Children will explore and carefully examine Wilson Hurley’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by imagining different animals moving around the painting. They will also think about and experiment with the sound of water, inspired by the waterfall portrayed in the painting.
Intended Age GroupEarly childhood (ages 3-5)
Length of LessonOne 30 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- draw upon background information to describe imagined scenarios;
- describe what they notice when watching the teacher conduct an experiment (in this case what water sounds like); and state a simple hypothesis on why something they observed occurred.
- Warm-up: Have the children move around like different animals or like pets from their homes. You can also have them make the sounds of the animals.
- Share the painting Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with students and allow them to describe the different surfaces and textures they see in the painting (including the water and the sky).
- All of the following animals live in Yellowstone and might encounter the terrain in this painting: buffalo, eagle, hawk, wolf, rabbit, sparrow, squirrel, chipmunk, fish, bear, deer, snake, and elk (there are others, but this list should provide a good start). Have children imagine each of the animals and ask how the animals might move around in the painting. Allow them act out the movements. Where would each animal go? How would they get there? What would the surfaces feel like?
- Talk about how the waterfall might sound and how high it is (as compared to a building or even a play set). You might want to listen to a small flow of water in the sink, then a larger flow. You might also want to get a bucket of water and dump it on a garden or grassy section outside the school, on cement, and then from an elevated section of a jungle gym.
- Have children talk about what they heard. Have them develop simple hypotheses on why the water sounded the way it did in different locations and from different heights. Revisit the waterfall in the painting and talk about whether the children think the water would make a loud or a quiet sound and why. Encourage them to use ideas they developed when you poured water.
- Access to a source of water
- One bucket
- Access to an outdoor area, preferably with a jungle-gym and an elevated area on which to stand
- About the Art section on Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- One color copy of the painting for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wilson Hurley was interested in art from a very early age. His mother arranged for him to spend time in the studios of Santa Fe artists such as Theodore Van Soelen. He was also given flying lessons as a teenager and went on to attend West Point Military Academy. He arrived in the South Pacific just in time for the World War II victory celebration—instead of fighting, Hurley made landscape sketches from the cockpit of his airplane. When he returned to the States he practiced law for 13 years, then worked as a banker, and finally decided to devote himself to painting at the age of 40. He didn’t sell a painting for five years, so he made his living by flying planes for the New Mexico Air National Guard.
Hurley credits his experience as a pilot with giving him a unique understanding of landscape. His artwork is informed by his extensive knowledge of geological, geographical, atmospheric, optical, and technological sciences involved in creating realistic landscapes. But it’s not all science: “We’re progressing into the technical blend—partially emotional, partly scientific. I don’t try to manufacture emotion, but I do try to remain sensitive to how I feel. There’s a tremendous sense of awe,” says Hurley.
What Inspired It?
“What I’m painting does not have a story line. I am saying, look, look at the world that turns under the sun every day,” says Hurley. This particular part of the world, the Grand Canyon, is one of Yellowstone National Park’s greatest attractions. The canyon is about 10,000 years old, and over generations it has been molded and remolded by water, wind, and other natural forces. Erosion has deepened and widened the canyon to its present depth of a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide. Hurley says, “Of all the scenes in North America, I believe the view of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone from Artists’ Point is the most striking.” The Lower Falls cascade from a height of 308 feet—twice as high as Niagara Falls.
Hurley’s work is based on observation, but a canvas this large (5 feet x 8 feet) can’t be painted on site. He has an outdoor easel that lets him make smaller scale oil panels, and he also refers to photos and topographical maps to help visualize, for instance, the other side of a mountain.
Hurley’s aviation background has a big influence on both scale and vantage point. The viewer’s perspective in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone suggests the slow, low-level flying that Hurley enjoyed in his years as a military pilot. “It gave me a sense of proportion, an understanding of landscape, a familiarity with the surface of the world that a lot of people don’t have. [For Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone] I lowered our point of view 300 feet so the falls would look correct when viewed from the floor [of the art gallery] where the final painting is installed.
Hurley does on-site oil sketches mainly for the purpose of getting the colors right. “The thing I like best about the use of oils is that I can put the colors I mix on a little panel, get in the car and five days later that color I mixed out there in the field is going to stay. So it’s a good permanent record. You know darn well that you’re getting the proper color relationships you witnessed out in the field.”
Hurley uses a camera to help record the details of a landscape. “I do line drawings, but I don’t do the delicate drawings with the tremendous care that the earlier artists did. I don’t have to. I get the whole thing at a 125th of a second with a camera. I spend very little time for an overwhelming amount of detail.” Asked about how much detail to include, Hurley says, “When you paint, you have to know these details are there, and you have to tell people they’re there, but then you must quit telling them what they already know. And so it’s an endless challenge of how do you simplify, how do you create the impression without having to be tedious about it.”
Hurley has always been interested in light and how it changes as it plays over the broad vistas of the Western landscape. “I think the first thing that fascinated me about the West was the direct light…When you paint in this country, you have the direct wash of light from the sun, the bounced light, and the mild, cold wash of light from the top of the sky.”
Hurley changes the color of the trees as they get further away from the viewer. This is a classic technique to create perspective, or the illusion of depth, in painting.