Edible Color Wheels

Submitted by: Sandra Hildreth (retired) Madrid-Waddington Central School
Unit: Color Theory
(See alternate approach)
Grade Level: ALL! even adults like this one!


Edible Color Wheels

(Note: This lesson by Sandra Hildreth is copyrighted and can not be published without her permission. It is on this site with her blessing.) | More Color theory Lessons

"Got Frosting!" © Copyright Cathy Gaul, Beck Middle School

Begin your lesson with The Red and Yellow Blues. - song by Greg Percy
Lead on into Secondary Samba. - song by Greg Percy
Then round them up for "Roy G Biv" - song by Greg Percy
Be sure to include "Complementary Colors". - song by Greg Percy
Hope you saved enough icing for "Tints & Shades". - song by Greg Percy


Objectives:  sample

  • Students will explore color mixing - review primary and secondary colors - intermediate (or tertiary colors) colors.

  • Student will create a meaningful, edible, color wheel and photograph if for further study

  • Students will work cooperatively to complete the assignment - and will further explore mixing tints - shades - color planning - complementary colors


Teacher will save out some white icing from each frosting can and store - then mix one bottle of red - blue - yellow into the remaining icing. Divide into cups for each table and seal with lids. Sort out cookies into zip lock baggies. Check for allergies to Red food dye. NOTE: Graham crackers are cheaper!



Vanilla Wafers. (13 per table for starters) - baggies - white icing. (3 cans) - food coloring. (one bottle of red-blue-yellow) - save some reserve white icing for tints -
plastic knives or Popsicle sticks. - small paper plates - sauce cups with lids (or solo cups) - paper towels - optional - Color Wheels. placemats (students could arrange on white 12" (30.5 cm) Drawing Paper.) - Digital Camera. - Printer..

NOTE: You need more yellow than any of the other colors.



When students entered the classroom, each table group of 4-6 students received a 12x12" (30.5 x 30.5 cm) diagram of a blank color wheel (optional - plain white paper may be used), 13 vanilla wafer cookies in a bag, and paper cups of Red, Yellow and Blue frosting. Small sauce cups from the cafeteria also work well (you can even get lids for these) . Save the reserved white for later.


Note: In myexperience - the more you can have things ready ahead of time - the more smoothly the lesson will go -- and the more time for meaningful talk.


Step 1: Frost 1 cookie with each of the 3 available colors and place them at the points of one of the Triangles. (I really doesn't matter which color goes where - just place future colors accordingly) While they did this, they were reminded about the 3 Primary colors and how they would be used to make all the other colors. They were also told they would be able to eat their project, but only after they completed the full Color Wheel and a picture was taken.


Step 2: Questions were asked to help review the 3 Secondary Colors. Students were instructed to mix equal amounts of 2 Primary Colors and frost 3 more cookies, placing them on the points of the other triangle, in between the 2 colors that were used to mix them. (Note: Some primary colors may not be able to be "treated equally" - your color intensities will vary. See what works for your colors - and "fudge" a bit to get the best secondary colors possible).


Step 3: Directions were given for mixing the 6 Intermediate or Tertiary Colors. The frosted cookies were to be placed in between the Primary and Secondary Color used to mix each Intermediate color. In order to know exactly how to mix the intermediate colors - you will have to make a sample yourself -- or at least experiment with the colors you have made. The amount of each color needed will depend solely on the intensity of your primary colors. This is where "exploration" comes in too - have your students discover how much of each primary is needed.


Step 4: Students mixed all 3 Primary Colors together to frost the 13th cookie. It was placed in the center of the Color Wheel - for Neutrals. Sandra took pictures, then they ate their Color Wheels!  Try serving them with milk for a healthful snack. Tie in Wayne Thiebaud and draw them first if you have time.


Step 5: (Optional) - With left over cookies and icing. Try mixing tints - try mixing compliments to get neutrals. Save one color wheel intact - place tints to the outside of each color and mixed complimentary to the inside. Take a photograph of extended color wheel - then eat that too. This could be a composite color wheel from all classes - just keep adding to it each period. Make sure each child has a print of the color wheel for reference.


sample      sample
Look how clever these students are! They made a color wheel with their mixing cups. Completed Wheel. Photographs Copyright Cathy Gaul, Beck Middle School. Used here with permission.


Alternate Idea from Marvin Bartel - Color Exploration and Invention (How Brave are You?)

For any age that does not already "know" the color wheel - try a more scientific approach.

  • What if we did NOT show anybody the color wheel?

  • What if we started with only primaries and black and white without saying that they are primaries and neutrals? (You may have to go to a cake decorating place to get black icing)

  • What if you ask students to see what they "discover" by experimentation when we direct them concerning which colors to combine and which colors and neutrals to combine? This is not exactly "playing around" but it is "directed research". I suppose it is the scientific method being used in art.

  • What if we ask them to "invent" a chart or something that helps them remember the combinations and their results?


