“Over the years I have demonstrated to young children the basics of color theory developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I ask them to tell me what the opposite of black is. ’White!’ the children shout. ’What is the opposite of red?’ I ask.

The children seem bewildered. How can red, or any other color, have an opposite color? Even very young children are fascinated when I then demonstrate that, yes, red has an opposite color. My book is not required for a demonstration. All you need is a well-lighted white background and a brightly colored object—let’s say a red glove. The glove can be real or cut from a red piece of paper. Place the red glove on the white background. Ask the children not to move their eyes, as they stare at the red glove and count to ten. All this should be done quietly and peacefully. Then remove the red glove, but not before the children have promised that they will keep their eyes on the spot where the red glove had been but no longer is. Slowly and faintly a green glove will appear and then disappear. Green is the opposite, or complementary, color of red. Some children believe this is magic, a trick or an illusion. I tell the children that it is not, that something is taking place between the eye and the brain. My optometrist, Dr. Grossman, tells me it is called “simultaneous contrast after-image.”

Looking Long Enough Reveals the “Magic”

Recognizing and understanding complementary colors is a task that can both fascinate and frustrate children of all ages. Author-artist Eric Carle is the ideal person to lighten up the learning process. Hello, Red Fox is a delightfully simple and funny story that lets his readers in on an artist’s secret: Look at things long enough and all will be revealed to you.

Carle’s gentle explanation is correct. But there is also a bit of magic at work here. In creating Hello, Red Fox, Carle has made more than a book about understanding Goethe’s color wheel. He has subtly, slyly, and generously invited his readers to take an artist’s view of a story. With a bit of patience, you and your children will be amazed at what you can see!

Looking at Hello, Red Fox

In Hello, Red Fox, Eric Carle uses his own vivid collage illustrations to demonstrate the concept of complementary colors.

Little Frog invites Red Fox, Purple Butterfly, Orange Cat, Green Snake, Yellow Bird, Blue Fish, and White Dog with Black Spots to his birthday party. But when the guests arrive, Mama Frog is confused. Red Fox is green, Purple Butterfly is yellow, Orange Cat is blue, Green Snake is red, Yellow Bird is purple, Blue Fish is orange, and White Dog with Black Spots is black with white spots! Little Frog says Mama didn’t look at his friends long enough. And sure enough, when the reader stares at the guests and then at the white facing pages, the animals show their true colors.

Hello, Red Fox has something for everyone. Preschoolers will enjoy the sweet and simple birthday story, and young and old alike will enjoy the challenge of trying to see the opposite colors. An author’s note and endpapers featuring Goethe’s color wheel will intrigue art and history lovers. And educators will marvel at the diversity of questions—on topics ranging from art to science—that this seemingly simple story provokes.

Looking Together – Sharing Hello, Red Fox with Children

  1. Hold up the book and read the title aloud. Ask if something about the cover illustration is surprising (Red Fox is green). What do your children hope that the book will explain?
  2. Open the cover of the book and ask children to describe the image in the endpaper. What do artists call this bright circle? (A color wheel) Read the information about Goethe and his theory of complementary colors. Note that Goethe places complementary colors opposite from each other on the color wheel. Why might complementary colors be important to the story? Turn the page to begin finding out. [Note: For younger readers, you may want to read the story at least once before presenting Goethe’s color wheel and biographical information.
  3. As each child sees the complementary color images on the white pages throughout the story, ask him or her to describe the colors and shapes which come into view. [Note that every color is reflected back as its complement.
  4. After the story has been read and enjoyed, review (or present) Goethe’s color wheel. Can your children help to prove that Goethe’s complementary color wheel enables us to predict the color we will see on each white page after viewing the image on the page before? Without reading the text, page through Hello, Red Fox again. Stop at the illustration of the fox. Ask students to name the animal, then to describe the color of the illustration: green. Next, find green on the color wheel and draw your finger straight through the center of the wheel until you touch the complementary color on the opposite side: red. What is the animal’s name? Red Fox.
  5. Have the children test their conclusion by again staring at the image, then moving their eyes to the white page as instructed at the beginning of the story. Is a red fox what they see? Yes! Repeat this exercise for the butterfly, cat, snake, bird, fish, and flower. Have the children rest their eyes between each animal.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
German poet, novelist, and philosopher, also developed a color theory.

