Seeing Red, Feeling Blue: Color and Emotion in Art

Seeing Red, Feeling Blue: Color and Emotion in Art

Written by Karen Rodis, ArtisTree Programming Director
Lesson Plan by Finnie Trimpi, ArtisTree Outreach Coordinator
Photography by Marie Cross, ArtisTree Marketing Director

When you’re little, feelings are a big deal. Children — young kids in particular — typically need guidance in how to navigate their emotions; children who don’t have a vocabulary to express their feelings often act out their feelings in inappropriate or problematic ways. In teaching children to identify and manage their emotions, we give them important tools to navigate life.

Research shows us that children who are aware of their emotions and know how to express them in a socially acceptable manner have a distinct advantage as they mature. These children tend to perform better at school, have better social relationships, have an internal locus of control (believe that the choices they make have an impact on their lives), and are less likely to display behavior problems.

Art is an excellent vehicle for exploring emotions with children and developing a vocabulary for identifying and defining feelings. Below, I lay out the steps for an art activity that was part of the ArtisTree camp “Seeing Red, Feeling Blue: Color and Emotion in Art.” In this camp, kids learned about how modern artists known as the Fauves — including Henri Matisse and André Derain — created work that expressed emotions through color choices and impulsive brushwork.


  • 8.5 by 11 white copy paper for portrait, two pieces
  • 8.5 by 11 white cardstock paper, two pieces
  • 12 by 18 construction paper (assorted colors)
  • paint brushes
  • red, yellow and blue tempera paint (or other colors on hand)
  • bowl or paper plate for mixing paint
  • scissors
  • glue stick
  • camera or phone
  • printer


  1. Talk to your child about emotion. What kinds of feelings do we experience on a day-to-day basis? Help your child come up with a list of emotions. Practice making faces in a mirror to fully illustrate the thought with a visual.
  2. Next, talk about color. Look at the different colored papers and share with one another what the different colors make each of you feel. See if they have ever heard “I am green with envy, she was feeling blue, I am red with anger”…you may even introduce Picasso’s Blue period paintings and talk about the feeling that he is illustrating. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers could be an expression of happiness; Matisse’s colorful portraits may bring up happier or more excited emotions as well. (All can be found online if you do not have books or prints on hand.)
  3. Let your child choose two emotions and two corresponding colors to focus on in their project.
  4. Using a camera or phone, take a portrait of your child with expressions and gestures that convey each of the two emotions. What does sad look like? Or mad? Print out the portraits in black and white on white copy paper. Step 4
  5. Have your child paint each of their selected colors on a separate piece of cardstock. Show them how to mix colors if needed: blue and red make purple, yellow and blue make green, etc. Encourage your child to consider how their brushstrokes — smooth and calm, or quick and zigzagging — can convey emotions as well. Let dry.
    Step 5
  6. Have your child cut out their photographic images from the backgrounds.
    Step 6
  7. When paint is dry, have your child match up the images and colors and glue each photo on its corresponding paper.
  8. Glue portraits side by side or one above the other on a large piece of construction paper in a color of their choice and have your child sign their name on their work!
    Step 8

Display your child’s artwork and refer to it in the coming days or weeks whenever your child is experiencing challenging feelings. Begin to introduce additional emotional vocabulary to expand and refine their emotional toolkit: mad can lead to angry and the more nuanced furious and annoyed, etc. Create additional artwork to illustrate more feelings. Visual reference points can provide additional support to your child as they grow and develop into mature persons with emotional fluency.

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