The Art of Thomas Moran Lesson
Human History of Yellowstone
Students will identify Thomas Moran as an artist
who accompanied the Hayden Survey of 1871, and
recognize the importance of his watercolor sketches
in the creation of Yellowstone as the country's
first national park.
Students will study Moran's watercolors on the
Influence of Art in Yellowstone Electronic Field
Trip and discuss their importance in the history
of Yellowstone National Park. Students will then
capture their own scenes through painting with
Dr. Ferdinand Hayden's Geological Survey of 1871,
was comprised of scientists, artists, as well
as technical personnel. Just as W.H. Jackson accompanied
the expedition to photograph Yellowstone, Thomas
Moran came along to paint what he saw. The beauty
they captured through photographs and paintings
later helped to inspire members of Congress to
pass legislation to protect Yellowstone "as
a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit
and enjoyment of the people." President Ulysses
S. Grant signed the bill into law on March 1,
1872, thereby creating the first national park.
Moran's watercolors portray Yellowstone's remarkable
scenery and grandeur, although at times even Moran
was daunted by its sheer beauty. It is said that,
when he first gazed upon the canyon now known
as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, he remarked
that its beautiful colors "were beyond the
reach of human art." Nonetheless he proceeded
to record what he saw with his watercolors, just
as Jackson recorded what he saw with his camera.
Art continues to influence protection of Yellowstone
and other national parks by bringing the beauty
of the parks to people who may never be able to
Watercolors, brushes, pieces of sponges (or colored
pencils, depending on weather conditions and site
selected for activity)
Water in small containers
Small sheets of watercolor paper or white construction
Part One: Discuss Thomas Moran and his role with
the Hayden Survey of 1871. Explain how Moran's
watercolors contributed to the establishment of
Yellowstone as a national park in 1872.
Visit the Influence of Art in Yellowstone Electronic
Field Trip and discuss Moran's watercolor images.
Ask students about use of color, inclusion of
detail, choice of sites, etc. Ask students how
they think these watercolor sketches would have
inspired Congress to protect this region.
Explain to students that they will have an opportunity
later to make their own watercolor sketches of
Walk or hike with students to an area where they
have a broad view of the landscape. This could
be on school grounds, a nearby park or other scenic
area. Distribute paper and watercolor materials.
Ask students to decide on a view they would like
to sketch with watercolors, imagining they could
use their watercolor sketches to later persuade
or influence a group, such as Congress, to set
aside the land as a park.
There are many ways that students can capture
what they see with watercolors, and the following
is only a suggestion. Depending on the experience
of each group, it may be best to demonstrate to
students how to make a wash, make trees with sponges,
and add detail before going into the field.
1. Ask students to paint the sky first. (Watercolors
may need to be softened with a little water before
they can be used easily.) Students should each
use a small piece of sponge, first dipping it
into water and squeezing out the excess. Students
should then apply what is left on the sponge to
the paper, being careful to only put it where
they want sky. This is called a "wash."
Now ask students to use their brushes to wet the
color they choose and draw it across the wash
(wherever the paper is shiny). The color should
run and be fluid, portions of the paper that is
left blank hints of clouds. The students can think
in terms of "streaking" the color across
the wash. You can remind students that the beauty
of watercolors is the water, so they can let the
water do a lot of the painting for them. If their
colors are too dark, tell students that they simply
add more water with their brush to distribute
or lighten the color.
2. Ask students to allow a small space between
the sky and ground. Repeat the process now for
the ground below the horizon line. Give watercolors
a chance to dry somewhat while you discuss with
students about the scenery they will be adding
as detail to their paintings with students.
3. Now ask students to add trees or sagebrush
with another small piece of sponge. Dip the sponge
into the water, squeeze out most of the water,
and with the sponge well squeezed between their
fingertips dip the sponge into the wet watercolor
they choose. The pattern on the sponge should
leave its imprint on the paper, depicting leafy
trees. Make as many trees as they see.
4. Ask students to make trunks with brushes or
pens. Add detail with brushes, including rocks,
cliff edges and snags.
5. Ask students to share their artwork with the
group. Ask students how they think
these watercolor sketches could be used to convince
a group that they needed to
protect this area.
Ask students to write a sentence explaining who
Thomas Moran was and why his watercolors are important
to Yellowstone National Park. Students may write
this in a journal or on the back of their own
Display students' watercolor sketches in a gallery
in the classroom. Ask each student to create a
title for his/her painting and post it next to
Ask students to research Thomas Moran. How would
you describe his paintings? Did he use other materials?
Where can you see his original paintings?
(Adapted from "Expedition: Yellowstone!"
Curriculum, National Park Service and Partners)