How Artists Paint Color Subtractive Primaries and Complementary Colors

Most people first learn about colors from an artist’s point of view. Artists create colors by mixing paints, or pigments, of red, yellow, and blue. These are the three colors we most often think of as the primary colors. More accurately, they are called primaries of pigment, or the subtractive primaries, because when you mix all three together in equal amounts, the result is black. The complement of any subtractive primary can be created by blending the other two primary colors. For example, the complement of blue is orange, or a blend of yellow and red. Or, taking it the opposite way, the complement of green is neither of its components (yellow and blue), but the sole remaining primary color: red. On Goethe’s color wheel, each primary color is sandwiched between the complements of the other two subtractive primaries.

Color Wheel Soup (for younger children)
Materials: Water; paper cups; spoons; cornstarch or flour; red, yellow, and blue food coloring.

Activity: Have children help you stir together two tablespoons cornstarch or flour and four tablespoons water in each of three cups. Add several drops of food coloring to each cup to make yellow, red, and blue “soup.” Have students look at the color wheel. Which colors have they made? What other colors do they need to make up all the colors of the color wheel (orange, purple, green)? The color wheel can tell us how to mix these colors. To make orange, blend the two colors which sit on either side of it on the color wheel (red and yellow). Spoon equal amounts of red and yellow “soup” into a clean cup and stir to make a smooth orange color. What does the color wheel tell children they will get if they mix yellow and blue (green)? Make a soup to prove it. Repeat for purple. Allow children to further experiment with their color “soups.”

Draw Your Own Color Wheel (for older children)
[Note to parents and teachers of young children: You can create the outline for the color wheel as described below or by tracing the outline from the color wheel in Hello, Red Fox, and then have the children color in the colors.]

Materials: White paper; red, orange, yellow, blue, green, and purple crayons or felt-tip pens; a pencil; a compass; a protractor.

Activity: Have students use the compass to draw a large circle on the white paper. Then, keeping the point of the compass in the same place, draw a smaller circle inside the large one. Use the protractor to measure out 60-degree intervals around the “wheel” and draw lines to divide it into six equal sections. Finally, without looking at the Hello, Red Fox endpapers, have students use what they have learned above to correctly fill in the six spaces on their own color wheels.

Did you know…? Many artists and artistic movements, especially around the turn of the last century, included special theories about light and color. Learn more about Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Fauvism, Impressionism, Post-impressionism (particularly pointillism), and De Stijl (architecture).

The Colors of the Rainbow: Sir Isaac Newton’s Discovery

Sir Isaac Newton is considered to be one of the greatest scientists of all time. Early in his career, he became interested in the study of optics. Newton suspected that colors occur because sunlight is a combination of different colors of light, and that various interferences cause colors to appear by separating the sunlight into its different components. To prove this, he used a special type of prism to “split” a sunbeam into its component colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—the colors of the rainbow. Today, scientists call these colors “the spectrum of visible light”light that the human eye can see. Visible light is only a small part of the total energy spectrum known as the electromagnetic field, which also contains shorter waves (infrared, radar, radio) and longer waves (ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma rays) invisible to the human eye.

Making Newton’s Rainbow (for all ages)
Materials: A prism; a large glass bowl of water; a sheet of white paper; a hand-held mirror.

Activity 1: Hold the prism in a window so that the sun shines through and is diffracted into a rainbow of colors. Ask the children to describe what they see. [Note: the many surfaces of the prism “bend” the light rays coming from the sun to reveal all the different colors we can see.]