Suggestions for Success from Getty TeacherArtExchange - Helpful Links


Tips from Susan Stewart:

Some specifics of the edible colour wheel might help some others. I use 3 cans of vanilla frosting (not whipped or cream cheese)  and two boxes of vanilla wafers.  This is enough for 24 kids to do primary colours, secondary colours and gray.  I mix one little squeeze bottle of colour (simple box of decorating colours from grocery) into each tub of frosting - red, yellow and blue.  At school I give each student 2 paper plates, 7 cookies and Popsicle sticks for mixing and spreading.  I dish out a good dollop of each colour into the tarter sauce plastic cups we use all the time (school supply 1500 in a package) and they mix on one plate as palette, and frost and arrange on the other plate. They have to label their colours and draw lines to the complements. I usually have nothing left over (yes, they eat the leftover frosting - this is high school - boys will eat anything) and the whole mess is disposable at the end. Great fun! - Sue Stewart


Tip from Deborah for Success:

Deborah made some twelve inch mats of diagram above and laminated them so she can use them every year. She simply washes them off at the end of the lesson. You could make some vinyl placemats as well that can be laundered or put in the dishwasher (for safety - kill more "germs" that might accumulate on them). Deborah gives 13 cookies per table to start with - then does more mixing with time remaining.


Tip from Cathy Gaul:

Cathy can't wait to start the new year with this fun activity. She is even going to spring for beverage, too - "Got Milk?". Provide another beverage to in case there are milk allergies. A picture from Cathy soon to come.


Tips from Sharon Kennedy:

(Sharon does 13 cookies per table  and it becomes a group project). This worked extremely well with my 5th through 12th grade students, and days later they were still talking about how much they enjoyed it! This may be extended by having them eat a color and its complementary. Or say that they can start by eating analogous colors--or only the tertiary colors (intermediate). Whatever! Clever students (who want more cookies) may suggest that they show their proficiency in color mixing by producing tints. Or doing a "tint strip" by choosing a color and adding white to a series of cookies. Amazingly, I only used 2 containers of frosting for 50 students—I’d bought 6 containers. On the other hand, I used 3 boxes of Vanilla wafers in order to be able to use all unbroken cookies. This would also be a GREAT lesson plan to use for an art job interview that involves a panel!


Tip from Jan Hillmer:

Use this idea to introduce the artist Wayne Thiebaud. Jan used this lesson for her "Meet the Masters Series: Wayne Thiebaud" and it was a huge success. (Unable to find the series on the internet) Sue Stewart had recommended it.


Tips from Rozx Gallegos:

Warning - go out and buy the frosting - I made the mistake of making mine and now have enough frosting to last enough to frost birthday cakes until 2020 (paraphrased).  I just finished this project with 145-8th graders. We tackled this project after having other color exercises - It most definitely was a hit!

Plastic sandwich bag kits - one per every four students:

  • 15 Vanilla Wafers. (I have students mix all 12 colors, two neutrals...one extra cookie just in case)

  • 3 craft Popsicle sticks. - or plastic knives

  • 3 small Styrofoam Trays. per group (primaries go on one, mix cool colors on
    plate #2, warm colors on plate #3) You may give small nut cups for mixing like Cathy Gaul did.

Note: You can get WalMart brand vanilla wafers much cheaper a box and salvage about 60-75 "good" wafers from each box = 5 baggies.

Each group needs only about 2 tablespoons of each primary color to complete the wheel. Review the rule of color mixing (using lighter color as a base and slowly adding small amounts of the darker color). I get really dramatic about this and tell them they will run out of frosting if they don't adhere to the rule (some primaries are not "created equally")... you should see how excited they get when they have extra frosting left over.


Frosting notes:

  • Buy commercially - it's definitely worth the time savings. 6 containers is plenty (2 per primary color) for this amount of students. One each for fewer students (be sure to reserve some white)

  • Buy the frosting that already has a color base (e.g. strawberry for the red, lemon for the yellow... you'll have to buy vanilla for your blue

  • To enhance the frosting color use Kool-Aid! (cherry for red, "berry blast" for blue... you might have to resort to food coloring for yellow... this is a great (and inexpensive) way to get intense color and add wacky flavor that the kids love... but shhh, don't tell them how you did it - let that add to your mystique as a teacher

An added note - I've found that you need more yellow than any of the other colors (edit recipe to 2 pints of yellow, 1 pint red, 1 pint blue... per 140 students)... and have made the big switch from vanilla wafers to graham crackers (they're cheaper and just as edible).


Helpful Links:

  • Color Symbolism

  • Color Schemes: 603010.com  [Archive] - Justin Kramer (Australia) has had great success using this site with his students to help them understand more pleasing color combinations are obtained by mixing colors. Let the student explore their own color profile. (I had to do it twice before the profiler got it right for me -- smile. It was interesting and fun. I have decided I am a blend two color schemes).

  • Color Schemer - This is a site for web designing software. This link is not provided as an advertisement for the software - but rather for the article/tutorial on color theory.

Color Theory Lessons


Step 1

Decide who in the group will serve as other roles besides the original four. For example, this project will probably require the following roles: hand writer, designer, painter, shape cutter, research and information gatherer, creative specialist.


