Lesson Plan

Painting 1000 Words

Historic black and white photograph of the Mammoth Terraces
Mammoth Terraces, 1871
W.H. Jackson


Students examine historic Yellowstone artwork and discover the influential “voices” of painter Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson. Students then give voice to their own Yellowstone experiences through watercolors and photographs.


  • Identify Thomas Moran as an artist and William H. Jackson as a photographer who accompanied the Hayden Survey of 1871.
  • Recognize the importance of watercolor sketches and photographs in the creation of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in1872.
  • Express student’s Yellowstone experience by creating paintings and/or photographs.


In 1871 scientists, technical personnel, and artists comprised Dr. Ferdinand Hayden’s Geological Survey of 1871. These men devoted the summer to exploring the Yellowstone region. William H. Jackson accompanied the expedition to photograph Yellowstone and Thomas Moran came along to paint what he saw. The beauty they captured through photographs and paintings helped inspire members of Congress, who had never seen the area, 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 beautifully portray Yellowstone’s remarkable scenery and grandeur. But at times even Moran was overwhelmed by its display of beauty. It is said that when he first gazed upon the canyon known now 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 the scene as best he could 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.



5"x8" blank index cards, journals, pencils, colored pencils, watercolor paints and brushes, sponges, water, writing implements, Moran/Jackson/Haynes prints, cameras and, watercolor/drawing paper. 


  1. Discuss Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson and the roles they played in the Hayden Survey of 1871. Explain how their watercolors and photographs contributed to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.
  2. Look at a web site and view pictures and paintings by Moran and Jackson. They may wish to record details about the paintings and photographs in their journals.
  3. Explain to students that they will have an opportunity later to create a work of art based on Moran style paintings.
  4. Proceed to a scenic location (Tower Fall, Wraith Falls, or other location) for an exploration of the Yellowstone landscape or some scenic place in your area or look at scenic pictures of Yellowstone.
  5. Distribute art materials. Ask students to decide on a view that they would like to reproduce. Allow students 20 minutes to sketch what they see on the 5"x 8" cards. Explain to the students that they will add colors at a later time as Moran did, and that they should make notes in their journals concerning the colors to be added.
  6. Redistribute art supplies in the classroom, and allow students 20 minutes to add color to their sketches.
  7. Ask students to write a few sentences on the back of the cards explaining how their work could be used to promote Yellowstone National Park and the idea of preservation.
  8. Ask students to share their artwork with the group. How do they think these watercolor sketches could be used to convince a group that they needed to protect this area?
  9. Suggest that students print off pictures and use some of their photographs and paintings to create a bulletin board at their school.
Suggested Art Techniques

There are many ways students can capture what they see with watercolors. Depending on the experience of each group, it may be best to demonstrate to students before going into the field how to make a wash, make trees with sponges, and add detail.

  • Paint the sky first. (Watercolors may need to be softened with a little water before they can be used easily.) Each student, using a small piece of sponge, should first dip it into the water and then squeeze out the excess. With what is left on the sponge, apply it to the paper only where they want sky. This is called a "wash." Now ask the students to use their brushes to wet the color they choose and draw it across the wash, if the paper is glossy. The color should run and be fluid. The students may streak the color across the wash, leaving unpainted portions to provide hints of cloud. 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 the students to add water with their brush to distribute or lighten the color.
  • Suggest to students that they 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 to their paintings.
  • The students might wish 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 still squeezed between their fingertips dip the sponge into a watercolor. The pattern on the sponge should leave its imprint on the paper, depicting leafy trees.
  • Ask students to make trunks with brushes or pens. With brushes, add details of rocks, cliff edges, and snags.


Quiz students on what they remember about Thomas Moran and William Jackson.
Have students hand in or display art work. 

Park Connections

Yellowstone has some of the original art work from Jackson and Moran in its collection. Jackson and Moran were very influential in the creation of Yellowstone as the world’s first national Park.