or allow them. When 6-year old Jim colored trees purple, his older cousins questioned his choice. With confidence, he answered, “There are purple trees in Ohio. I’ve seen them.” A child’s delight in the possibilities of colors comes through in Eric Carle’s The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse that also features a yellow cow and a green lion. Even for the child who will always pick the green cup, car, or pail, there are many ways to describe greens; there is light, dark, pale; greenish yellow, lime, grassy green, and bug green. When I was four, I thought breen was a color, a muddy brown-green.

Colors carry the feel of places, memories, comparisons, sounds, and even smells. Exposing children to a color world larger than red-blue-yellow greatly expands the possibilities for noticing, talking, sharing, and remembering and making connections. A wall color might bring back memories of standing next to the dark gray-blue water of Lake Superior on a brisk November day. Distant hills might be described as larkspur or smoky blue. A scarf might be as red as a cardinal. Describing a rainbow trout might mean stringing together a long list of colors and descriptors including silver, pink, bright, and iridescent.

The Colors In Between
Most of the colors most of us we wear, eat, surround ourselves with at home or work, remark on in nature, and crave to see at sunset are in between and beyond the primary colors. Even the basic box of crayons (not to mention markers and chalk) has 8 colors; boxes of 48 and 96 are not uncommon. The Pantone Fashion colors for 2013 include Grayed Jade, African Violet, and Linen; Poppy Red is definitely on the orange side. A look at any one of a number of color systems also reveals the high level of interest in the everyday world of color.

Edwin Deen, artist
Artists and craftspeople often explore colors, seriously, playfully, creatively. Using fabric, yarn, thread, paper, paint, pastels, mosaics, beads, and dyes, their color studies and color ways open up the vast and interesting chromatic universe between red-blue-and-yellow. Colors in this world clearly want to flow into one another, mix, blend, and, lean into amazing possibilities. This becomes immediately apparent in the works of artists like Tauba Auerbach who works with color across a range of media. A pink-tinged-mauve transitions into lily-green in an unlikely and easy progression across the page. In Gabriel Dawe’s complicated large-scale constructions using colored threads colors mix across space and with the light.

Using bundles of colored sewing threads, fiber artist Elizabeth Tuttle has crocheted color studies and small-scale interiors.
Elizabeth Tuttle, artist
Working with a seemingly unlikely mix of colored threads, she drops and adds colors as she crochets. Colors change subtly and smoothly producing a sense of volume, depth, and perspective across the small rooms and spiral staircases of the interiors she creates. At a distance, the eye and mind blend the colors together as with pointillist paintings. Looking closely, the color progressions reveal colors within colors. There is a moment where peach-beholding-a-hush-of-blue becomes visible.

Thinking About Color
Chromatic Typewriter by Tyree Callahan
Adults enjoy encounters with color in museums and art galleries and in their own artwork, crafts, hobbies and nature walks. Naming 3 colors during small group time, in a shopping cart, or in a museum program couldn’t be more different than thinking about, playing with, mixing up, and delighting in thousands of colors with paint, chalk, fabric, light, crayons, even food coloring. Why not invite children to explore their color imaginations and colors that have no name rather than limiting explorations to 3 primary and 3 secondary colors and to keeping colors separate?

Just for starters, here are 3 questions that move away from drilling children on their colors and, instead, engage them in color conversations and explorations.
    • What colors do you see?
    • What color do you need that is not here?
    • How much can you stretch this color?
    What colors do you see? invites children to observe trees, bark, grass, stone, sand, water, or sky on a walk, at the park, through the window, or at a table with a big bundle of flowers or fall leaves. Looking closely, a child notices the different parts of an object or variations across its surface, in a fold or a shadow. Following up and asking, What other colors do you see? encourages a closer look, comparisons, and distinctions as well as the possibilities of original and expressive color names. The conversation and the activity expand with the question, Where else can we find this color?

    What color do you need that is not here? is a question that invites a child to think. The child might think about what colors are in the line up of small cups of paint. How could she describe them? Which colors are similar to the color she is hoping to use? How similar or different are the colors closest to the color she is thinking of? The child observes, compares, matches, and perhaps sequences paint colors.

    Floral Gradient by Jack Evans
    How much can you stretch this color? allows a child to consider variations in color, from light to dark or from one color to another. Successively diluting colored water or adding more and more white paint to red stretches the color. A child can think about how much red is present so the color is still red. How might she arrange the colors in a sequence from lighter to darker? How would she change one color, for instance orange, to another, perhaps blue?   

    I wasn't sure how to wrap this up, but a blog posting from Tom Bedard (aka Tomsensori) just arrived and solved it. He writes about and shares videos of young children painting snow showing just the kind of joyous exploration of color more children should have more of the time.

    “Color and I are one. “ Paul Klee


    1. Thanks Jeanne for mentioning my blog in your insightful post on color. You might also like another post about children mixing colors here:

    2. Tom, thanks for both posts. As you do so well and so often, you have put great thought into setting up the activity and have made interesting and useful distinctions in describing it: caps on the paint cups so it isn't a pouring activity, a sensory rather than an art activity, and a color mixing activity, in particular. Wonderful!