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SHAPE OF COLOR - Abstract Painting

SEASON 5  |  PROJECT 3/34  |  10.30.23

MODULE:  Painting  |  GRADE LEVELS:  1 - 6  |  DURATION:  1 Hour


Video Editing by Jorge Davies, Graphics by Melissa Sabol



This project, based in minimalist painting, explores a few very important art elements – shape, line, and color. What might appear at first glance like a basic exercise, is a rich art exploration. Students will play with shape by deconstructing a cardboard box and using it as a canvas. It’s remarkable to see how many shapes can be found or created from a simple throw-away box. They will then experiment with mixing their own paint colors and exploring how these colors might convey mood or emotion.


  • Learn the basics about primary, complementary, and analogous colors

  • Explore color theory – the relationships between colors, and how they respond to one another

  • Think symbolically about how color and shape can convey a message, mood, or emotion to a viewer

  • Explore thoughts and feelings, personal interests, and questions in an abstract way

  • Engage in a self-directed art project that encourages experimentation and risk taking 

  • Experience firsthand how painting can be meditative and provide an opportunity for self regulation

  • Apply creative methods to overcome roadblocks and encourage persistence to reach a goal


  • Cardboard box (12” or smaller and not to thick)

  • Scissors (that can cut a cardboard box)

  • Glue 

  • Acrylic Paint

  • Paint brush (large and small)

  • Paper towel

  • Paper plate

  • Water



P3-34 James OKeefe-02.png

James O’Keefe is a minimalist painter who lives and works in Joshua Tree, CA. His paintings truly exemplify the idea that less is more. In his explorations of shape and color, O’Keefe’s work often crosses the line from painting into sculpture. He alters the traditional shapes of his paintings by building on them and adding new forms on their sides. The addition of these forms along with sudden and distinct color shifts give the sense that one painting is merging into another. 


His experimentations in abstraction also reflect his desert surroundings. From the juxtaposition of the dramatically vivid but subdued colors of his environment to the quietness of the desert that helps him get outside of himself and focus his mind. In this environment, he is inspired to remove self-criticism, self-doubt, and anything that holds him back, which allows him the space he needs to get in tune with his paintings and understand what they need. 


1. Josef Albers, Portfolio 'Homage to the Square'. 1967.jpg

Josef Albers
was an influential artist, educator, designer and color theorist. He is best known for his “Homage to the Square” series, a collection of nested squares that show how different combinations of color and form affect our perceptions and emotions. Albers published a book in 1963 called the Interaction of Color. According to Albers, the “perception of color is an illusion” and is “never seen as it really is.” He believed the best way to study color is experientially, exploring it through art and experimentation.

Albers, Josef. Portfolio ‘Homage to the Square’. 1967, Color screen prints. Private Collection, Munich.

4. Ellsworth Kelly, Three Panels_ Orange, Dark Gray, Green. 1986.jpg

Ellsworth Kelly
To abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, painting and creating art was about exploring his view of the world. Through his minimalist paintings, he painted what he saw in nature by abstracting forms into simple shapes and bright colors. He often experimented with shaped canvases. By curving and shaping the corners, and covering them in a single color, Kelly transformed his canvases into the composition, and the wall became the canvas. His distinctive style was coined hard-edge and it went on to influence countless other artists.

Ellsworth Kelly. Three Panels: Orange, Dark Gray, Green.1986, Oil on canvas, three panels. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

3. Herrera, Carmen. Untitled. 1948.jpg

Carmen Herrera
Cuban born artist Carmen Herrera was an artist, but also trained as an architect. Her interest in simplicity and geometry can be seen in her shaped canvases with striking color contrasts. She often played with just two or three colors. It helped her decide if she liked a color and to understand how one color affected another. She believed that less is more and saw beauty in the straight line. As a woman and an immigrant, Herrera found it difficult to enter into the art world and encountered a great amount of discrimination. Despite the initial cold reception to her work, she continued to paint until her death at age 106, experimenting in her unique way with color and form.

Herrera, Carmen. Untitled. 1948, Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 38 in. Collection of Yolanda Santos.

