The Elements of Art: Color

Grade Level: K–4

Students will be introduced to one of the basic elements of art—color—through analysis of works of art by Monet, Matisse, and Kandinsky. Class discussion focused on these paintings will help students understand how artists use color to convey atmosphere and mood. They will then test their color expertise by completing a downloadable worksheet and coloring a photograph of Rouen Cathedral.


Claude Monet
French, 1840–1926
Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, 1894
oil on canvas, 100.1 x 65.9 cm (39 3/8 x 25 15/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection

Claude Monet
French, 1840–1926
Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight, 1894
oil on canvas, 100.1 x 65.8 cm (39 3/8 x 25 7/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection


NAEA Standards

2-B Students describe how different expressive features and organizational principles cause different responses.
5-C Students understand there are different responses to specific artworks.

Curriculum Connections

  • Science
  • Language Arts


Warm-up Questions

Are these paintings of the same building? How are they similar and different?


Color is what we see because of reflected light. Light contains different wavelengths of energy that our eyes and brain "see" as different colors. When light hits an object, we see the colored light that reflects off the object.

Red, blue, and yellow are the primary colors. With paints of just these three colors, artists can mix them to create all the other colors. When artists mix pigments of the primary colors, they make secondary colors.

Red + Blue = Purple
Red + Yellow = Orange
Blue + Yellow = Green

Did you know that your computer screen also works by using three primary colors? But here, since the colors are light from the monitor and not paints, the three primaries are not the same. Instead, your computer screen mixes other colors from red, blue, and green.

One important thing painters know: using complementary colors—the ones across from each other on the color wheel (red-green, blue-orange, and yellow-purple)—make both colors seem brighter and more intense. They seem to vibrate and pop out at you, the viewer.

Warm colors—reds, yellows, oranges, and red-violets—are those of fire and the sun. They appear to project. Cool colors—blues, blue-greens, and blue-violets—are those of ice and the ocean. They appear to recede.

Guided Practice

View the slideshow below to introduce students to three artists—Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Wassily Kandinsky—and the way they used color in their paintings.

Slideshow: Monet, Matisse, and Kandinsky on Color

French artist Claude Monet liked to paint the same subject over and over again, at different times of day and in different types of weather. He painted Rouen cathedral in France some thirty times, but what fascinated him most was not the building—it was, he said, the surrounding atmosphere. Rather than quick studies of changing light effects, these pictures, slowly reworked in the studio, are carefully considered explorations of color and mood:

  • Each painting uses Rouen Cathedral to record time (morning or late afternoon) and weather (sunlight or mist). Examine the way Monet used color and texture: Can you tell from the shadows in the doorways which painting might have been done in the morning and which in the afternoon? (Don't forget that the sun rises in the east and these paintings show the west façade or front of the building.)  How do the colors change in sunlight, fog, and mist?
  • Do you see any clear outlines? Is it possible to determine exactly where one surface ends and another begins? If line does not define the forms in this painting, what does? (Answer: color!)

Around 1905 several artists, including Matisse, exhibited pictures in which heightened color was used to express a strong emotional response to nature. The painters were called "fauves," or wild beasts.  The freshness and strength of the tones in Open Window, Collioure are typical of the fauves; Matisse's contrasts are subtle, giving this work a sense of serenity and radiance. Show students this painting (second to last image in the slideshow) to answer the following questions:

  • Would you rather go sailing or remain in your cool room admiring the view? Matisse's seductive small painting encourages both impulses.
  • Look at the colors. How are they different from what you see in nature? Have you ever seen a pink sea? (Perhaps if it’s reflecting a sunset…)
  • How big do you think this painting is? It’s actually only 21 3/4 x 18 1/8 inches. See how Matisse transformed the effect of a small canvas into expansive pictorial space through the device of the open window and eye-popping color.

Wassily Kandinsky, raised in Odessa, Russia, learned to play the cello and piano as a child. As an artist, he drew connections between art and music and believed that colors and shapes could affect our mood. Show students Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle) (last image in the slideshow) without revealing the name of the title:

  • What do the colors in this painting make you feel? happy? sad? scared?
  • What do you think is happening in this painting?
  • After students have hypothesized what the scene depicts, let them know the title contains the phrase “sea battle.” Now have them analyze the painting: Can you find two tall-masted ships locked in combat? Can they spot any canon fire? What is the sea like that day? The weather?


Now that students have investigated various uses of color in three artists’ works, they will fill out the “Colorful Language” worksheet to test their knowledge of color. Next, students will select one work of art from the slideshow as if it were a postcard of somewhere they visited. They will then write a letter to a friend or family member describing what they saw, what time of day it was, and what the weather was like using the colors from the work of art as their guide. They must include at least three of the terms from the first page of the “Colorful Language” worksheet when describing the scene.


Download a faded version of the photograph of the west façade of Rouen Cathedral in Paris that Monet painted at all time of day and in all types of weather (the original photograph is the first image in the slideshow). Students will select a time of day and type of weather and then color over this faded image using appropriate hues in oil pastel (preferable to cover image, but crayons could also be used).

The Elements of Art is supported by the Robert Lehman Foundation

More Lessons in this Unit

Related Resources

Borrow the DVD Seeing Color: Object, Light, Observer

Download family-oriented guides to Monet and Matisse

Find out more about Monet’s series paintings

Explore works of art by the Fauves, featuring Matisse


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