The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

c. 1981



Wilson Hurley, American, 1924-2008
Born: Tulsa, OK

Object Info

Object: painting
Not currently on view
Object ID: 1999.120


Oil on canvas


Gift of Walter and Gene Koelbel
Artwork(s) © copyright the original artist. All rights reserved.


About the Artist

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.

Teaching Resources

Quick Classroom Ideas

  • “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. Ask students: How does Hurley translate his feelings about the landscape in this painting in a visual way? Have students think about the places they have been that have left them with a “sense of awe.” For some, it may be the mountains, for others the ocean. Some students may feel a sense of awe when surrounded by big buildings in a city. Have students write a journal entry about their experience in that place. What emotions did they feel when standing in the midst of it? What about the place made them feel that way? You could also have students draw or paint an image of the place that they’ve written about. Encourage them to try to convey emotion through their image.
  • Wilson Hurley applied his expertise as a pilot to his art. Have students think about their personal expertise. Then, have them brainstorm ways in which they could apply their expertise to a piece of art. If they are really good at math, for example, they could apply that skill to figuring out how to convey perspective in a work of art. If they are a skilled musician, they can work on conveying a sense of rhythm in the way that they apply colors to their painting. After they have spent some time brainstorming, have students put their ideas to work, drawing or painting an image inspired by their personal expertise.

Funding for object education resources 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.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.