Are Black Markers Really Black? A Chromatography Lesson.

are black markers really black chromatographyWhat color is black? Is it one color or many colors combined to “look black”?

Black is the absence of all reflective colors, and when the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) are combined in just the right way, they give off the appearance of black.

We set off to find out more about the predominant colors in our black Crayola marker, and to do this we had to separate the colors. The chemical technique used to separate dyes, pigments, or colored chemicals is known as chromatography. 

This activity can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 25 minutes, depending on how much experimenting your child wants to do, and it’s appropriate for kids ages 2 and up. It’s so simple to do, and would be a natural addition to a morning or afternoon of drawing with markers.


  • White paper towels or white coffee filters
  • A Plate
  • Black marker/s
  • Water
  • Water Dropper

add water to black ink

We started by drawing a big quarter-sized dot on the paper towel, and then squeezed water on top of it. The colors that are released into the paper towel give you some clues as to what goes in to your black. In our case, there was a lot of green.

add water to marker on paper towel experimentAfter the black marker test, 3-year old N wanted to test the rest of her markers. She made a lot of predictions, and they all came out as expected (yellow appeared to be yellow and green was made from green dyes).

add water to marker on paper towel experiment

The red and pink, however, stumped her as they both released a pink color.

add water to marker on paper towel experiment ChromatographyAnd then there was a lot of fun in opening the paper towels up to reveal the levels of color that soaked through all the layers.

More Chromatography

For older kids, this slightly more advanced version of our kitchen experiment from Science Project Lab has some pretty cool results.

Kids will be amazed at the rainbow of colors released by leaves in this chromatography experiment shared over on TLC Family.

I like this coffee filter chromatography project from Kids Make Things.

Have you tried this experiment with your kids? Do you have a favorite paper towel/coffee filter project? What is the most challenging part of doing experiments with your kids?

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  1. Looks fun!  I have to thank you for your blog; it has given me inspiration… sometimes in the form of specific activities and sometimes just reminding me what kind of mom I want to be.  Today my four-year old and I made the pyramid bean bags and because of your post, I let him sew with the sewing machine (with help, of course) and he did great!  I could tell it was building his confidence and it was so fun!

    • Hi Lindsey, It pleases me to no end to hear that this blog has inspired you! It’s always been my hope that these ideas would be fuel for thought. And that’s so great to hear that your 4 year old is really sewing. Isn’t it amazing to witness these moments of real accomplishment? 

  2. This looks pretty neat! I have to look at another links you recommend and pin this before I forget it.

  3. Thank you! my 7+9yr old enjoyed it plenty!
    We did it with coffee filters and glued the results to create a colorful springy wall for they came out flowery and beautiful.

  4. High performance liquid chromatography is also a form of column chromatography and uses high
    pressure to separate, identify, and quantify compounds.
    HPLC stands for High Performance Liquid Chromatography. Then let
    them stick these pictures beside their matching colors on the color wheel.

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