When I was a kid, I once grabbed a four-color box of modelling clay and started blending different combinations until I had a full palette of colors. It must have taken me a whole afternoon, but something about the order of it all was just very satisfying to me. So today for my kids’ art session, we did the same thing with play-doh.

First I put the three primary colors in a triangle, and then each kid got a pair of small lumps to blend together. First everyone had red and yellow, and my four-year-old got first guess what color they would make. When it became clear, everyone handed their orange lumps to my oldest to combine in a bigger ball, and then we did the same with blue and yellow, then blue and red. We lined up the six colors in order, talked about the difference between primary and secondary, and then put them a circle so they could see how purple cycles back to red at the end of the wheel.

After we saw how to blend primary colors to get secondary, the second step was to ask: Can you get primary colors by blending secondary? This time each kid got a different combination of purple and orange, orange and green, or green and purple. It worked out nicely, as each kid ended up with a lump of brownish gray or purplish gray. We noted how blending secondaries can’t get you back to primaries, and how blending all three equally moves you closer and closer to gray.

Finally, I got out some white, and we did lighter versions of each color for our wheel, with the brownish-gray lump in the middle. Sadly, I don’t have black play-doh, so the completeist in me had to deal with disappointment.

Along with building a useful skill, the color wheel teaches a part of our universe that is orderly, and shows how beautiful that order can be. The other side of art is the messiness of creativity, and in fact as I write this my kids are mushing some colors together, pressing others through a plastic plunger into spaghetti strings, and making others into cookies for a pretend birthday party. But I believe it is essential that creativity always starts with order: the old expression of first knowing the rules, so that you can know when and how to break them.

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