Step 2

Begin work on the project. Any information or words that you do not know, you will have to research them using the books in the art room.

The wheel must include all of the following items for the group to receive a passing grade:

An originally designed color wheel for a poster. (10 points)

A 12-color wheel that includes the primary colors, secondary colors and the tertiary colors. (10 points)

The primary colors must be painted and cutout into organic shapes. (10 points)

The secondary and tertiary colors must be painted and cutout into geometric shapes. (10 points)

Each primary and secondary color needs to have a 1-2 sentence description that tells what each color represents. For example, is the color warm or cool? What does the color evoke or represent? (10 points)

The wheel may, but does not have to, include magazine cutouts or an originally drawn artwork. (10 points)

The wheel must show the formulas for making Brown, Black, Gray, Orange, Purple, and Green.

The poster must have a visual organization. For example, is the poster "balanced." (10 points)

Also, make sure the poster has good craftsmanship and is not messy. (10 points)

The colors have to be at least 2" (5 cm) in size no matter what shapes your group chooses. (10 points)


Teaching Color Theory - from Marvin Bartel. From Getty TeacherArtExchange post - May 17, 2006

Recently, my third grade granddaughter phoned to ask me, "What colors do you use to mix red?" I told her that this was a very good question.  We had an excellent discussion about experiments she could do to try to find the solution.  If you think it is not possible to make red from other colors, consider your ink jet printer.  Does it come with red ink?  How does it print red?

Joseph Albers, Bauhaus teacher and Yale art professor, wrote the book on color theory.  His square paintings were color studies.  He also had some great insights about learning.  In March, I had the pleasure of seeing an exhibit of Albers' work at the Tate Modern in London.  The Tate had these quotations from Albers on the wall.


"The school should nurture the individual passively without disturbing personal development --  School should allow a lot to be learned, that is to say that it should teach little -- Learning is better than teaching because it is more intense: the more is being taught, the less can be learned --  In the end all education is self-education --  All knowledge, theoretical or practical is deadwood when it does not result in a positive attitude proved by action" (See Teaching through Practice)


I. LEARN FROM THE EXPERTS method (following experts)
Teaching color theory and principles can be taught as a series of expert ideas to look at and memorize.  In this method the teacher displays the color wheel and explains it.  The teacher explains the established color terminology and phenomena and students are required to memorize as much as possible.  Students look at a famous artwork that employs color theory and review their learning by painting something that uses the same color theory.

II. REINVENT THE WHEEL method (active learning)

In this method of learning color theory the teacher does NOT tell or show students anything about the rules.  The color wheel is NOT shown. The teacher has students do experiments to discover things until the color wheel is invented by them.  The color principles are developed out of their comparisons, experiments, and observations.  In the Reinventing the Wheel method they experiment, and the teacher helps by asking questions to focus and keep the experimentation on track.  Students learn how to question, how to experiment, how to observe, how to feel, how to think, how to invent, how to be creative, how to be independent, and how to make their own choices.  These are the kinds of thinking, feeling, and expression done by most great artists, scientists, poets, composers, and so on.

In this method, it is essential for the teacher to be sure that students review and summarize their discoveries and inventions so that they realize and appreciate what they have learned.  In this method students are solving visual puzzles.  In this method they are and making discoveries and inventions about depth, flatness, feelings, relationships, observations, and meanings related to color.  The experimentation is followed by paintings based on memory, imagination, or observation, that make observational, depth/flatness, emotional, and/or symbolic use of the color principles that they discovered through experimentation.  By prohibiting the use of unmixed paint students continue to make discoveries as they paint.

What follows are a few COLOR THEORY ideas for the teacher to KEEP SECRET until after the students discover them.

Color studies can involve the SYMBOLIC meanings of color (green with envy, yellow mean coward, etc.) & PSYCHOLOGICAL effects of color (some color schemes are depressing and others are exciting---a warm painted room can allow lower thermostat settings in winter--saving energy, but a dentist office should probably be painted in a cool color).

Black, white, and grays are considered NEUTRALS, but brown is an orange (secondary color) with a small amount of neutral (black) added.  A dark brown is a SHADE of orange.  Pink is a TINT of red and maroon is a SHADE of red.

All pigments are quite variable and can each be described in terms of HUE (name of color), SATURATION (intensity), TEMPERATURE warm or cool), and VALUE (tone).  Some are PRIMARY, but others are just as important.  Primaries in light are not the same as in pigments.

Color experiments and assignments are often related to studies in the illusion of depth (warm, intense, and lighter colors generally come forward, but this effect can be canceled in certain situations).

Some very interesting experiments and assignments can be assigned by asking students to make simultaneous similarities and opposites together.  For example green and red may be adjusted until they are identical in value, but much different in temperature, saturation, and hue.

There are many ways to teach and many ways to learn, but as Albers said, "In the end all education is self-education."

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Professor of Art Emeritus
Goshen College, 1700 South Main, Goshen IN 46526


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