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The Art of Thomas Moran Lesson Plan

History, Art

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 watercolors.

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 visit them.

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 paper

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 scenery.

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 watercolor sketches.

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 the sketch.

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)

Sketch of Tower Fall
Sketch of Tower Fall

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