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Lesson Plan


By making their own Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone drawings in small groups, students will develop a better understanding of the scope and size of the original painting. They will then use the painting as inspiration for writing creative travel guide entries.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

Two 50 minute lessons

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • look at an image in sections and replicate what they see using a grid system;
  • use active verbs and descriptive nouns, adjectives, and adverbs when writing; and
  • incorporate observations from a real work of art with ideas from their imaginations in a creative writing exercise.


Day 1

  1. Warm-up: Give each a student a blank sheet of paper. Have them fold the paper in half, then in half again, and again, until they make a grid. Have them take one of the magazine pictures and divide it into the same number of grid squares. They should draw what they see in each grid square of the magazine picture onto the corresponding grid square of the paper they folded. Tell them this exercise is simply to give them a sense of how the process works, not to make a perfect replication.
  2. Share the painting Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with the students. Use the About the Art section and talk about the artist’s process and motivations.
  3. To give students a sense of the scope and size of this painting, tape pieces of butcher paper together to match the size of the actual canvas of the painting. Create identical grids on the painting and the butcher paper using rulers to draw straight lines. Have students transfer, in rough form, the images from the painting onto the corresponding grid on the butcher paper. You can divide students into groups of 3–4 and assign each group a section. If you have room, you could have several groups each do a complete painting on their own.
  4. Discuss the experience. Why would the artist paint the piece so large? What impact might his experience as a pilot have had on his decision?

Day 2

  1. Warm-up: Read a short section from a travel guide. Have the students write their own travel entry about a place they’ve visited in the past. They should include active verbs, descriptive nouns, adjectives, and adverbs in their entry.
  2. Show students the painting again and share that travel is an important aspect of the piece, as the scene painted is frequently visited. Have students write a travel guide entry for the painting. They should include: how someone could get to the site, a description of what they might see and hear, and other details of interest. To really let their imaginations go, they could become a different character when writing their travel guide and write it for a non-human audience (i.e. aliens, Frankenstein, Godzilla, a fairy, etc.). They should come up with a fun title for the travel guide they are writing.
  3. Have the students share their travel guide entries in small groups. You might call on a few students to share their entries with the class.


  • Short section from a travel guide to read to students
  • Assorted pictures torn or cut out of magazines—should be simple, not complex, images
  • Large sheets of butcher paper
  • Pencils or makers, at least one for each student
  • Rulers
  • Masking tape
  • Lined and unlined paper; pencil or pen for each student
  • About the Art section on Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
  • One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

c. 1981

Wilson Hurley

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.

Point of View
Point of View

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.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.