Activity 2: Can a bowl of water reveal a rainbow? Place the bowl on a table in direct sunlight. Hold the white paper between the bowl and the window. Position the mirror on the side of the bowl away from the window and adjust it until it reflects sunlight through the water, making a rainbow appear on the paper. Ask children to describe the colors they see. What is the shape of this rainbow? Can the mirror be moved to change the rainbow’s shape? [Note: The water-mirror rainbow is more primitive than the prism rainbow and may reveal an unusual shape and/or less than seven colors.] Compare the water rainbow to the prism rainbow.

Did you know…? In the sky, a rainbow is the reflection of sunlight through millions of lingering raindrops. The angle at which sunlight enters the raindrops affects the rainbow’s appearance. The higher the sun is in the sky, the closer to the ground the rainbow appears to be. When the sun is higher than 42 degrees above the horizon, the rainbow is invisible to eyes on Earth.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
English mathematician and physicist

How the Eyes See Color Additive Primaries

The human eye sees colors in a slightly different way than artists mix them. For the eye to perceive color, there must first be light. The eye has just three receptors for colored light—red, green, and blue—that send messages to the brain so that we can perceive over a million shades of color. These three receptor colors are called the additive primaries of light, because when light composed of these three colors is mixed in equal amounts, the eye perceives white (black is perceived by the eye as the absence of any of these colors of light.)

How does this explain your eyes’ experience in Hello, Red Fox? The red pigment of Eric Carle’s collage of the red heart absorbs all the light waves coming from the sun except for the red waves. The red waves are reflected back into the eye and excite the red receptors, sending a message to your brain that “this color is red.” Staring at the red heart for several seconds “tires out” the brain’s color receptors for red, and they stop responding well. Normally light bounced from a white surface reflects all colors, but when you shift your gaze to a white page at this moment, the red receptors are too tired to react to the red portion of the light bouncing up from the white paper. What you “see” is white light with the red receptors’ message subtracted, or the response of your “well-rested” green and blue receptors: a situation your brain defines as green. This sounds complicated, but to scientists it is only a general outline. Researchers are still trying to figure out many details about the way we see and interpret color.

Curiosity Cards (for younger children)

Materials: White paper; colored crayons.

Activity: Give each child a sheet of white paper and ask him or her to fold it in half, greeting-card style. Along the top edge of the card’s cover, help each child to write the question “Can you see the color/animal?” Have him or her choose an animal and a color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple). Have the children open their cards. To the left of the fold, ask them to draw their chosen animals in their selected color and write “Look at this for ten seconds” below the illustration. Next, have children draw a small black dot in the center of the paper to the right of the fold with the caption “Then look at this dot.” [Note: For very young children, you may want to prepare folded, captioned cards in advance of the activity. The black dot is not required, it merely facilitates the eye to focus.] Have classmates exchange cards and try the after-imaging experiment.

Colorful Shadows (for older children)

Materials: Three flashlights; red, green, and blue cellophane; rubber bands or tape; a white wall.

Activity: Affix a different color of cellophane completely over the lens of each of the three flashlights, securing them with the rubber bands or tape. Have three children stand side by side and shine the red, green, and blue lights on the white wall, working together until all three lights focus on one point. The light on the wall should appear white. Hold a small, opaque object, such as a ruler, in front of the lights until three distinctly colored shadows appear. Remove the ruler and turn off the blue flashlight. When the ruler is replaced, the color of the white surface will change to yellow while the shadows become red and green. Try some different shadow-objects and flashlight on-off combinations.

Did you know…? Our understanding of the way the human eye sees color is put to use every day. Hospital walls are often painted green to help disguise the green afterimage doctors and nurses see after looking at red blood.

Pictures in magazines and books are created using millions of tiny dots in only four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black): the brain combines the receptors’ color messages from various arrangements of these dots to perceive any color you can imagine.

Notes for parents and teachers was prepared by Stasia Ward Kehoe. Stasia is a freelance writer specializing in the interests of young readers. She holds a master’s degree in Performance Studies from New York University and teaches musical theater to elementary school students in Rye, New York.