You Were Taught Color Wrong

Author: Shoshana Burgett, Pink Elephant & colorkarma

The last century has seen the development of the television (1927), the personal computer (1946), videogames (1968), mobile phone (1973), the worldwide web (1989), and the smart phone (1992).  These innovations all have a strong visual component and have shifted the way we think about and design with color. Yet, over the past century, the way children are taught about color and color theory remains that same – and it is wrong. Now is the time for children’s color theory curriculum to evolve and support the technology and tools for today’s society.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash


Children typically begin learning about colors at age two. Toddlers are shown similar objects, like balls, and the doting parents will say “green ball’ and “red ball.” This provides the child with the language to understand and communicate colors. As toddlers progress, they begin to identify and associate specific colors, like red or green, to objects. This association stays throughout our life. Today we continue to associate red with a firetruck, stop signs and brands like Coke-a-Cola.

Children are first introduced to color theory when a teacher gives out paper and finger-paints to the class. Elementary students happily explore mixing yellow and blue to make a green grass. The kids paint the blue sky. They mix yellow, blue and red to make a muddy brown for the trunk of the tree and follow it with mixing red and yellow to create the oranges on the tree. Finger-painting is one of those activities that many children enjoy, and parents preserve for prosperity. I am guilty of this too and have a Pollack-like masterpiece on my wall.

Unless your child is the next Rembrandt or Picasso, those finger-paint lessons do little to provide them the knowledge of how colors work and behave in today’s modern age. As kids mature and move past finger paint to devices, they leave the interactive tactical world behind and spend many years using digital tools. Whether they are using a drawing app, playing video games or using filters / editing tools for photos, they are experiencing and interacting with color on screens. And digital color is much different than finger painting!

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Photo by Tobias Carlsson on Unsplash
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Todays’ world of displays, tablets, and smartphones all are additive colors – they work by adding Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) to make ‘white.’ The white is created when there is a balanced distribution of red, green, and blue colors within our visible spectrum. The vivid, bright colors on your monitors, screens, and displays are all created using additive color mixing.  When a toddler uses a digital tablet to ‘color’ and finger paint (without the mess) mixing red, yellow and blue on a device is a completely different color principle that does not work!

Children who later become graphic, industrial, or fashion designers learn about subtractive color theory. Unlike additive, which begins with black / darkness, and adds colors to make white. Subtractive color begins with white and builds colors to eventually create black. The term subtractive color mixing derives from how the science works. When colors mix, wavelengths are removed, because the pigments absorb some wavelengths that the other color reflects. This leaves the viewer with fewer visible wavelengths.

Adults may commonly associate subtractive color mixing with their office printer, which uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK), to print. Black is added, because most pigments have some form of contamination. Black is added to either save costs of the other three colors, or to make sure the black looks like a true deep black. Though your office printers and commercial printers use this principle, it can be applied to many technologies. Oil paint, fabric dyes, and even tattoo pigments can all create colors using CMYK.



Imaging a room of school children who sitting in the dark and a red spotlight flashes on the wall. The teacher adds a green, then blue. The teacher begins to overlap the three spotlights and it turns to white. The children gasp in awe and are amazed that their teacher knows a magic trick.  The teacher discusses RGB and how color is created on TVs and digital screens.

The following week the teacher brings out cyan, magenta and yellow finger-paints for the kids to play with. The teacher asks how the colors behave differently from the red, green and blue lights mixing.  They review the additive color theory and are now interacting with paints that behave in the opposite manner. They discuss subtractive color mixing. The school children are engaged and ask questions.  For homework the students have to look at their surroundings and list things that work using subtractive and additive colors.

Today’s color curriculum in elementary schools need to adapt to the way children experience color in both the digital and physical world. Children should be learning the basics of RGB and additive color theory for digital world, as well as CMYK as subtractive for the physical world.  With this basic knowledge children will have a better understanding of how color works across digital and physical.

As we think about color theory, we must remember that digital world behaves differently than the physical world (in more ways than one). When it comes to color, there is a way to educate and that demonstrates the differences between digital and physical color. Shifting how we teach and experience color will help the next generation understand how different technologies impact color perception and how to leverage that technology to find new colors.  Using this approach, we can begin to teach color theory based on science and technology.


To help advance color understanding at all levels from early education to graduate levels, the Inter-Society Color Council (ISCC) is embarking on a new project.  According to ISCC member and color educator, Maggie Maggio, “ISCC has approved a four-year Color Literacy Project to identify and address the most basic misconceptions and misinformation about color while building a bridge between the art and science of 21st century color education.” This includes a color education website that will provide free, age appropriate information and materials for K-12 classrooms and introductory university programs.

Maggio continues, “We hope many people will be involved in testing the materials and curricula as we move forward!”  Stay tuned to the ISCC site for more information on the project.

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