Hilma af Klint. Svanen, nr 17, grupp IX_SUW, serie SUW_UW. 1915.jpg

Hilma af Klint
Hilma af Klint’s paintings are believed to be some of the first abstract works in Western art history. Despite the significance of her work, not many people were familiar with it, and she was largely overlooked as having any role in the abstract movement. Heavy in symbolism, each shape and color held a meaning to af Klint, and she used these techniques to explore spiritual concepts such as light and dark as well as good and evil.

Af Klint, Hilma. Svanen, nr 17, grupp IX/SUW, serie SUW/UW. 1915. Hilma af Klint Foundation. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Kees van de Wal, #640, 2022.png

Kees van de Wal
Kees van de Wal is a contemporary abstract artist from the Netherlands.  His art explores the effect that a simple change in shape or color has on each object. He is always searching for the ultimate shape, “a shape,” he says, “that represents nothing, but says everything.” His art installations show us firsthand how objects talk to each other simply by hanging them next to each other on a wall.

Van de Wal, Kees. #640. 2022, Acrylic on cardboard, wood glue. 28 x 42 x 3.5 cm.


Abstraction:  a style of art that does not try to represent anything in the real world, but instead focuses on colors, shapes, lines, etc. In abstract art, subjects or objects are simplified or changed so much that you cannot recognize a person, object, place or thing.

Minimalism:  an extreme form of abstract art that is stripped down and reduced to pure and simple forms. The artist intends for the viewer to respond to the simple art elements that are in front of them.

Paint:  a pigment in liquid form that, when applied to a hard surface and dried, adds a layer of color to create an image.

Painting:  an art practice of applying paint, pigment (raw color), or other type of material to a surface. Artists mix their paints and experiment with tints, tones, and shades to create a wide-range of colors. This can bring depth to a flat surface, or intensify an otherwise soft color.

Color Theory:  color is what an object releases when hit by light. However, color is more than a ray of light, it can also have an intense effect on our emotions. Cool colors tend to make us feel calm, peaceful, or sad, while warm colors can range from bubbly to angry. Color theory is an exploration in how colors interact with one another, how they can be combined to create new colors, and what sort of effect all this has on human emotions and moods.

Color Wheel:  a wheel containing different colors in a specific order used to show the relationship between each color and how they affect one another. Depicts primary, secondary, and tertiary colors as well as complementary and analogous.

Primary Colors:  the three most important colors in color theory are red, blue, and yellow. These colors cannot be created from any other colors and are the basis for every other color in existence.

Complementary Colors:  two colors that sit opposite from one another on the color wheel. Each pair consists of a warm color and a cool color. When paired together these colors look beautiful, hence the term complementary colors. Examples are: blue and orange, yellow and purple, red and green

Analogous Colors:  two or more colors that are side by side on the color wheel that often contain the same primary color share similarities. Color schemes created with analogous colors tend to create a powerful mood.

Tint:  a tint is created when white is mixed into a color. This creates a lighter hue of that color.

Shade:  opposite from a tint, shade is created when black is mixed into a color. This then creates a darker hue of that color.

Tone:  is created when gray is mixed with a color and can be described as how light or dark a color appears. Tone can also describe the quality of a color and whether it appears “cool” or “warm” toned.

Shape:  a flat area, such as a circle or a square, that has clear boundaries. A person or an object can be a combination of different shapes.


  • What color are you today? Color can reflect mood, it can evoke particular emotions, and it can change the way we see things. If you turned any color right now, what color would you be? Draw a realistic portrait of yourself, or an abstract scribble of a color that reflects you. Explain why you would be this color.

  • Play with pattern and color. Choose two to three of your favorite colors. Use them to create a repeating pattern across the page. A pattern is a repeated decorative design. Try this multiple times with different shapes and different color combinations. See how much the mood changes each time you make a change.

  • Draw your favorite object in one color. Choose something that is special to you and draw it. Maybe it’s your pet or a person you had a brief encounter with. Here’s the catch…you can only use one color. What will influence your color choice? What does that color communicate about the object you are drawing?

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